3D printing is a fantastic technology, and the quality of the prints from a desktop machine like my usual Up! Plus 2 are pretty awesome when you think about the fact that they’re produced on my desk! But at some point you’re likely to reach the limits of what can be achieved on such a machine, either through material limitations, size limitations, or in this case in the complexity of the parts themselves.
The parts pictured above are the next stage of development from some of the 3D prints I showed in a post a couple of weeks ago, with some of the patterns and ideas very similar. However now that I’m trying to move beyond relatively “flat” prints into these complex shapes that fit a 3D curved surface, the limitations of a desktop FDM machine become clear. The amount of support material needed, along with the delicate nature of the designs means that pieces of each part were broken during support removal, and on top of that, many areas of the prints simply didn’t print out clearly with lots of loose threads of ABS plastic floating around.
While these prints are enough to visually communicate a design idea, they simply aren’t accurate enough to allow us to physically test or embed electronics in. Therefore it seems we have reached the limits of what we can trial using desktop 3D printing, and must now look at moving to SLS or a similar high-end process, which of course means paying a lot more for prints. It also means that rather than being able to move back-and-forth between CAD and 3D printing multiple times a day, we will be waiting weeks while parts are printed and shipped to us – so a lot more pressure to really take what we’ve learned so far from these prints and ensure that the next set which we produce are going to work.
The reason I write about this is because there is always a lot of talk about whether everyone will one day have a 3D printer in their home. While it’s certainly a possibility, there are obviously limitations to the sorts of products people would be able to print with an affordable home machine. So why won’t everyone just have a SLS machine in the future I hear you ask? Well at the moment my university has purchased a SLS machine, however an even bigger challenge than raising the few hundred thousand dollars to purchase it (which of course will dramatically come down in price now that the patents have expired) is now how are we going to use it safely? It has an enormous checklist just to set it up including requirements for anti-static flooring, appropriate measures and warnings about the dangerous class 4 laser, being installed somewhere that has absolutely no vibrations around it (so not near other types of machinery), advanced air filtration and exhaust systems in the room, an eye-wash station next to it and many more… These don’t sound like the sort of renovations your typical home user is likely to invest in!
So in my opinion it is far more likely that we are going to see even more Shapeways style service bureaus pop up, which is already the case through Staples in the USA and now Officeworks in Australia, where you will take your files to get printed in your local area. All the costs, maintenance and training is covered by these commercial businesses, and we all get to enjoy the benefits. Until then, it looks like I will be placing yet another order for parts on the other side of the world so we can test out these designs properly.
– Posted by James Novak