A few weeks ago, I bought a 3d printer for use in my home. On the day I installed it, I recorded a video for our team’s Signpost’s YouTube channel (it’s available here or at the bottom of this post). Since then, many people have asked me a lot of questions about it, so here is a composite reply that I hope will inspire you to consider joining the “maker” revolution.

What is a ‘3d printer’?

Update on 22 November 2013: Here’s a great summary of 3d printing.

Technically, it’s a rapid prototype machine which allows you to build small physical objects. The home based ‘printers’ all use plastic as their build material, and are better described as ‘extruders’ rather than printers. They heat up plastic enough to melt it, and then squeeze it through a very small hole to create a thin ribbon of hot plastic which is then moulded into any shape you want. Objects are built up layer by layer.

There are other versions of 3d printers that can use different materials. You can print in metal (this uses powder and a laser head to fire the powder and turn into molten metal) or even in stem cell material (doctors are using 3d printing technology to print out replacement bones and even soft tissue, like skin grafts and ears). One company is experimenting with using 3d printing technology to create food (see ModernMeadow.com). Conceptually, we could print out anything in a printer, as long as we had the right chemicals to input and the right conditions to combine them in. As such, 3d printers are not just mini factories in your homes, they could also be mini science labs too.

But for now, home use 3d printers use plastic only. For more, read the Wikipedia entry.

Updated on 20 August 2013: The Economist recently published an article outlining a number of other 3d printing processes, some of which are available for home use and one new one which is remarkably cheap. Read it here.

Where does the object you print out come from?

3d printing softwareThe printers require you to use special design software that creates a three dimensional representation of the object you wish to ‘print’. There is no official standard for 3d printing files yet, so each 3d printer company seems to be creating their own software and their own types of files (including STL, PLY, BFB, VRML, WRL and others). There is software to convert between these formats, although nothing that is yet very user friendly. There also appears to be no software yet for Apple. We really need the world’s designers to become interested in 3d printing, and give us something user friendly and elegant.

Update on 28 July 2013: Fast Company reviewed their picks of the top rated free 3d software currently available, and there are some excellent options available – see them here.

Update on 22 November 2013: Here’s a great list of available software. It looks like SketchUp and Blender are the best options for Mac.

For now, I have simply been using other people’s designs, taken from the various websites and apps where people share their 3d models. I’ve especially enjoyed browsing through Thingiverse.

I may invest in time to come in a 3d scanner, which allows you to easily scan physical objects and then duplicate them. But for now, we must either borrow or create our own designs.

In all cases, the 3d printer works just like a normal printer. You set up the file you want to print, and then send it to the printer (either via a USB cable, or via a USB memory stick that plugs into the printer).

What will you use it for?

My first printed object was the test file that came with the machine: a small purple duck (which now sits snuggled away at the back of my trophy cabinet). My daughters have been keen to experiment with jewelry and cellphone cases. (My wife wonders about the possibility of some shoes.) In reality, the answer to this question is: anything. Anything in plastic that is less than about 3 litres in size.

Once you realise you can print out anything in plastic, your mind begins to see the possibilities: a small holder for all the keys cluttering up the table near the front door; a replacement button for my jacket; a travel protector for my noise cancelling headphones; children’s toys; custom LEGOs bricks; a business card holder; a holder for my iPad while it’s charging at night; a little bookmark-like attachment to keep my book open while I read in the bath; a replacement for the broken handle on the cupboard. Last year, Cody Wilson a young law student uploaded designs for a 3d printable gun (see a short documentary here). And so the list goes on.

Fast Company had an article just last week entitled: “The Most Incredible 3-D Printed Things We’ve Ever Seen” – check it out.

There are two types of plastic my printer uses: ABS or PLA (see details on the differences here). ABS is tougher, but better for smaller objects when used in a 3d printer (it can warp as it cools in larger structures) ABS is what LEGO or car bumpers are made of. PLA cools quickly and is best for larger or more intricate structures. With PLA you need to sand down the model afterwards, and probably spray it with filler or paint it to get a very smooth surface.

Isn’t it just cheaper to buy this stuff from the shops? Why print it out at home?

Yes is the simple answer. Provided that you can get the item you’re looking for in the shops. 3d printing is not about economic utility – not yet anyway (one day it will be).

So why do it? There are a few answers here. The most honest one is: because we can.

When I was 11 years old, the Commodore 64 and Atari 400 (and soon 800SX) were released. I am not sure how my parents afforded it, but they bought me one these early computers. You had to wait nearly an hour for DOS to load from a tape cassette, and then load your game the same way. But I started to write programs for these machines in DOS, and had sold a few copies of these by the time I finished primary school. I was the first person I knew (outside of the business world) to get an XT (and then AT) desktop computer (when I was 17 years old). And then the first to upgrade (via 386 and 486 machines) to a Pentium. Those early computers were not particularly useful, very user unfriendly, and economically stupid. But they were the beginning of what became a revolution. That’s what I think these early 3d printers are, and if you can afford one you’re bringing the future into your home (or office).

There are other reasons.

Wire holderWhen you cannot buy an object you’re looking for in the shop. For example, I recently saw a very nifty little item in Singapore airport which holds your wires on the edge of your desk (see picture). I bought one, but now want a dozen. They’re not available here in South Africa (or the UK), so I am going to make some and print them out. The same attitude would be true if I lost a button on a shirt – tough to find an exact match, but maybe I can print one out (if I have the right colour plastic, of course).

When you need to get a single item. Imagine a critical component of a child’s favourite toy breaks. You can use a 3d printer to print out a replacement, instead of throwing it away. It would be easiest to use a 3d scanner to scan the old object and get the exact dimensions. 3d scanners are still quite expensive, but new models are being released on an almost monthly basis.

You could also get good value from a 3d printer when you need to do a rapid prototype of an object. For example, I was speaking to a construction conference recently and one of the delegates said they use 3d printers to actually print out scale versions of the buildings they’re constructing, to help the labourers visualise what it is they’re actually building. They feel it’s helped improve overall build quality dramatically.

Here are nine ways 3d printing is going to change business – read the experts’ predictions here.

And it’s really cool. And quite fun.

How much does it cost?

This bit of my explanation is going to be out of date almost immediately. This is a fast moving part of the technology world, so do your own search in your own country and check out your options.

I bought my 3d printer in South Africa, where mid 2013 sees three major options for home use. You need to choose how much functionality you want, what size you want and how many colours you want to be able to print with simultaneously.

The first option is called Cube. These are being sold in Staples stores across the USA, and are the easiest plug-and-play printers available. The entry level is the Cube 3D, which prints up to 1 litre sized objects in one colour. They sell at just over $ 1,000. The Cube X and Cube X Duo are slightly larger (the Duo does 2 print colours at once).

The second option is the RapMan 3.2 3D Printer Kit. This is larger than the Cube series, printing up to 3 litres, and has a 1 and 2 head option (that’s 1 and 2 colours). It comes in a box and needs to be built – which looks quite intimidating, but could be a lot of fun if you’re that way inclined. I paid the guys I bought mine from R 3,000 to build it for me. They took a few days to do so.

The final option I saw was the 3DTouch. This has 1, 2 or 3 head versions with a large print area. It’s made by the same company that do the Rapman, but is more robust and enclosed – and more expensive.

Amazon.com founder, Jeff Bizos recently invested in Makerbot who make the Replicator 2, and this looks like a good option too, although not yet available in South Africa. See a video demo here, which is also a great introduction to 3d printing in general.

Which one is best for me?

The company I bought my printer from has a 3d printer buyers guide online here. The factors you should consider include: cost, print speed, part cost, feature detail resolution, accuracy, material properties and colour. I’d also add back up support.

Where can I get one?

A simple online search will help you find a distributor in your area. By the time you do the search, there will be someone else selling them – cheaper – near you.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you have any questions about this? Do you have anything to add to the information above? And if you get one, please share that with me.

My TT Signposts video on home 3d printing:

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