3D Printing at Home: Today, Challenges and Opportunities
Posted on February 21, 2015 Comments (11)
Guest post by Noah Hornberger
The State of 3D Printing at Home
Rapid prototyping is very rewarding. Moving from an idea that you had during breakfast to an object you can hold in your hands by lunchtime feels like magic or science fiction.
Modeling tools are getting easier to use, making the actual process of designing 3D objects fairly intuitive and dare I say . . . easy. I suspect home 3D printing is empowering a silent revolution that will be more and more apparent in the coming years.
Even so, there is a lot of quirkiness to the 3D print technology that an average consumer is probably not ready to deal with. In this post I want to give inside information I have learned by running my own home-based 3D print business. I have been there in the trenches, with a queue of orders, a few 3D printers and the drive to make it happen. And let me tell you that without the drive to push past the obstacles, it really would not be possible to run a 3D print-on-demand business this way.
3D printers have enabled me to pull off an impossible task of distributing my own artistic products to an international market. I have shipped to USA, Spain, Australia, Norway, Canada, and the UK. And this May of 2015 marks my first year of owning a 3D printer.
So there is some magic I would say in being able to move through iterations of your ideas so fast. And magic in being able to post photos of your products that people can understand to be real and tangible things.
I have had ideas for products for many years and even tried to launch them (unsuccessfully). But now things are different. I do not have to convince people that an idea is good, I can show them a real example of finished art they can own.
I would argue that 3D modeling is the easiest part of the process. Getting a spectacular print can take some work and patience, because it can involve re-starting the printer with small changes in settings each time. As an American trained artist, I have a tendency to want things to be fast and easy. I want to press a button and it just works. 3D printers can kind of promise this ability, but most often, I am stepping in to keep the machines on track.
Just imagine for a moment the precision required to push a pencil tip back and forth on a desk for 24 hours between the exact same 3 points. This is what a 3D printer has to do, in terms of precision. If it gets off track even a 1/10 of a millimeter, there will be a visible artifact / deviation in the line that gets drawn.
To keep machine price tags down in the home 3D printer market, many high precision parts have to be swapped out for medium precision alternatives. So what you end up unboxing at home is a 3D printer that works as expected most of the time. But this expected range does include a bit of imprecision. This is why many 3D printer owners end up hacking and improving the machines they own by replacing cheaper parts with better ones. I have yet to do this, but I have had to make small repairs to failing parts of each of my 3D printers from time to time.
The Harder Facts About 3D Printing
These truths are not necessarily negative, but they are the gritty details of what challenges a new user may have to face. I really enjoy learning, tinkering and figuring things out.
But I know some people like to avoid this. The trend for home electronics has been plug-n-play. Although 3D printers can be plug-n-play for a few months of use, there will be a time when they need to be fixed or maintained. At that point, the plug-n-play aspect kind of vanishes.
- Some users experience a difficult unboxing experience: parts shifted in the shipping process. The 3D printer needs adjustments and repairs when it is first unpacked. This seems more common with smaller 3D printer manufactures with less experience packing for transit.
- Current 3D printers require maintenance and occasional tinkering to keep them in optimal condition. Rods need oil, Build platforms need to be cleaned and leveled. Some filaments need to be dried out with desiccant if they have absorbed too much moisture from the air.
- Slicing software that is used to turn 3D models into coded instructions for 3D printers takes time learn and master. Models with a lot of overhanging shapes or thin walls will require more set-up than default settings.
- Optimal slicing settings can vary greatly from one brand of printer to another.
- Most replacement parts like rods, bearing, belts, and motors have to be special ordered unless there is a robotics hobby shop in the area. And the process of fixing or installing parts in the 3D printer is not always well documented.
- Plastic filaments from various manufactures have different melting temperatures. This means that on top of everything else, there can be additional time and prototyping needed to find the best temperature to use. And this ideal temp can change from one printer to another and can also vary by color and the ambient temperature of the room. A field journal is mandatory!
But Oh . . . The Possibilities
Even with all the potential issues and uncertain variables, the possibilities of 3D printing far outweigh the challenges. You can create art, inventions, jewelry, and toys to name just a few uses. The plastic parts are strong enough to use in lower impact mechanical situations. Vessels can hold water and planters can hold dirt. Toys can have articulated parts and really . . . once you get creating the possibilities are endless.
I do not assume that 3D printers will be as widely adopted as things like the home computer or dish-washer. I feel that 3D printers are specialized creative tools, much like industrial sewing machines, table saws or Adobe Photoshop. These tools all require sufficient specialized skills to use them properly. And I feel that this is good for the end user.
A 3D printer out to please everyone is not going to have quick access to the features that advanced users will need. I have already run into this issue with the UP Plus 2. It allows you to get printing quickly because there are very few settings. But once you get past a certain stage, it feels very limiting.
So my vision of the future of 3D printing is one where various new markets have emerged by the help of those who have pushed their techniques into a business. There could be people who only make replacement parts for worn out goods. And other business that focus on art, or others that focus on toys. The leaders of this revolution are those who learn how to wrangle and harness the power of the technology itself.
Then they are free to peruse their own creative vision by creating it themselves. Being unhinged from the manufacturing process of the past is truly liberating. I am personally very excited to be involved and can’t wait to see how the technology grows. But most of all I am just plain excited to create new objects right out of thin air.
At the age of 11, Noah Hornberger created his first 3D model. A native of Howell, Michigan, he studied art, music, and animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Today is pioneering 3D printing technology to create pop art, decor, toys, and other fun prototypes.