The Future of Consumer 3-D Printing is Now

Written By: Colin Shipley

3-D Printing

Picture courtesy of M3D: printm3d.com

Low-cost, 3-D printing is now more readily available than ever before. Basic single material printers are available for starting prices in the hundreds of dollars, such as the M3D Micro at $349 or the MOD-t at $149. (Learn more about them.)  More advanced models with multiple filaments, larger print areas, and more material options are in the couple thousand dollars.  This means your at-home tinkerer can now design and print their own items for the cost of a couple pieces of woodworking equipment.

How Does 3-D Printing Work

Most of these at home printers are based off of the 3-D printing technology called fused deposition.  A spool of thermoplastic is feed through a heated nozzle on to a base. Through moving the nozzle and/or the base, the object is printed a layer at a time. The most common plastics used are ABS and PLA which are known for being rigid and available in many colors. The more advanced models can handle a variety of plastics with different properties like flexibility, higher strength, or even dissolvable.  The last is great for printing in removable supports to make complicated objects.

3-D printing has been a great way to test new part designs in the industrial world.  With lower price points for the machines and easier access to a wide range of materials, the at-home use is expanding every day.  There are web communities like Thingiverse where people upload 3-D models to share with others.  Anything from a kids weaving loom to jewelry can be found, and there are new featured items each week. Visitors to the site can even download the items design and print it at home if they have the capability.

3-D Printing at Home

What does this mean to the average consumer?  In the not too distant future, when the wheel on the vacuum cleaner breaks, you can download the design and print a replacement in the span of a few hours.  Lose your phone case? Print another.

3-D printing at home has the potential to completely revolutionize the consumer experience. Companies might need to sell the design for a product instead of the product itself. Consumers will have much more control over what they’ll need to buy and what they can create on their own.

3-D Printing for Business

If the potential for revolutionary changes in the consumer world sounds great, the potential for 3-D printing in the business world might be even bigger. There are new stories everyday about 3-D printing of spare parts. So what does 3-D printing mean for companies that manufacture these spare parts? The short explanation is a huge potential for reduced overhead.

  1. Elimination of warehouses: It costs companies to hold on to parts for previous models of their product.  If they could sell the model of the part to the user or to the repair shop, whole warehouses could be eliminated.
  2. Reduction of waste: As consumers and/or repair shops gain the ability to download and create their own parts, there is no need for the production of a certain quantity. No items need to sit on a shelf waiting for a request. Only the parts or products that are needed will be created. No extras. No overstock.
  3. Elimination of transportation costs: In the same fashion, if parts can be created on site as needed, there is no need for the order and shipment of these parts. The logistics component of a company’s supply chain could potentially be much smaller. The elimination of shipping costs for consumers could be a big plus as well.

3-D printing is a popular topic of conversation and rightfully so. The technology is becoming more sophisticated each day, while consumer accessibility seems to grow in tandem.  To me, this is similar to the growth of at-home computers in the 80s and 90s. Will everyone have a 3-D printer at home soon? I venture to say yes.

Colin Shipley is Senior Automation Engineer at Bastian Solutions’ robotics division in St. Louis, Missouri.

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