3D Printing - Exciting Technology Advances for Consumers

3D printed heads (prototypes)
3D printed heads (prototypes) | Source

3D Printing - An Exciting and Promising Technology

3D printing is an exciting technology that is rapidly increasing in popularity and affordability. A few years ago, 3D printers cost many thousands of dollars. While printers with advanced capabilities are still expensive, consumer-oriented printers are now affordable for many people. These printers can create a wide variety of useful, artistic and fun objects.

The most exciting aspect of a home 3D printer is that it's so versatile. Some examples from the huge range of items that can be printed include cups, vases, cookie cutters, napkin rings, bracelets, pendants, rings, ornaments, tools and even clothing. Artists can create sculptures and parents - or children - can create toys.

A model of the object to be printed must be created in a 3D art program. Information from the model is then sent to the printer. People can create their own unique object designs or they can download designs from websites. Some companies print 3D objects for people. Some of these companies also let people create their own online store to sell objects that they've designed.

A pen that creates 3D objects is available for purchase and costs considerably less than a printer. People are finding creative uses for the pen. It's an interesting device for creating three dimensional art and sculpture, although the resulting objects don't look like those created by a printer.

What is 3D Printing?

How Do 3D Printers Work?

The first step in the creation of a 3D printed object is to design the object. This is done in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) or animation program. The computer model is then exported as an STL file. A second program, known as a slicing program, reads the STL file and converts it to G code. This code tells the printer to produce the object in a series of horizontal layers. The printer then prints these layers one at a time, starting with the bottom layer.

Most 3D printers aimed at consumers are plastic extrusion or FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printers. High-end FDM printers are available, but the less expensive ones are most likely to be purchased by consumers. The printers create objects by melting plastic filament and then extruding the hot liquid on to a platform. The plastic solidifies almost immediately after it's released from the extrusion nozzle of the printer on to the build platform. The nozzle moves in different directions to create the object and the platform moves downwards as the object grows in depth. Each new layer of plastic that is extruded fuses with the one below. This process is sometimes known as additive manufacturing.

This 3D printed bracelet is composed of shoes and created by a jewelry designer. It was probably created by a more advanced printer than a consumer-oriented one.
This 3D printed bracelet is composed of shoes and created by a jewelry designer. It was probably created by a more advanced printer than a consumer-oriented one. | Source

3D Printers Today

Consumer-oriented FDM printers are dropping in price and are becoming more affordable. It's no longer necessary to spend thousands of dollars to buy a 3D printer for the home. In fact, there are several printers that cost under US $1000. Some models cost only a few hundred dollars. The cheaper models usually print smaller objects than the bigger ones, however.

In addition to the price, another thing to consider when buying a 3D printer is its abillity to create thin layers. The thinner the layers, the less obvious they are in the printout and the smoother the appearance and feel of the object. The thinness of the layers is known as the resolution of the printer. Generally, the higher the resolution, the more expensive the printer.

Some people who work with 3D printers predict that within a few years FDM printers will become the 3D equivalent of today's inkjet printers - popular, inexpensive and able to produce a product of good to very good quality.

New 3D Printing Filaments That Mimic Natural Materials

Creating or Downloading 3D Models

Free 3D modeling programs are available for the different computer operating systems. Many of these programs can create STL files. Free G code creation programs are also available. It's not necessary for someone to create their own models, however, unless they enjoy the process and want to create unique designs. A wide variety of models can be downloaded from the Internet.

One site with a large number of downloadable models is Thingiverse. The models are free and the community is active. It's a fun site to explore. The file format and the license of a model should be checked carefully before it's downloaded. The license may allow an object to be created for personal use but not for commercial use.

Making an iPhone Case with a 3D Printer

3D Print-On-Demand Websites

Several online companies print 3D objects for consumers who don't have a printer. Some of these companies also allow people to set up an online store to sell products that they've designed.

Shapeways is a popular website for people looking for a 3D printing solution. Objects can be printed in different media, including plastic, metal, food-safe ceramics and sandstone. The printouts have a better quality than objects printed from a consumer-oriented printer. People can upload their designs and sell products based on the designs via the company's website. Shapeways is located in New York but ships to most countries around the world.

Sculpteo is another online company that prints objects for people and also lets them run a store. Sculpteo is based in France, but like Shapeways it ships around the world.

Shapeways - A Website For Printing 3D Objects

Drawing With a 3D Pen - the 3Doodler

For some people, even the cheapest 3D printer is too expensive. A new and comparatively inexpensive product should enable many more people to create 3D objects and have fun at the same time.

A company called WobbleWorks has developed a pen that lets people draw with extruded plastic on a flat surface or in the air. Both one dimensional objects with a raised surface and true 3D objects can be created with the pen. No computer or software are needed. The pen does require an electrical outlet, however.

The company provides free stencils that can be downloaded. A person can draw over the stencil with the pen. The tracing can then be moved into an upright position. Different tracings can be attached to each other with the pen in order to create a complex object. The 3Doodler website has an interesting blog showing what people have created with the pen.

3Doodler Pen Versions One and Two

Plastic in the Environment

As much as I love to read about the exciting advances in 3D printing technology, one thing worries me. All the consumer-oriented printers that I've seen have used ABS plastic as a printing medium. ABS plastic, or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is a tough, impact-resistant material that has many useful applications. Like most plastics, it degrades when it's exposed to ultraviolet light. This is a slow process, however. ABS plastic is recyclable, but not all recycling plants accept it.

Plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem. The thought of people discarding unsatisfactory 3D printouts is scary, especially as 3D printing becomes more popular. Consumers need to be encouraged to recycle their plastic or to use a more environmentally friendly material for printing.

3D printed Marvin keychains
3D printed Marvin keychains | Source

ABS or PLA Plastic

The 3Doodler and some 3D printers can use either ABS plastic or PLA plastic as their "ink". ABS plastic is made from petroleum. PLA (polyactic acid) plastic is made from corn or soy beans and is biodegradable. Some people choose PLA filament for their printer for this reason. However, being biodegradable doesn't mean that PLA plastic can be thrown into a landfill and left for microbes such as bacteria and fungi to break down, as the term implies. The microbial decomposition of PLA requires exposure to a high temperature, light and oxygen for two or three months, conditions which are only found in a commercial compost centre.

ABS plastic has better properties than PLA plastic with respect to the creation of 3D models. It's less brittle, more bendable, less sticky and less susceptible to drooping when the temperature rises. The 3Doodler maker recommends that people start with ABS plastic and then try PLA plastic later.

Potential Uses of 3D Printers

The Future of 3D Printing Technology for Consumers

Some people predict that a 3D printing revolution will take place in the near future. The printers are rapidly gaining acceptance in manufacturing and have exciting applications in medicine. In the future, people may make more of the products that they need at home instead of buying them in a store. Consumer printer technology seems to be advancing more slowly than manufacturing and medical printer technology, however.

The current state of 3D printing is certainly interesting and provides great scope for creativity. In order to become a more mainstream technology, though, 3D printing technology needs to be improved. 3D printers for consumers need to have at least some of the following features in order to be successful. They should be able to:

  • create useful items more conveniently or more cheaply than the same item made by other methods
  • create high-quality objects
  • make improved versions of objects manufactured by other methods
  • make objects that couldn't be created in any other way

3D printers aimed at consumers should also be easy to use and be relatively inexpensive to buy and operate. The problem of finding strong but environmentally safe printing media also needs to be solved. I'm optimistic about the future of 3D printing, though. The technology is very promising as well as exciting.

These frogs were printed with a different layer thickness. Thinner layers produce a smoother appearance. The model was obtained from Thingiverse and the frogs were printed by a MakerBot.
These frogs were printed with a different layer thickness. Thinner layers produce a smoother appearance. The model was obtained from Thingiverse and the frogs were printed by a MakerBot. | Source

Buying a 3D Printer - A Poll

Would you like to buy a consumer-oriented 3D printer for your home?

  • I already have one.
  • Yes, if I could afford one I'd get a 3D printer right now.
  • Not yet, but perhaps in the near future if the technology improves
  • No, the idea of owning a 3D printer doesn't interest me at the moment.
See results without voting

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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Comments 26 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

It really is pretty spectacular, the advancements in technology. I can't keep up with it all. Thank God I have HP and these great articles to educate me. Well done, Alicia!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Bill! Yes, technology advancements are certainly amazing. They are so interesting to investigate.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

I think we should put a large chunk of our investing dollars into 3d tech now while the technology is young. But I cannot figure out what I would need this for.


heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

My pals and I in the promotional products industry are watching these 3D printing developments with great interest. Why print up hundreds of mugs when you can "print" up just what you need?

I totally agree that the plastics will need to become eco friendly. People, especially on the consumer level, are more apt to pitch bad "copies" and no longer needed items into the trash, thereby increasing our landfill issues.

Great and timely hub!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Lela. Investing money in 3D technology to help its development is a good idea. I'm sure that we'll find many uses for the printers as they become more common! Thanks for the visit.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Heidi. Yes, the ability to customize objects with a 3D printer is very useful. The potential trash problem is definitely a concern, though. Thank you for the comment!


SimeyC profile image

SimeyC 3 years ago from NJ, USA

I'm trying to persuade my Dad to buy a 3D printer -he is a pretty decent photographer and I feel he could make a killing making iPhone cases and other phone cases. Great article.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Simey. Thanks for the comment. 3D printers offer a wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs! I hope you succeed in persuading your Dad to buy a printer. It could be very useful for him.


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

What an exciting new technology this 3D printing is, Alicia. I've begun saving already for a 3D Doodler pen. Thanks for your research and fascinating overview.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, drbj. I'm very interested in buying the 3d pen too! I'm looking forward to reading the reviews when it comes to market and to seeing how much it actually costs. Thanks for the comment.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

These would be great for people that want to work at home, or have to work at home. It is another good avenue to make money and provide jobs for those that are physically unable to leave the house.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. Yes, 3D graphics programs and printers would be good for people who want to work at home. Technology advances are providing many great opportunities for home-based workers!


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

Alicia, the company I work for has started using this technology in a limited fashion to create models instead of having them made. This is a big technology breakthrough. We're going to hear a lot about this in the near future. Great job.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. It's interesting to hear about the use of 3d printers where you work. I agree with you - I think that this technology is going to become very important. Thanks for the visit and the comment.


wabash annie profile image

wabash annie 3 years ago from Colorado Front Range

Alicia, I think I am keeping up with some technology but, after reading this hub, I realize I need to work harder at learning. I'm not at all familiar with 3D technology so appreciate your information ... now I need to do my part. Thanks much.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit, wabash annie. Technology often advances so fast that it's hard to keep up! I think that computer technology is very interesting, so I try to keep up to date with the latest information. It's sometimes difficult to do this, though!


pick807 profile image

pick807 3 years ago

This technology makes me think of Star Trek!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

It makes me think of Star Trek too, pick807, especially as one popular 3D printer is called the "Replicator"! Thanks for the comment.


Kathryn Stratford profile image

Kathryn Stratford 3 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

This is just too awesome! Thanks for sharing this with us. Some of what they come out with nowadays is astounding! Voted up and shared.

Have a great Sunday!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the vote and the share, Kathryn! 3D printing is definitely awesome technology. It will be very interesting to see what the future holds.

I hope that you have a great Sunday, too!


rose-the planner profile image

rose-the planner 3 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

I found your article on 3D Printers very insightful and interesting! It's amazing how technology is so expensive when it first comes out and then drastically drops in price as technology evolves. That's the thing with technology it changes every day. I have been to CES in Las Vegas on several occasions with my husband and it's incredible seeing all the latest gizmos and gadgets with exorbitant price tags. I always think it's best to wait so that all the kinks get ironed out of new products and hopefully the price comes down as well. Great article! Thanks for sharing.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I would love to go to CES! I agree, rose-the-planner - the technology is wonderful, but it is good to wait for any problems to be solved and for the price to come down before we purchase a new device. Thanks for the comment!


john000 profile image

john000 3 years ago from Superior, Arizona

Nice to know about downloadable models for 3d at Thingiverse. This topic gets me so excited; almost as much as regenerative medicine. We live in a truly remarkable time. It would be nice to be able to compete in manufacturing with low wage countries when the price of these printers comes down - after all, we could all become cottage manufacturers - but I fear the countries over there will simply order printers, take them apart, and copy them. After all, what is to stop them?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, johnooo. It is exciting technology, and regenerative medicine is even more exciting! It will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to manufacturing. It would be nice if the technology helps everyone in some way.


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

This is the most in-depth article that I have found on 3-D printing, well done, Alicia. I have been following the technology for quite some time.

With all my research the one thing I've been lacking was an understanding of the methods used for creating the digital files, known as the STL files. You explained all this very well in this article. And now I feel I have a much better knowledge.

It's going to be an amazing future without limitations for creative people who design products but who don't have the funds for expensive 3-D printers. As you explained, people can create an online store to sell products printed by fulfillment companies such as Shapeways.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the lovely comment, Glen! 3D printing technology is very exciting. I'm looking forward to the the future of the technology very much. It has so many applications.

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