3D Printing: a decades old technology with far-reaching implications about the future of manufacturing, but whose cost and complexity make it seem too far off for any practical consumer purpose; not unlike fusion energy.
But the days of bulky, expensive, slow professional printers are quite possibly starting to come to an end. In 2005, the RepRap Project
- short for replicating rapid prototyper
- was started in the UK at the University of Bath. The goal of this project was to develop a 3D printer capable of replicating itself ad infinitum at the lowest possible cost, to put it in the hands of anyone who wanted one around the world. The version 1.0 model, the Darwin, could self-replicate a bit over half of its structural and mechanical components and was built in 2007.
Since then there have been no fewer than four official RepRap variants that fit the goal of the project and a far greater number of non self-replicating consumer models, both open and closed source. The total number of 'child' RepRaps - RepRaps which were printed by other RepRaps, going back to the first Darwin unit - is at a minimum over 4,000 units, and tens of thousands of printers produced through other means are also in operation. The introduction of the Darwin set of an avalanche of development that is only increasing in pace, and in my opinion is not unlike the pre-Apple I era of PC development.
With that early history out of the way, we can now get into the details or more precisely, how good are these printers exactly? After all, one of the concerns is whether the parts coming out of these often rickety-looking machines are good enough to be worth getting one. The current record for this style of printer among the hobbyist models (unless it has been broken yet again) is held by a kit called the Ultimaker, with a Z-axis resolution of 0.02mm, 20 microns. For scale, the top picture in the spoiler below is of a print next to a finger. The white bar is one millimeter, and the finger is the object on the left. The spoiler also contains the images a few other objects printed at the same resolution.
This resolution is actually around five to ten times that of the old professional models, and the ridges are nearly imperceptible by touch.
Now you might say: "This is great! Those prints look fantastic! But there's no way I can afford one of these newfangled additive manufacturing machines!" Incorrect, as that Ultimaker kit goes for somewhere around $1500 USD. Still too expensive? The cheapest model currently in production goes all the way down to the Solidoodle at $499 USD, with a stock print resolution of 0.3mm, just slightly worse than a $15,000 USD professional printer [and an even cheaper unit is in development by another small business which is estimated to fit in the $200-$300 range]. Most printers fall between that range and with some tweaking can be brought to higher resolutions; remember, they can produce their own upgrade parts. In fact, a different set of 3D printers using a UV-cured resin and a DLP projector can produce parts much finer than the ones listed above due to the difference in their production processes [see spoiler below].
The major downside currently is the limitations presented by the FDM [Fused Deposition Modeling] process shared by virtually all hobbyist/consumer 3D printers. Currently you can only print one or two plastics at a time (often one is used as a support material for parts which would droop under their own weight before being completed), and these are limited to a handful of plastics which can be successfully melted and extruded (like in a hot glue gun) out of the nozzle, or hot end. Using different materials can be problematic in a few cases due to different melting temperatures, limiting to a certain degree objects made of composite/blended materials for varying material properties throughout the object. Some more exotic materials decompose at the extrusion temperature in oxygen atmospheres, and have thus been only rarely experimented with.
Additionally, depending on the manufacturer the level of support and ease-of-use can range from apple-like to debugging linux while treading water in a shark-infested lagoon.
With that out of the way, here are some helpful resources:RepRap.org
- the RepRap wiki, with information on all current and past official RepRap Project models along with some information on a ton of other printers. Most software can either be located here or on a manufacturer's website.Thingiverse
- a repository of online models, including several 3D printers and a wide range of aftermarket upgrades. Users are free to download and upload as many files as they wish.Here's the model that actually inspired me to make this thread.Autodesk 123D
- Free 3D modeling softwareTrimble SketchUp
- Formerly Google SketchUp, more free 3D modeling software