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Cheap 3D printing is getting better

I receive emails from Google about, among other things, 3D printing. These 3D printing emails link to pieces that mostly confirm my current prejudice about 3D printing, which is that it is an addition to the technological armoury of current manufacturers rather than any sort of domesticated challenge to the conventional idea of manufacturing being done by manufacturers. Far from making manufacturing less skilled, 3D printing is, as of now, making manufacturing more skilled. Which is good news for all rich countries whose economic edge is provided by being able to deploy an educated rather than merely industrious workforce.

Here is the kind of story that these emails link to:

my colleagues and I have found a way to print composite material by making a relatively simple addition to a cheap, off-the-shelf 3D printer. The breakthrough was based on the simple idea of printing using a liquid polymer mixed with millions of tiny fibres. This makes a readily printable material that can, for example, be pushed through a tiny nozzle into the desired location. The final object can then be printed layer by layer, as with many other 3D printing processes.

The big challenge was working out how to reassemble the tiny fibres into the carefully arranged patterns needed to generate the superior strength we expect from composites. The innovation we developed was to use ultrasonic waves to form the fibres into patterns within the polymer while it’s still in its liquid state.

The ultrasound effectively creates a patterned force field in the liquid plastic and the fibres move to and align with low pressure regions in the field called nodes. The fibres are then fixed in place using a tightly focused laser beam that cures (sets) the polymer. …

The patterned fibres can be thought of as a reinforcement network, just like the steel reinforcing bars that are routinely placed in concrete structures …

In earlier pieces I have done here about 3D printing, commenters have compared the current state of domestic 3D printing with the state that domestic 2D printing had reached in the days of the dot matrix printer. Remember those? Maybe not. They disappeared from common view quite a while ago now.

The above description of miniature reinforcing rods makes me think that something like a 3D printing analogue to the 2D domestic laser printer may be about to emerge. Laser printers supplied, once their price had fallen to something domestically tolerable, unprecedented clarity and flexibility to domestic computer users. The process described above, and all the other 3D printing advances that those google emails tell me about, will, if all develops well, supply unprecedented internal strength, and hence just all-round quality, to cheaply printed 3D objects.

None of which means that specialised 3D printing by specialisers in all the various different sorts of 3D printing that are now coming on stream will cease to be a way to make a living, any more than specialised 2D printing experts have all now been run out of business by amateurs in their homes. (Quite the opposite – that link being just one for-instance of a hundred that I might have picked – I just happen to have particularly noticed taxis covered in adverts.) It is merely that, in the not too distant future, domesticated 3D printing may actually become seriously useful to people other than hobbyists and 3D printing self-educators.

However, even as supply gets ever cleverer, when it comes to domestic 3D printing there remains the problem of demand. As I asked in this earlier posting here (commenter Shirley Knott agreed): What 3D printed objects will be demanded domestically in sufficient quantities, again and again with only superficial variations (in the way that black-on-white messages on paper are now demanded) to make domestic 3D printing make any sense? No answer was supplied in those comments three years ago, and I have heard no answer since. So the above ultrasound-arranged reinforcing rods trick will almost certainly turn into just another manufacturing technique for old-school manufacturers to apply to their old-school specialist manufacturing businesses. Which means that this posting becomes just another Samizdata Ain’t Capitalism Great? postings. Which is fine. On the other hand, few can see killer apps coming, until suddenly they come. So maybe a future beckons, which sees us all eating out, but making other, inedible stuff in our kitchens.

The reinforced concrete reference also makes me even more eager than I long have been to see how 3D printing impacts on the world of architecture, architecture being another enthusiasm of mine. Postings like this one at Dezeen make it clear that this is a question that lots of others are wondering about also.

12 comments to Cheap 3D printing is getting better

  • Rob Fisher

    “just another manufacturing technique for old-school manufacturers”

    Or possibly new-school providers of customised widgets, but manufactured on-site and delivered by next-day delivery, or by 1 hour drone delivery.

  • llamas

    I stand by what I said in that comments section, 3 years ago.

    If you look at other threads about 3D printing in the same timeframe, you’ll see my comments about the future of the process, including projections about composite an reinforced materials that can be directly printed as plain polymers are. The links in today’s article show this exact process happening, because that’s where industrial applications are leading it. Same goes for 3D printing of metallic materials, which is progressing by leaps and bounds. But none of these improvements are making ‘home’ 3D printing any more appealing, because there’s just no significant application in the home for the great majority of people. It remains the province of a tiny minority of Sheldon-and-Leonard geeks (not meant as a snipe, I am the King of the Geeks and have seriously considered buying a used 3D printer).

    As I said then, a 3D printer is like a concrete mixer – for the vast majority of people, it makes no sense to own one and never will. You RENT it. Owning a 3D printer because you might need one 3 times a year is like owning a 747 so you can fly to see Grandma twice a year. Makes no sense.



  • Russ in TX

    I have definite use for a 3d printer in making replicas of historical objects, but every time I look at the cost, setup, and available-dimensionality, I find myself back in agreement with llamas. In some cases I’ve literally found myself going back to scissors and paper mache as a more overall-efficient way of going about it.

    I seriously want it to be here already…but it doesn’t seem to be.

  • Paul Marks

    New technology, such as 3D printing, may well transform manufacturing over time.

    I despise the false history that Kevin Carson and co push – the idea that the industrial revolution was caused by “state intervention” and that paid private employment is somehow serfdom. However, they may (may – I am not sure) get what they want in the long term. People being able to manufacture, affordably, a lot of useful stuff without needing big factories and so on.

    People such as Joshua Wedgewood did good (not harm) during the industrial revolution. And people such as Jon Huntsman (senior) and the much attacked Charles and David Koch do good now.

    But that that does not mean that the big industrialist will always exist. Technological change may (I repeat – may) make the big factory a thing of the past. At least at some point in the future.

  • TimR

    I would caution against conservative estimates as to when and how 3D technology will be massively implemented. I seem to remember the initial estimates for mainframe computers were in the dozens; fax machines would only have specialized uses etc.
    The market usually sets its own time and volume.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    As government forbids more products, 3D printers that can make such products become more useful: printed firearms, unregistered drones, the limit is the ability of government to make silly laws.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    You could say the same about domestic robots walking around in our homes, serving tea. Or flying cars. Sometimes these things just don’t happen. Meanwhile, lots of other – similar but not the same – things do happen, on the scale and with the dramatic speed that you allude to.

    I believe that flying cars will come, but that they will be robots. They will only take to the air after robot cars of the more regular sort have become thoroughly safe and effective. Which will not be for a while. First there will be robot lorries on motorways.

  • staghounds

    You asked for a one thing many times product, I suggest building materials.

    Get the high tech stuff the panels/bricks/pipes are made from in bulk, print them on the building site as and when needed.

    Also, once the tech gets here, Amazon will start carrying things by printability. If you have an XYZ printer, here are the things you can order it to print with the code you buy from us. So it won’t be one thing many times, but many things once.

    And finally, these things will get lots better and cheaper PDQ. Once it took a big building on the river to have a factory, because it ran off a water mill. Then it was a steam engine, and a big building anywhere, for the belts. Then it could be in a bunch of smaller buildings and a generator shed, because the power was was a dozen big electric motors. Now it’s your garage and a pickup truck full of machines from industrialmachinery.com.

  • Paul,
    I was born in Newcastle and grew-up just down the road from George Stephenson and just up the road from Lord Armstrong (a great name for an industrialist). I then went to University at Nottingham on a campus that was a gift from Lord Trent (Jesse Boot). It’s a beautiful campus and a fine gift. I know. And it humbles me to see Cragside (Armstrong’s house) the first house in the World to ever be lit by electricity (hydro you Greens!). I know. Did you know that George Stephenson never went to school? He had a knack for steam engines and made enough money to send his son to school and then taught his Dad what he’d learned in the evening. Robert designed the High Level Bridge which if you go to Newcastle by rail you will still cross.

    Newcastle is now… Well the biggest employer (by far) is NICO and I once temped at the RPA.


    I left before that but it didn’t surprise me. I mean they sacked me and rehired me in the space of ten minutes once. They sacked me for, as far as I can, being able to type! I was showing-up others. I was a temp. I was provided by Pertemps because I could type. I also re-jigged the way I sent stuff to the printer. I was re-hired because my line manager was a moron and her boss wasn’t. I’d had enough by then.

    Maybe Newcastle will rise again but only via private enterprise and from a low point because it has been shafted repeatedly by government make-work.

  • Robbo

    Isn’t the first step going to be the local franchise 3D printing shop, just like photocopying in the Xerox days?

  • Cal

    A friend was recently given a tour around one of top 3D printing research labs in the UK by a hot-shot University friend (it’s his lab). She said it was jaw-dropping.

    One of the new machines they’d just got in cost a million quid, so perhaps that one’s a while off sitting in the front room.

    But local franchise 3D printing shops, yeah.

  • john

    I’ll third the print shop / service bureau idea, but add this: Feedstocks, such as the filaments used in current 3D printers, are a lot more efficient to ship and stock than most finished goods. Data is cheap to ship and cheap to store. If you have the option of stocking feedstocks and data files (or creating them, or downloading them) it would be a lot more efficient and cheaper than stocking all those different parts.

    I can see this working very soon in say the auto parts business, where the part required would be printed at the local auto parts store. It’s a short step from there to a website where you order the part and the local service bureau prints it… and there is no auto parts store.

    The next step may not ever be for everyone, but now consider this: Someone in a rural or “deep suburban” location with a small farm. Such a person may own buildings, infrastructure, tools etc. with thousands of small (or even large) parts. It is impractical to stock them all, or even a significant fraction of them. So, when something breaks, there is a real problem with down time and other inconveniences.

    (I can give examples if you want them.)

    OR, I have seen cases in small business, even in urban areas, where an expensive piece of equipment is down for 24-48 hours while a part is fedexed from half-way across the continent.

    I see the strength of the thing being in speed (compared to shipping) and the very fact that the items don’t have to be printed “again and again with only superficial variations” it can be radically different things which you couldn’t afford to have on hand.

    The price and the quality are just not quite there yet, some things never get there, but I think this one will eventually. I’m in the “dot-matrix printer” camp.