3D printing seems to have come out of the closet this year, and in a big way.
Everywhere you turn you see or hear about it. No longer is it the domain of engineering or design companies but being used in schools and homes. It's topical and trendy, and even my mother-in-law has heard about it.
It is strange how these things work. I have been using rapid prototyping for over 25 years, educating and encouraging my clients to embrace this fantastic technology along the way, and suddenly *boom* my mother-in-law is trying to educate me about how fantastic (and scary) it is.
I think that this change has come about because of the myriad of cheap and cheery printers that have hit the market. Their prices make them really attractive, with most costing less than my first laser printer. This means that the "early adopters" of this "new" technology can get into it quite easily.
It seems that the cheaper end of town (sub $5000) are mostly FDM (fused deposition modelling) machines, which are basically like a glue gun on steroids attached to a robotic device which control what it builds.
The problem for me as a professional designer is that the quality I have seen from most of these gives a result similar to my first dot matrix printer. It does its job, but without the finesse of their bigger brothers. I could not pass their output on to my clients and would be hesitant to test products except in there crudest form.
Their bigger brothers come in a really diverse range of formats such as SLS (selected laser sintering) which uses lasers and plastic or metal alloy powders to produce very strong and accurate parts; or SLA (stereo lithography) which uses lasers and liquid resins to form highly accurate and well finished parts. There are formats that work similar to inkjet technologies, but with a 3rd dimension and also FDM machines all be it a much higher quality output than the cheap end of town.
It would be hard to compete with a machine costing anything from 5–25x the cost of these little machines. However these little machines are opening a new world to the masses. It is akin to back when we bought our first Sinclair 64 computer and had to save programs to audio cassette tapes, we were not daunted. It was fun, new and challenging. We didn't always get what we wanted, but we experimented, created and learned, and as time has moved on machines continually evolve to do more amazing things, faster at a fraction of the price.
This is now happening in the rapid prototyping world: prices are falling, quality will start to increase and pretty soon we will have the equivalent of the big brothers sitting on our desks at the low end of towns prices.
So what is my point?
If you want a high quality accurate build, without a lot of pain, you will still have to spend a little more, but if you are after a bit of fun or can accept a little less than perfect, jump on the bandwagon now and get your own little machine.