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Posted on April 19th, 2013 by Darien Graham-Smith

3D printers: five things I’ve learnt

This week, I’ve been playing with a 3D printer. The Afinia H-Series – also known as the Up! Plus – arrived on Monday, and I’ve been fiddling with it more or less non-stop since then. There will be a full dissection of the technology in a future issue of PC Pro, but here are some of my initial impressions from my first few days of tinkering.

1. Everybody wants to know about 3D printing

From the moment I unpacked the printer and placed it on my desk, I’ve had a steady stream of visitors stopping by to gawk at it – not only from PC Pro, but from all around Dennis Publishing. I honestly don’t remember the last time a device attracted this much attention; it might have been the iPhone back in 2007.

To be honest, I’ve been surprised by this. I had assumed 3D printing was currently on only the geekiest of radars. But based on this (admittedly rarefied) sample, it appears there’s a much more general curiosity and even a sense of excitement attached to 3D printing. That alone suggests the technology may have a big future ahead of it.

2. Today’s 3D printers aren’t consumer devices

It’s quickly become apparent, however, that the device on my desk isn’t something that’s ready for the average home. Setting it up involved screwdrivers, slow downloads, badly translated manuals and – as my desk-neighbours will confirm – a lot of very loud beeping. I also had to calibrate the unit, which means trying to manually set the height of the extrusion nozzle to an accuracy of a tenth of a millimetre, and to set the printing platform level to a similar degree of precision. This is stuff engineers do, not consumers.

Even once you’re up and running, the 3D printer feels more like an industrial machine than a domestic device. In use, the print platform and extrusion head are heated to around 100°C and 260°C respectively, so warning stickers and heatproof gloves are the order of the day. I wouldn’t feel terribly happy operating one of these devices in a building containing pets or kids.

As a bonus, when the nozzle became blocked, the only way I could find to clear it was by burning out the solidified plastic – a process which, I later learnt, exposed me to a bracing dose of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. I think it’s fair to say that, before 3D printers are ready for prime time, they’ll want better thermal protection – and, hopefully, a less toxic way of dealing with blockages.

3. Designing 3D models is a professional job

I had airily assumed that owning a 3D printer would allow me to produce any sort of item I could imagine. Somehow I forgot that realising ideas as 3D models is a decidedly esoteric skill. I’m not saying an amateur can’t create decent models, with a certain investment of time and experimentation; but to put things in context, this branch of design is commonly taught at university diploma level. If you’re not already a qualified CAD artist,  you’re probably going to spend most of your time printing out other people’s designs.

This isn’t a disaster, as repositories such as the Thingiverse or 3Dvia offer literally tens of thousands of models, which you can freely download and reproduce. Unfortunately, it seems the vast majority of these are produced by hobbyists, and it’s fair to say that the average level of usefulness and quality isn’t terrifically high. To be sure, there are some practical designs on offer: we were quite excited to find we could print out a replacement for our office camera’s lost lens cap. However, such handy models are greatly outnumbered by solid plastic gnomes and perfunctory stands for phones and tablets – disappointingly trivial applications for a device costing £1,000 or more.

4. 3D printing is slow

The idea of building up physical objects by stacking progressive layers of molten plastic immediately captures the imagination. Unless you have a dully practical mind, however, you’ve probably never stopped to think about how long this process actually takes. I can tell you now that it isn’t fast. Laying down a pseudo-solid layer of plastic involves much time-consuming cross-hatching; and since the Afinia printer works to a vertical resolution of 0.15mm, a feature that stands 1cm tall represents 67 individual layers.

This takes some time to accrete. Our lens cap – which, the Afinia software helpfully tells me, has a plastic volume of just over 9cm³ – took around an hour to print. The time-lapse video at the top of this post shows you just what was involved.

Printing a simple shell for an iPhone 4 took nearly twice as long. Even printing something as small and simple as a Lego-style brick took 25 minutes. For sure, this is faster than tooling up a production line, or sending your designs away to a specialist prototyping agency – but unless you’re working with tiny models, it’s slow enough to put the kibosh on playful experimentation.

5. 3D printed objects can be of iffy quality

PawnWhen you think of plastic objects, you likely picture smooth and shiny surfaces. Well, if that’s what you want from your own designs, I’m afraid you’ll have to invest in an industrial injection-moulding machine. The plastic items I’ve produced with the Afinia printer have a definite “grain” to them, reflecting the way they’ve been built up from layers of plastic. There’s also a visible roughness to curved features, arising from the printer’s limited resolution.

On top of this, in order to prevent models from sliding around while they’re being printed, the printing platform is dotted with small perforations. As a result, the bottom faces of printed objects come out covered in nodules. If you prefer, you can print out a plastic “raft” for your model to rest on during the printing process – but this must then be manually trimmed away with a knife or a pair of snips, leaving marks and rough edges.

It’s also worth noting that the Afinia software automatically adds support material beneath any overhanging parts of your model, to ensure it doesn’t collapse during printing. This, too, must be trimmed away – leaving your model with yet more scars and promontories.

It’s clear that my immediate experiences with 3D printing have been almost uniformly disappointing. Yet I’m upbeat about the future – because it seems that none of these problems ought to be insurmountable. We have the technology today to allow 3D printers to calibrate themselves, and to work with greater degrees of speed and precision: all we need is for the required optical sensors and motors to fall in price to viable levels. In time the library of 3D models available to download can only grow, and I even dare to imagine that software developers will find ways to bring creating and editing models within reach of the man in the street.

In short, what I’ve seen this week has made it glaringly apparent to me that 3D printing won’t be taking over the world in 2013, or in 2014 for that matter. But I’ve also seen so much potential that, in the long run, I wouldn’t like to bet against a 3D printer ending up in every home.

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8 Responses to “ 3D printers: five things I’ve learnt ”

  1. Gary Says:
    April 19th, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Reading this article doesn’t surprise me at all.

    When I first used an inkjet printer to print out photographs years ago and soon enough, I realised it was very expensive to run, using a lot of ink, in comparison with the photography shops using their large photo printing machines.

    I can see it is going to be the same with 3D printers, why put yourself through all the hassle when a plastic manufacturer can do it cheaply for you?

  2. Alperian Says:
    April 19th, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    3D resin printing is old hat. it actually goes back to 2004. I have seen a TV programme recently where they showed components printed in Stainless steel and even Titanium. the future is going to be printing pharmaceuticals (or street drugs?). The future could even be printing food. That tway the cost of a burger will come down over time.

  3. tom Says:
    April 19th, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Out of interest what is the strength of the plastic like once printed? I know its a hard question to answer but would it snap easily?

  4. Dan Says:
    April 19th, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    I don’t think you have to be a professional, or the average user base should be professionals when it comes to 3D printing.

    I mean, I can download the blueprints from sites that professional people have modeled for me. All I need is the printer, a “how to” simple tutorial on the internet and of course the downloaded file.

    However, you do place good points on all five things mentioned.

  5. chris winnan Says:
    April 20th, 2013 at 1:51 am

    I printed out some small plastic coffins (about 2cm high) for a miniature display and they easily bore the weight of me standing on them on one foot.

  6. Ben Says:
    April 20th, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    As a builder of 3D printers I found this article very insightful. Having said that, some points in it I agree with strongly, some, not so much. And you missed one :-)

    1. Isn’t that great? Whenever our printer business comes up in conversation, I end up sharing a lot about how printers work, and why they are important, and answering a lot of questions. I see a lot of interest in the technology and its applications among folks who have not been exposed to it yet. Sort of like the Internet was in 1992-1995.

    2. I very much agree. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing everything we can to promote PLA plastic vs. ABS. Yes, ABS has some very good structural properties. But PLA is far more environmentally benign, uses lower nozzle temperatures, and doesn’t require a heated build platform – no fumes, no gloves. For my own family’s making, we strongly prefer PLA. But there’s still a long way to go before 3D printers (including ours) are true consumer devices.

    3. This is one I strongly disagree with. Proof by exsitance: my 7 and 9 year old kids had no problem with TinkerCAD, and are learning Sketchup now. They are able to understand the tools function, visualize simple shapes, and create the models. Yes, I still need to help now and again, especially in helping them adapt the models so that they are easily printed. But I expect that in a year or so, that too shall pass. Think of it as high-end page layout vs. simple letters in MS Word, or full blown Hollywood productions vs. iMovie. So I agree that high-end detailed models are probably out of reach for average folks, but simple everyday use is not.

    4. Yes, very much so. We’re working hard to squeeze every mm/sec out of our machines. I know all too well that at the moment “fast” equals “expensive” :-(

    5. There are two aspects to finish quality: print resolution and post-print finishing (or postprocessing). And here, as in many things, there’s a direct trade-off between quality of the finished part and time spent on finish. If you want a polished professional appearance, you’ll have to live with slow build times and significant post-processing (such as sanding & painting, or acetone vapor finishing). If you want a part fast and don’t want to deal with postprocessing, you’ll have to live with a rough finish.

    6. You missed a couple of things:

    a. Size. Most printers available on the market today can only build objects with a total enclosed volume of about 1/2 cubic foot. This is where we’re trying to contribute to the industry. Our smallest printer will have 1 cubic foot build volume, and the largest one will be 8 cubic feet.

    b. Material selection. Today, most entry-level printers use PLA and ABS. Some are allowing the use of Nylon and other materials. This is another area where we will be working in the next year to improve the choices available to our customers.

    Finally, a short plug: come see us at Make Faire Bay Area in San Francisco next month.

  7. Michael Says:
    April 22nd, 2013 at 12:13 am

    @Tom Based on my experience with having built an am running 2 printers. There are some instances where the parts can be just as strong using less material. There is also things that can be done to a parts design that could never be done using traditional injection molding.

  8. PeterGrant Says:
    March 17th, 2014 at 10:08 am

    I think your ABS temperature setting was wrong. Or is it in your supplier? Anyways, always remember that temperature and the chemical composition of the filament are important factors. ABS filament is 3D printed with a higher temperature than PLA. To prevent such bending or warping problems, a heated print bed is required. This is what I always do when I print with’s ABS filament.


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