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Thoughts provoked by some 3D printed miniature magnets

Beneath and beyond all the fretting we’re all now doing about The Virus, the onward march of technology continues.

I get emails from Google about advances in 3D printing, and each email contains lots of links, far more links than in any other Google emails I get on other subjects.

Links like this one, to a report about some newly contrived magnets:

Note the bit at the bottom on the right, where you learn the size of these things. They are very small.

Why are miniature magnets like this so important? And why do they have to be 3D printed? That’s what ignorami like me want to know. The anonymous writer of the report accordingly begins it thus:

Magnetic materials are an important component of mechatronic devices such as wind power stations, electric motors, sensors and magnetic switch systems. Magnets are usually produced using rare earths and conventional manufacturing methods. …

A bit later he says:

Permanent magnets are incorporated into a number of mechatronic applications. Traditional manufacturing methods such as sintering or injection moulding are not always able to cope with increasing miniaturisation and the resulting geometric requirements for magnets, and this is a trend which is sent to continue in the future. Additive manufacturing processes offer the necessary freedom of design. …

I had to look up sintering. Blog and learn.

You know how it is said that soldiers always prepare to refight the last war instead of actually to fight the next one. Well, something a bit like that happened with 3D printing. When 3D printing first started to hit the headlines, a whole generation of semi-informed participants in the home computer revolution, like me, thought: Oh, here comes another “revolution”. Soon we’ll all have these things in our kitchens! Never happened. Not happening. No sign of it happening.

When computers arrived in homes, they began to disrupt all sorts of businesses. “Newspapers”, as we used to call them, don’t look like they’ll ever recover their old serene cultural supremacy, which has unleashed political turmoil in the form of all the hitherto marginalised political groups who no longer have to bother with what the successors of those newspapers now say, because such groups can now tell themselves whatever they want to be told. Retail shopping is still trying to work out how to survive what’s hitting it. And then there’s mobile phones. A whole generation has now grown up without ever having experienced what life without mobiles or even email used to be like. I once mentioned this change to a friend who is a retired journalist. There followed an explosion of anecdotage about how he spent half his reporting life trying to work out where the nearest phone was, and all the dirty tricks he and his rivals used to keep each other away from it. As for social life, try, if you are young, to imagine a world in which, having made an appointment to meet somebody, you had to stick to the exact arrangement you’d made or cause grave distress. None of that “I’ll be a bit late” stuff. You had to be there when you promised.

A steady trickle of work at home even started being done, on clunky old computers like the one I’m typing this into now. That trickle became a steady flow, and may soon become a tidal wave, thanks to The Virus.

So, computers have indeed transformed, and continue to transform the texture of everyday life, at home, at work, and in the world generally, where home and work are getting more and more stirred together.

Computers are also, in among their many other accomplishments, printers. And that word, “printing”, was probably what provoked that early error of thinking that 3D printing would resemble 2D domestic printing, aka home computers, in its domestic and work impact. But printing of the 2D variety has one absolutely killer app, a serial killer app you might say, an app that dwarfs all the other apps of 2D printing, namely the 2D printing app that has always dominated 2D printing, in the form of putting black words on white paper, and what’s more on white paper of a particular size and shape. Think about this. There are many other ways to print things. But black-marks-on-white-A4 printing is the only one that we all now command, provided only that we wish to command it and have somewhere regular to keep a printer.

Meanwhile, although 3D printing is now doing an ever larger number of different things, there is no sign of any one dominant kind of 3D printing that it is doing, along the lines of what the 2D sort of printing has always done. And there is certainly no domestic 3D printing killer app anywhere on the horizon. In among all my emails about amazing 3D printing developments in medicine or airplane making or car making, or magnet making, are sad stories about a tiny few misguided people trying to sell 3D printers directly, to the general public, and all either losing their shirts or switching hurriedly into business applications. Other emails regularly announce that 3D printing is just about to conquer the domestic universe, usually in the form of a toy that can only make other even more useless toys. The domestic universe remains stubbornly unconquered.

3D printing now seems to me like an almost perfect example of a non-disruptive technology. Not only is it “additive” in the details of how it actually works, by patiently piling particle upon particle until a Thing emerges. Something like that seems to have been happening also at the level of the business enterprise. 3D printing has helped old-school Thing makers make their various Things that little bit better as the years have gone by, but no “3D printing company” has emerged as a “household” (note that word) name, in the manner of Microsoft and Apple and Amazon and Google and Facebook and Twitter and the rest of them. Not one. 3D printing is a classic improvement, not in “work/life”, but in old-school work, the sort of work you do from eight to five in an old-school place of work. You do this work carefully, expertly, with a specialist knowledge of what your very particular sort of 3D printing machine is doing, and of what might go wrong if you don’t pay attention to its workings or carefully check the quality of what it produces. The machine you use is specialised, and you apply it to traditional tasks, thereby slightly shifting the balance between “conventional manufacturing methods” (see above) and this new but actually also, now, rather conventional way of doing things. 3D printing turns out to be a tool, like a lathe, or sandpaper, or smelting. It keeps developing, and it keeps speeding up and improving the quality and cost-to-benefit ratio of manufacturing, just like any other worthwhile manufacturing technique.

Meanwhile, everyone doing 3D printing in their homes would make about as much sense as everyone trying to operate lathes in their kitchens, or smelt steel in their back yards. (Not that a certain notoriously destructive and murderous despot didn’t once upon a time try to force something a lot like this to happen on a continent-wide scale, but that’s another story.)

I learned at lot of the above from my Google emails, but also from having it patiently explained to me by the better informed members of the Samizdata commentariat, commenting on early 3D printing postings I did here. (It’s off topic, but I was delighted by the comments on this earlier posting. I thought there might be a few well-informed comments on that. Little did I know!)

Speaking of old-school work in old-school places of work, it strikes me as entirely appropriate that the people who did the particular bit of old-school work that this posting began with were … well, read the verbiage I merely alluded to above with dots, in between the two bits I’ve already quoted:

… A team of researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) has worked together with researchers from the Graz University of Technology, the University of Vienna and the research institution Joanneum Research to produce specially designed magnets using a 3D printer. …

Germans. Germans doing what Germans do best. Work. No fuss. No “disruption”. Just doing work, in places of work, and not indulging in any revolutions while doing it. And as a result gradually – additively – doing that work better and better and better.

23 comments to Thoughts provoked by some 3D printed miniature magnets

  • Slattont

    The first trick with 3D printing, is that you have to be able to design what you are going to print. Which in simple 3D printing is usually G-code, which is an older language. That you specify where and how much the print head extrudes. If you want to print or contract out the printing of small items easiest way is to use a 3D CAD program.

    Unsure of how biological printing of medical materials is handled. I assume they use some type of CAD system, that understands the materials being “printed.”

    The second trick with 3D printing is that it is slow. Depending on the complexity of the part it can take over 24 hours to produce one piece. Plastic casting or metal casting can turn out thousands of parts in the same time frame. If you have access or can create a workable 3D model that can be 3D printed then prototypes, test parts, and replacement parts are a sweet spot for 3D printing.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Austrians, not Germans. The country of Popper and Hayek, not the country of Hegel and Marx.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    The heart of the operation seems to be in Nuremberg. Austrians also, but “Not Germans”?

  • Snorri Godhi

    Sorry, i seem to be especially prone to miss important details in your posts for some reason.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Dunno, but as I recall, 2D printing took a long time to take off. Initially home computers didn’t have printers, and only people with money had the teletypes with ‘golfball’ printer heads. That sort of technology never did spread to the home market. Then cheap dot matrix technology came along. First businesses, and then later the home market. But it was crude and ugly and noisy. And you’d not use it for anything you wanted to look “professional”. That was still the domain of professional printers. Then later on laser printers came out, although they were hugely expensive, but at least it meant businesses could produce documents that looked glossy and professional without the services of a specialist print shop. Then ink jet printers matched the quality of the laser printers, brought down the price, and finally people were able to dump the dot-matrix and do professional-looking printing at home.

    And 2D printing is a comparatively simple problem. One (or four, if colour) standard ink, one standard size and thickness of paper. Only two dimensions. But for making ‘things’ you need to worry about what different materials to make them out of – because different things have different requirements for strength, stiffness, hardness, elasticity, heat tolerance, density, opacity/colour, tolerance for bending, etc. There are many more ways for it to sag and smear. And the ‘ink’ has to hold itself together without the support of a paper scaffold, even duping the process of being laid down. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a lot longer to develop.

    Also, there is a big difference in that most of the things we buy are of standard, mass-produced shapes. It’s not like printing where every page is potentially unique. We don’t need to personalise the objects we need. So the economics of scale are more in favour of centralised mass production. I think at the moment it’s still in the arts and crafts category as a hobby. Its popularity in that market seems to have plateaued – there are only so many people wanting lots of personalised plastic trinkets and willing to spend £500/yr making them.

    But if prices came down 20-fold, then it might actually get a mass market. I’d say it was too early to say if that might happen.

  • Schrodinger's Dog


    A well-argued piece, but I’m still not quite sure I agree with you.

    People tend to think linearly. “Everyone will have a 3D printer in their home by two weeks on Tuesday!” When it doesn’t happen, the naysayers gloat. In practice though, things tend to be exponential: nothing much happens for a very long time, followed by explosive growth.

    The first computers were built in the 1940s. The idea of a computer at home was first floated around 1965, but people asked just what someone would actually do with a home computer. In 1969, Neiman Marcus, the upmarket American retailer, actually offered for sale what it called a Kitchen Computer. A re-badged Honeywell machine, the asking price was about $10,000 and Neiman Marcus sold precisely zero units. In the event, home computers didn’t appear until the 1980s and were initially very much a minority interest. They were the preserve of geeks who were willing to persevere with machines with very limited memory and processing power, into which commands had to be typed and which, crucially, were not networked. (Networks were available, of course, but they were the preserve of professional users, and anyway couldn’t have coped with the data traffic created by millions of home users.) The explosion in home computing didn’t occur until the 1990s and computers which had more memory and processing power, as well being easier to use. But the crucial development, the one which made a home computer truly useful, was the arrival of the internet, which enabled machines to be networked.

    3D printing is about a decade old so, like all exponential functions, mass-adoption is probably ten to twenty years away – if it happens at all.

  • John

    In paper printing there was a very substantial — not yet quite extinct — “Service Bureau” stage. You could go to Kinkos or one of their competitors and use their extremely expensive equipment to print quality or media you couldn’t print at home or in a small business. I think oversized printing is still a popular job for them as are medium sized print runs — the ones to big for the office and too small (or too urgent) for an actual printer.

    My guess is that if the hobbyist thing were to get a bit bigger, you’d start to see service bureau 3d printing. I also wonder about its viability as a means of rapid distribution of small parts.

    ps. the captcha is onerous. one is fine, 4 is a nuisance.

  • Less than a day ago, I took a color printing job to a “service bureau”. 36″ x 24″, laminated, one piece. $28 or so. I shudder to think of the cost for the equipment to do that at home.

    Now 8-1/2 by 11, no problem. Got everything I need to do it by the hundreds.

  • Tedd

    There’s no equivalent to Moore’s Law for additive manufacturing. Like all technologies, it’s advancing in small steps and, like most technologies, those steps are separated by years or decades, not months or weeks. The ability to 3D print materials with useful structural properties is decades old now but it’s still un-economical for all but a small proportion of possible applications. The ability to 3D print in metals is newer and even less affordable. I’ve used both and they are fantastic if you’re lucky enough to be working on a product where the cost can be born. But that’s rare, especially for additive metals. The cost will come down and these technologies will become more and more common, but at a pace more like what we see with other mechanical technologies.

    It’s a very long way from an FDM nozzle making “cake decorator” shapes in soft plastic to a Star Trek replicator. We’re not very far along that road, yet.

  • MadRocketSci

    I’ve played with plastic PLA printing extensively at home. I have a makerbot replicator 2X, and a rep-rap (still in the box, will set it up soon.)

    (Narrator’s voice): In a future where you can dial up anything you want, as long as it’s made of PLASTIC: Plastic-punk! (/narrator)

    What I’ve been able to use it for:
    Cosmetic panels and small boxes
    Spacer boards for circuitboards in electronics boxes.
    Brackets – lots and lots of brackets for various things
    For example, my current desk is 80-20 channel held together with 3d printed brackets, and a wooden table top bolted on top. I’ve gotten better at woodworking though.
    Some very course (3/8″-10 ACME) threads and nuts for basic fastening and clamping

    What I haven’t been able to use it for:
    Any kind of motion stage (even just positioning metal bushings, metal nuts, metal rods): The accuracy just isn’t there. I have to play around with +/- 0,02″ margins to get things to mate.

    I asked for a quote for a “desktop 3d metal printer” and got back something like $150k. Way outside my hobby budget. OTOH, now that I have a workshop, I’m going to try to build some desktop CNC machining tools using my 1940s massive auction-surplus machining tools.

  • MadRocketSci

    (where did my comment go: The text got erased…) 🙁

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very, very interesting discussion. Thanks, Brian and all commenters. :>)

  • Mr Ecks

    The breakthrough is a versatile 3d printer that can print copies of itself. Then costs plummet.

  • Tim Worstall

    Powder metallurgy (ie, sintering) is an area where 3 D printing really could be distinctly useful at factory level scale. For all sorts of boring technical reasons but there we are. What you can make out of tungsten – just one metal as an example – depends upon what you can press into shape. The melting point is so high that casting – ie, pouring liquid into a mould to then cool – doesn’t really work. So, you take the powder and press it together under heat and it sorta sticks together. But you can’t really produce complex shapes because of the need to really, really, press.

    Another way of doing this? Great.

    As to the larger point, a new tech changing everything. But it doesn’t need to, it only needs to be a better way of doing any one thing.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “The breakthrough is a versatile 3d printer that can print copies of itself. Then costs plummet.”

    Good point! But the cost of the printer is not really the issue. It’s the cost of the material you print with.

    According to this, the price of a basic 3D printer is £230, about the same as a decent 2D printer. If it lasts 5-10 years, that’s quite reasonable. But the plastic filament used as ‘ink’ is £20/kg, and they reckon you get through one kilo a month, so that’s £240/year. And then there’s electricity, and replacement parts if it breaks.

  • Ben David

    This thread adheres to a division between additive and subtractive techniques – influenced by the old-paradigm word “printing” – that is foreign to modern CNC manufacturing.

    As another poster has pointed out, the starting point is always a pristine abstract 3d CAD model. From there a host of options deliver unprecedented economy and versatility to small shop floors. What difference does it make if the personalized chotchke/replacement part is made by loading a bottle of goop or a slab of plastic into the machine?

    CNC milling
    Laser, water, and plasma marking, cuttting, and welding

    All use the same basic toolkit from design through manufacture.

    The pristine 3d model is itself the paradigm buster you seek. It can be derived by/subjected to iterative mathematical modeling and testing that incorporporates real design data like loads and strength of materials (or color and logo placement). This eliminates material waste, design cycles, customer disatisfaction. There is a lot you can try/learn/sell before you go to the trouble of making even one item. Whatever methid you use to make it, there’s less chance of getting it wrong and fewer costs sunk into dedicated tooling.

    That is huge.

  • SkippyTony

    First, I’d hold up Compact discs as an example. Started out as a mass produced write once, read many times. Took about five years to completely demolish vinyl records. Then the technology to write to CD dropped from thousands of $$ (yes, I had one the size of a vcr player) to tens of dollars. The same basic technology also did for the video market. All of a sudden, previously unimaginable capability became ubiquitous. Pretty quietly too.
    I have started to see examples of “make at destination” as opposed to “make at source and ship” some of which will be utterly transformative when they mature. For example, I watched a demonstration of on site production of structural walls. Pick the finish, colours and textures you want. Automatically create the voids for power and water ducting, even down to replacing pipes for water.
    So, basically ship raw materials and output on site. Work 24 x 7 with very little actual labour required, eg still have to install windows. Potentially build a bespoke house in days, not months, for a fraction of the cost.
    Ok, it’s not at home 3D printing.
    Example B. Recently I had a dental crown inserted. Instead of the old methods of laminating up a replacement tooth my dentist created a 3D model, then used a cnc machine to mill out the new tooth from a colour matched blank, while I waited. Whole process took less than two hours. My dentist told me he was looking at a device that would “print” the crown rather than machine it.
    Example C. I am told, though I’ve not seen it, that there is a niche in the car market where previously difficult to source plastic parts for older cars are created from cad files. Say you need a new window guide for your 1970 Datsun 240z. No longer available OEM. However, someone, somewhere has already created the cad file of the part which can be downloaded over the internet and printed on site at the restorer.
    Again, none of these examples are use cases for investing in a home 3D printer, but I see the technology becoming much more prevalent.
    So, maybe this will end up like computer memory, where the economics of it make more sense to buy as a service rather than own a device.

  • bobby

    FWIW, the apocalyptic prepper types are investing heavily in 3DP because of the ability to download all of the CAD files for most commercially-available handguns (minus the actual barrel.) Combine that with a small barrel-blank-drilling setup, and you’re ready for SHTF day.


  • “Italian hospital saves Covid-19 patients lives by 3D printing valves for reanimation devices”


  • Dalben

    The difference is that 2D printing produced consumable good, which you needed new versions of every day. Not at first, of course, books weren’t one use consumable when first printed, and when newspapers arrived you still needed a separate business, not an at home printer. But record keeping and sending written messages with transient information had been around for thousands of years, just limited by technology and expense. When 2d printing became available the benefit of switching from typewriters to computer printers was obvious, even if it didn’t happen instantly, and there was already a need for producing large amounts of paper documents. Even 2000 years ago there would have been an obvious use for quickly and cheaply producing large amounts of written documents, they just didn’t have the capability.

    3D printing produces durable items. Even if you had some use for some plastic or other material item made by it, you probably don’t need a new item once a day, or a week, or a month except just for the enjoyment of creating something (A valid reason, but no more likely to catch on widely than pottery, or wood carving, or metal work, hobbies that many enjoy, but still a small fraction of the population). I could imagine saying, ‘Oh I’d like some new cups or hangers or maybe a plate for my wall socket broke’ or something, but that would be pretty rare and just buying new ones would be pretty cheap so that it would hardly be worth buying a separate machine to manufacture them instead of just going to the store. Heck with online ordering, buying them would be more convenient than making them as long as I didn’t mind waiting a few days. And for that matter if I wanted a large number or size of items with current technology I’d probably have to wait a few days anyway, at least with ones cheap enough to buy for a home.

    This could change. Maybe someday in the future we’ll be printing out nails and picture frames and cups and plates shelves and all sorts of things instead of buying them, but as a practical option instead of a fun one it doesn’t seem to be remotely there yet.

    Another disadvantage is that a lot of the things we use are more complicated than can be made by 3D printers. If my remote control breaks I can’t 3D print a new one, or a battery if it runs out. I could make a soap dish, but not soap. Looking at the things I’ve bought online or anywhere else in say the last month or two almost none of them could have been 3d printed. Many of them could have parts 3D printed, but that does no good in terms of a home printer.
    That could also change over time, and there are a few things I’ve bought or would have made if I had a 3D printer that could be 3D printed – orthotics* and some candles I had with no correctly sized candleholder. But nothing that would have made it worth buying a 3d printer other than it’s cool. It is cool of course.

    * Though, I looked into it, since I’m a podiatrist, and making durable high quality orthotics with ease is not something home 3D printers are ready for. You can of course 3D print orthotics, but you need more durable plastic than is typically used, scanners, a program to make them or ability to program it yourself, and you normally wante more on it than just a plastic shell, though of course a plastic shell by itself can be a perfectly fine orthotic, I’m using one now, but most of the time you’re going to want to add at least a top cover and probably more adjustments. Anyway, while it can certainly be done the cost and effort isn’t worth not just sending the casts to an orthotic lab to be made, at least not yet. I look forward to that changing.

  • Nicholas (unlicensed joker) Gray

    Let’s not forget that some lab in Israel 3D-printed a human heart! I think that this is the future for such printing, and that it will grow exponentially in the biological sciences.

  • ns

    3D printing needs more of an ecosystem around it to become a consumer item. 2D printing developed over time, with a lot of changes to the technology (thanks for the reminder, NiV!) These technologies for 2D included ribbons for dot-matrix printers, ink for inkjets, toner cartridges for laser printers, general and specialized papers for printing, and other items; all of which had to come down in cost. Don’t forget the software that made this possible, however: word processing (I used mail-merge for Christmas cards), photo editing programs (who prints photos anymore – just edit and view them on-line), and templates for every document imaginable.
    3D printing will need similar tech if it ever becomes a consumer item. Simplified CAD, with templates for a number of consumer items and specialized consumables for customization are some of the things that are necessary for this.

    This did bring up some nostalgia for the original 3D consumer printer, marketed to kids: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vac-u-form
    I had one when I was 7 or 8.