Desktop 3D printers, the Next Phase

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3D printing is often labeled with words such as “disruptive” and “revolution”. Actually the technologies are not that new. In fact many of the patents related to the core 3D printing technologies have expired or will expire soon. The technology has been around for some time.

What is new is the level of accessibility. 3D printing is now available for the masses. You and me. At least at some level.

Moreover, what is really new here is the awareness that has emerged for these technologies. And, that, in itself, can be considered the revolution.

As the level of awareness rises so also does the spectrum of applications widen, become deeper and more specialized.

It usually takes about 20-30 years before a truly unique idea moves from concept to culture. The introduction of one technology is also typically the result of the success of another. In terms of 3D printing technology it was the PC. The progressively decreasing cost of computational power effectively brought these 3D print technologies to industry. But it was communities on the internet that brought 3D printing to such a state of accessibility and awareness as it is today.

The hype aside, the technology becomes part of our culture. This in the sense that it allows us to think about manufacturing in a new way. How we convert our ideas into something more tangible and functional. It brings manufacturing a step closer to us with less reliance on a centralized system elsewhere. It customizes what we want and the way that we want it.

There are many 3D printing techniques in existence. Not just one. But the Fused Deposition Modeling technique (FDM) was probably the most responsible in forming the entry point for this revolution. At least a good part of it. It’s not the best 3D printing technique. There is no such thing as best. What is best depends on how well something fits an application.

The working materials for the FDM process are widely available, inexpensive and the resulting prints can be durable with little to no post-processing. The concept and workings of the FDM process also require only a simple, relatively low-cost design setup to get started. Together these factors imply accessibility. Accessibility for all. That sparked a conversation which grew bigger and bigger. This formed large communities, developing the technology and, most of all, building awareness. A viral marketing process emerged. One that continues to grow.

But what’s next? What could we expect to be the next evolutionary phase in desktop 3D printers?

There are several candidates to choose from. Some of the most popular include Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) which uses sheets of material and SLS type techniques that use powders.

Each technique has its own merit and limitations. But if the recent past tells us something about the near future then Stereo Lithography (SLA) would seem to be the choice. At least, it seems to be the best fit.

Stereo Lithography for home and even small business use? This would be hard to imagine 15 years ago and it would have been met with a lot skepticism. But don’t get me wrong. The historic SLA process, patented in the late 80s, formed the foundation of 3D printing as we know it today. The technique has gone through a long process of development and it has some serious merit to offer.

But, traditionally, the technique also had some serious limitations as a desktop or home use device. Apart from the printing device itself, probably the most apparent is that it relies on photo-cure resins to build 3D models.

The process is sound, it works. In fact, it works very well. But the resins involved are typically toxic, messy and costly with limited shelve life. All in all, too cumbersome, complex and costly for many let alone the average consumer.

But recent changes in design approaches and, in particular, the resins involved are making a difference. The development and diversity of photo cure resins and suppliers are creating a better fit for this process on our desktop.

More of us are now more aware of what’s involved in 3D printing. What it can do, what it can’t do and how it should be done. The collective view of 3D printing is becoming more realistic and tangible as the hype debris settles and our experience grows.

More on the past, present and possible future of 3D printing.

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Personal: Multi-cultural background. Professional: Technology and Business. Activities and Interests: Business, Philosophy, Culture, Technology, Projects, Passions

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