Professor Plastic: A Desktop 3-D Printer in Every Home?

Professor Plastic

Professor Plastic

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3D Printer

In my previous article on 3-D printing, plastics and manufacturing, I noted that this new technology is getting quite a bit of attention these days, especially in the media. Given all the attention to 3D printing lately, you might think that you are sadly behind the curve if you don’t have a 3D printer at home. Surely most Americans are “printing” cool stuff out of plastics in their basements and living rooms, right?

Not so much. In fact, if you have a 3D printer in your home, you’re one of the early adopters of a new and still rather expensive invention. In 2012 only 35,000 “inexpensive” 3D printers (i.e., less than $5,000) were sold—globally. And while pricing for these “desktop” 3D printers continues to fall (some have dropped below $500), the percentage of Americans who own one = <1. This is pretty novel stuff.

What are Desktop 3D Printers? A quick background for those unfamiliar with this sort-of-newish technology …

A 3D printer functions sort of like an ink jet printer—except instead of using ink to print a flat image on paper, it typically uses plastics or a few other materials to build an object, layer upon layer in three-dimensions. Computer aided design (CAD) software or a 3D scan enables the printer to precisely manipulate the plastics.

3D printing is an example of “additive manufacturing” in which an object is built up in layers. Additive manufacturing produces little waste—which can help control costs and contribute to sustainability.

Depending on the type of plastic or material used, a 3D printer can make furniture, medical and dental implants, automotive parts, footwear, jewelry, construction materials, musical instruments—the possibilities are almost endless. Plus, the printers can be mobile—they can be deployed onsite to build components of a house or to rapidly create a lifesaving device on the battlefield.

In contrast to manufacturing, 3D printing on the home front remains predominately a hobbyist or artistic adventure, although that is changing as the industry matures and printers become easier to use and more affordable. Business analysts expect prices for desktop 3D printers to continue to fall, which along with increased awareness, printing speed and material quality, could spur broader, mainstream consumer interest.

How Plastics Enable 3D Printing at Home

Speaking of materials, quick quiz: What’s the predominate material used in desktop 3D printing? (Hint: This is the Plastics Make it Possible® website.) That’s correct: plastics. The plastics acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), and nylon were pretty much the first types of materials used in 3D printing, and they’re still pretty much the simplest to work with. Analysts expect plastics to continue to account for the primary material (typically called filament) used in 3D printing at home.

OK, so home 3D printing still is kind of expensive, it’s mostly used for fun, and it likely will be years before it becomes somewhat more commonplace. BUT there are some really cool things happening today in 3D printing, many of them made possible by plastics, that more than hint at the potential of this technology in the hands of us “do-it-yourself” types.

Here are some innovative examples using various types of plastics that appear headed to the home front…

Desktop 3D Printing and Clothing

3D printing holds the potential of allowing fashion-forward individuals to design and create their own bespoke clothing. While designers have created expensive one-off dresses and even bikinis using 3D printing, the prospect of “print your own clothes” took a significant step in 2013.

During the 2013 Fashion Week in New York City, designers worked with students at the Pratt Institute to create a dress made out of polyester—using a 3D printer. The company MakerBot provided the 3D printers and a new adaptable filament that is soft and flexible—the plastic material flexed and moved with the model’s motion. Sounds pretty basic, but this is a significant advance from traditional filament materials that typically are solid and stiff after printing.

The remarkable thing is that this dress was not created using an expensive, industrial 3D printer costing hundreds of thousands of dollars—the students used a desktop 3D printer that retails for $2,200. New advances in plastic filaments, combined with improvements in printing quality, speed and costs, soon just might allow fashionistas to create a perfectly form-fitting little black dress for that upcoming party.

Desktop 3D Printing at School

Speaking of MakerBot, in November 2013 the company launched a program with a rather ambitious goal: “to put a desktop 3D printer in every school in the United States of America.” Actually, I left out one word: MakerBot. The company wants all those to be MakerBot printers. Understandably.

The company is using the crowdsourcing site to solicit donations for its “MakerBot Academy.” Public school teachers can register online to request a MakerBot Academy bundle that includes the Replicator™ 2 desktop 3D printer, a service plan and three spools of plastic filament that the company calls “the best, safest and most consistent filament” for its printers.

The program is backed by “America Makes,” otherwise known as The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, that was announced by President Obama in 2012, a public-private partnership to “accelerate additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies and increase our nation’s global manufacturing competitiveness.”

What’s this have to do with creating stuff from plastics at home? Even a wildly successful MakerBot Academy won’t directly increase home use of desktop 3D printers, right?

True, but as an educator I suspect that once these students are exposed to such a cool new technology, they’re going to want more hands-on time than they can get at school. And the various plastic filaments used in 3D printing will continue to be the most common raw material. As previously mentioned, these printers are becoming more affordable and better made, so desktop printing of all sorts of cool things using plastics likely will skyrocket. Which leads to …

Printing 3D Gifts at Home

Can you create a new dog toy for Fido? Can you create personalized fashion accessories? Can you create a part for an appliance that’s no longer made? What gift do you get for the person who has everything?

Early adopters of 3D technology have been able to answer: yes, yes, yes, and nearly anything I want! Much of the magic of 3D printers lies in the design software that commands them. Along with the growth of desktop 3D printing has come an explosion in CAD software, 3D scanners and other technologies that enables individuals to create unique, personalized designs and products—in their own homes.

Some desktop 3D printing examples, all made possible by plastics:

  • A dad creates unique toy trains and tracks for his kids while another creates a jigsaw puzzle from a family photograph
  • An artist uses 3D printers to create sculptures that would be impractical to produce using traditional techniques
  • Handy homeowners create unique shower heads, curtain rod holders, shower caddies, drain screens and more—all designed to perfectly fit a specific bathroom space
  • Gear heads create personalized cell phone cases, tablet grips, laptop stands and scads of other customized devices/adaptors/holders for electronics
  • Do-it-yourselfers create washers, gears, brackets, connectors and other parts that are unique to specific needs
  • Crafty types create pendants, necklaces, rings, earrings, bracelets and other jewelry/accessories
  • My least favorite: a plastic ocarina (if you don’t know what this musical instrument sounds like, you’re lucky).
  • My favorite: a father who printed a “cyborg” hand for his 12-year-old son who has been missing fingers on his left hand since birth—using a donated design, a borrowed 3D printer and only 12 dollars’ worth of plastic. Just wow.

So does every American household really need a desktop 3D printer and spools of plastic filament? Who knows? But recall that only 30 years ago people were asking: Why would we need a desktop computer in our home?