Let’s face it: in today’s fast paced, no-time-to-waste, cost-efficient mindset, most of us subscribe to in just about every facet of out lives, leaning toward the more affordable solution is often the path we’ll choose. When it comes to 3D printing, the often bad rap attached to the more affordable versions is quickly becoming overshadowed – if not entirely erased – by what they’re increasingly bringing to the table: finer resolutions in a quickly expanding range of materials.
The ‘little’ guys are, in more ways than one, no longer chasing after the costly competition. They’re running at a nice, steady pace themselves and may even prove a viable contender for that top spot at the finish line.
Sometimes branded as mere playthings for enthusiasts with ideas, squeezing melted plastic string through a thin nozzle, these special toys are in fact revolutionizing the world of product development and providing learning tools to a generation of game-changing movers and shakers in just about any line of manufacturing, from fashion to medicine. The days of the first generation of affordable 3D printers, all with spanners, Allen keys, pieces of wire and digital calipers are now the fragments of memories, replaced by the show-running 3D software.
Which brings us to Adobe. When Adobe added 3D printing support to Photoshop CC this January, lower end 3D printing got a splendidly significant boost. Up until then, the ‘slicers’, which is the software that converts 3D models into three-dimensional printhead movements, have been limited to the basic software provided with printers or written by enthusiastic users.
The importance of the slicers, rivals, if not surpasses that of the 3D printer itself, when it comes to the ultimate quality of the fabricated object. They control subtle but essential details, such as how much and how fast filament is retracted when the head moves to a new location. Getting the slicing parameters in order can easily compare to the time spent by enthusiast with the printer itself.
With Photoshop CC, it is now possible to analyze the 3D model and add the minimum amount of removable support material required for a build. There is a catch, however: only seven 3D printer brands are currently supported. Some other kinks have also been reported with this tool, but the general hope is that it’s only going to get better and more widely usable.
As far as educating the next generations on the intricacies of 3D design – and yes, education is a necessity since this special activity is far from intuitive to mere mortals – this is an area that needs to be looked at and worked on in its own right. Thanks to Minecraft, most preteens are somewhat skilled at 3D design (exciting and scary all at the same time) and there are already several packages that convert their creations to 3D-printable models.
The open-source Blender 3D software offers a professional range of features. Others are bound to follow, altogether creating a fabulously fruitful training environment for the future product designers, animators and game manufacturers, to name a few. The world has practically become their 3D printable oyster.
The last couple of years have seen massive growth in the range of materials that can be used by consumer 3D printers. Until recently there were just two options: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polylactic Acid (PLA). ABS is the plastic of Lego bricks; it’s tough, but requires high temperatures to print with. PLA, which is usually made from corn starch, is biodegradable and easy to print with, but crumbles to dust over an extended period of time.
One other aspect of affordable 3D printing, that has seen massive and impressive growth, is the range of materials that can be used by consumers. With basic ABS and PLA being the only two options for a long time – neither of which was a huge winner – the new materials that have become available for these 3D printers, such as Taulman’s Nylon, which is strong and resistant to damage by solvents, like petrol, are fantastic additions. Another option: Proto-Pasta, combines the advantages of the well-understood properties of PLS with the strength of carbon fiber. With all that, no wonder why new horizons are opening up when it comes to putting these innovations into practice.
Since 2012, for instance, Carbomorph, an electrically conductive feedstock developed by the University of Warwick, as well as a vast number of commercially available products, such as Makergeeks’ conductive carbon composite ABS, have made their way into the market. It seems like things are just starting to heat up on this forefront.
Certainly the 3D printing market, and all the little niches which feed off of it, are firing on all cylinders. As all the parts of the larger niche converge, innovate and expand, we will see prices drop, and adoption rates explode. The next several years are going to be tremendously exiting on all fronts. Let’s hear your thoughts on where the market is headed within the future 3D printing forum on 3DPB.com.
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