Cheap 3D Printer Technology Heralding The New Age Of Commerce
3D printing is one of the biggest technology inventions of the last century. Some people call it the next big age in technology. Others see it as an ecommerce game changer. Doctors and medical experts call it a medical breakthrough. The affordability of a cheap 3d printer herald what many say to be the third industrial revolution. Whatever you call it, there is no doubting that this is a watershed moment for humanity and the world. The effects many not seem big right now, but decades down the line 3D printing will have changed the world.
What is 3d Printing?
An inkjet printer sprays ink onto a paper to create letters and images. A laser printer users advanced technology based on static electricity to melt fine powder (toner) onto paper and create neat words and pictures. These and many other forms of traditional printing that we are so familiar with are referred to as 2D printing.
But what if, instead of printing an image of a toy car on paper, you could print out an actual toy car that you can hold? This is the essence of 3D printing; creating or synthesizing three-dimensional objects with the aid of a computer.
You can create numerous objects using 3D printing including small-scale models of buildings, LEGO blocks, water guns, edible food, prosthetics and even human tissue. In other words, you can print the world you see around you. This limitless potential is the reason that 3D printing is often termed as a world-changing technology.
The below infographic by 3dprintingindustry.com provides a nice overview of the 3d printing essentials.
A Brief History Of 3D Printing
The relatively young 3d printing technology itself goes back a few decades ago to the 1980s.
The first published case of a 3D printed model was by Japan’s Hideo Kodama in 1981. In 1984, the first 3D printing model was filed and the first prototype system was developed.
In the 2000s, 3-dimensional printing rapidly grew in recognition. By 2010, the term “3D printing” had largely become the default vocabulary for describing this new form of manufacturing. At this point, 3D printing had become a full-fledged industry. It’s not just big companies and industries that were involved, at-home consumers were also starting to use the technology.
Fast forward to 2016 and 3D printing is all anyone can keep talking about. The technology is still in its young stages but growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 2013, the industry was estimated at three billion dollars in total revenue. This is expected to grow to almost thirteen billion dollars in the next two years and more than twenty one billion dollars in the next five years.
But the most interesting but about this development is the democratization of 3D printing. Everyone, from large factories to the hobbyist at home, will have access to a cheap 3D printer. This will come about as a result of an improvement in technology and lowering of prices. In fact, it is already happening with some 3D printers costing as low as $200.
A common term you will encounter when reading up on 3D printing is additive manufacturing. This is simply another phrase used to describe the process of creating 3-dimensional objects through 3D printing. The word “additive” describes how the printing process works.
While there are various 3D printing technologies, they all work on the basis of stacking or adding many layers together until a 3D object is formed. Basically, it is an additive method of manufacturing, hence the term additive manufacturing.
But which machine does the actual printing? As you might have guessed, it is a 3D printer.
How a 3D Printer Works
The technology behind a 3D printer is quite complicated and various technologies are applied depending on the printer. But as explained before, all 3D printers create objects through an additive process. This means that layer after layer is added until the object is complete.
But the work of 3D printing does not begin at the printer, it starts at the computer with a design. Here are the steps from a digital file to a solid printed object.
1. A digital design
A computer aided design (CAD) file is the first step in the printing process. A CAD can be created using 3D modeling software or it can be developed from scanning a real object to create a virtual copy.
3D scanners employ complex technologies such as volumetric scanning and modulated light. They range from large industrial ones to small home use scanners that cost less than $100. In the near future, 3D scanning will be available to almost anyone. Even Smartphones will come with 3D scanning capability built in.
Once you have a virtual design ready, all you need now is a good 3D printer and 3D printing software.
2. 3D printing software
To turn your design into a 3D object, you need 3D printing software. Some software programs can cost thousands of dollars in yearly license fees. These are used mostly by large businesses and professionals. For hobbyists, there are cheaper software you can use. You can also use free open source software though you may not get the same level of functionality as you would get with paid software.
We are going to discuss 3D printing software in more detail later on, including what options are available for both hobbyists and professionals.
3. 3D Modeling software
Before you can print out your design, it needs to be made print-ready. The design has to be in a format that the printer can understand and turn into an object. We have already mentioned additive manufacturing and how it involves stacking layers to create an object. To print a virtual model, you have to split it into individual layers that can be printed and stacked onto each other. The process is called slicing and is done using 3D modeling software.
Depending on the size of the object, individual slices could number in the hundreds or thousands. Once ready, the sliced 3D model is fed into a 3D printer, ready for printing.
The virtual model, now sliced, can be uploaded to the 3D printer in various ways depending on the type of printer. With most 3D printers, you can upload via USB, SD card or wirelessly through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Every slice of the virtual model is like a 2D image that the printer reads and prints. All these 2D images are printed and stacked together to create the eventual 3D object. 3D printing software on a computer controls the printing process, ensuring the end result is exactly as the virtual model.
What Do You Need For 3D Printing?
There are three main essentials you need before you can begin printing out solid objects. These essentials are a good virtual design or model, the right software, the right printing materials and of course the printer itself.
In this section on 3D printing essentials, we are going to focus on software and materials.
1. 3D printing software
The most important parts of 3D printing happen within the computer. This is where you design a printable model and then slice it to prepare it for the printer. All this work is done using different software. While the best software tend to be expensive and targeted toward professionals, lately there has been an increase in free and low-cost software options as 3D printing has gotten more popular.
Below, we feature the top 5 3D printing software and describe what you can accomplish with each.
Blender is a free open-source software used in the design and creation of 3D graphics and models. The platform is targeted towards intermediate and advanced users who already possess basic knowledge on 3D modeling and printing. As such, beginners will find the learning curve to be quite steep.
Fortunately, there is a large thriving community to support upcoming users with tips and guides. You can also find a wide range of tutorials covering everything you would want to know about 3D printing using Blender. With dedication, you could be making 3D objects such as nameplates, figurines and even chess pieces within no time. The best part about it is that it is all free and can work with Linux, Windows and OS X.
This is another ultra popular 3D modeling software. Unlike Blender, SketchUp is friendlier toward beginners with plenty of help on hand to help them step up their skills rapidly. Another difference between the two popular platforms is that SketchUp does not provide everything free of charge. There is a free version for beginners who are just learning the ropes and a paid version (SketchUp Pro) for those who would like to do more serious work in 3D modeling and printing.
Once owned by Google, SketchUp is now used by a wide variety of professionals including architects, engineers, interior designers and video game makers. As 3D printing has gotten more common, SketchUp has become one of the favorite tools to create 3D designs ready for printing.
In addition to general purpose 3D modeling and printing software, there are niche programs designed to cater to a specific part of the 3D design and printing process. MeshLab is one of the best examples of such software. It was designed purposefully for the repair and editing of 3D models.
Once you have your 3D model but it still needs some work to become perfect, MeshLab is the perfect platform for you. Here you can delete aspects of your model, combine two models into a single one and repair holes and defects in an existing 3D model.
Essentially, it is the repair shop for 3D modeling. It comes in handy when you want to prepare an STL file for 3D printing. While beginners might not see the need for it, professional designers will find it indispensable in their work.
You cannot just feed a 3D model into a 3D printer without converting it into a mode the printer can understand. The crucial step before printing is called slicing, which we have already mentioned. The 3D model is cut into horizontal slices that will be printed individually. One of the best niche tools for this work is Slic3r.
Slic3r essentially converts 3D models into a language or instructions that your 3D printer can easily understand. The software is available for Linux, PC and Mac computers.
When it was launched in 2011, Slic3r was designed as an open-source platform and remains so even today. So if you are looking for free software to prepare your 3D models for the printer, Slic3r comes highly recommended.
This is another very popular 3D design tool. It is free and is one of the easiest 3D design tools around, making it perfect for beginners. Added to the platform are tutorials and lessons for those learning the ropes. You will learn how to start with simple models and tinker around with them until you create a virtual 3D object that you can print. You can even create models in 2D and then convert them to 3D.
While TinkerCAD is great for beginners, it lacks the powerful features of Blender and other advanced design tools. As you become better, you might feel the need to switch over to a more powerful platform.
2. 3D Printing Materials
For traditional printing, paper is the primary material used. When it comes to 3D printing, things get much more advanced. Remember that 3D printing is essentially a manufacturing process, hence the name additive manufacturing. So some of the materials used in a factory will also be used by a 3D printer to print out 3D objects.
The type of material used depends on many factors. One of the biggest factor is the intended use of the object. For instance, dental 3D printing will make use of different materials compared to 3D printing in the aerospace industry.
As 3D printing has developed, technological advancement has enabled the use of many more materials than was previously possible. Today, various materials can be used for different types of printing. They include steel, plastics, nylon, resin, gold, silver and steel among others. These materials come in various forms including pellets, liquid, powder or granules.
Below, we look at some of the most commonly used 3D printing materials.
3d Printing Metals
Metals are mostly used for industrial-level 3D printing for instance in the aerospace and automotive industries. Stainless steel is especially popular as a 3D printing material and can be used to make anything from small machinery parts to small-scale models of larger objects and structures.
Another favorite metal for industrial 3D printing is titanium. Its popularity stems from its immense strength. Aluminum and cobalt are also common. 3D printing is also used in creating jewelry, where valuable metals such as gold and silver are used.
Most metals used in 3D printing come in powder form.
3d Printing Plastics
There are two main types of plastics used in 3D printing; Nylon and Polymers. Because of its strength and flexibility, plastic has become one of the most commonly used 3D printing materials both in industrial and non-industrial applications. These materials come in either powder or plastic form. They can be used to print a wide variety of objects.
Other types of plastic used in 3D printing include PLA (a form of biodegradable plastic), LayWood (a mixture of plastic and wood) and ABS (one of the strongest plastics). Others include rubber-like plastic, rigid opaque plastic, fiber-reinforced nylon and SLS nylon. The plastic you use will depend on what you are making. If you desire some elasticity, go for rubber-like plastic. If you want something as strong as aluminum but still plastic, go for fiber-reinforced nylon.
Plastics are some of the most affordable 3D printing materials, making them perfect for beginners who simply want to experiment. They are also great for casual 3D printing hobbyists.
Ceramics have only entered the 3D printing industry recently, meaning they are still not very commonly used. Ceramics tend to provide more challenges in 3D printing compared to materials such as plastic. For instance, ceramic is more rigid and delicate in handling, making it much harder to produce a good-looking object.
After printing, they still need to undergo the firing and glazing process used in factories. This is one major reason why ceramics are still not the industry favorite.
High Detail Resin
Resin is mostly used in the production of sculptures and objects with intricate designs, ultra fine details and a smooth finish. It is popular in printing art and jewelry but is not recommended for large models or objects that will be exposed to UV light.
The use of biomaterials for printing is one of the most intensive areas of research currently. With interest in creating artificial body organs at an all time high, experts are looking into ways they can 3D print organs such as the heart, kidneys, skin and prosthetics.
Biomaterials usually consists of materials such as polymers or ceramics mixed with biological materials such as living cells or small bits of living tissue. When perfected, the art of bio printing could have an enormous impact on the medical industry. There would no longer be a shortage of transplant, prosthetics would become much easier to produce and it will become easier to create highly customized patient products such as dental crowns and hip replacements.
Yes, actual food can be used in 3D printing. For now, chocolate is the most commonly used food material though there is ongoing research into the production of other foods such as sugar and meat. In the near future, 3D printers could very well be printing our foods.
Buying a 3D Printer
So you want to own a 3D printer and get into the thick of this novel technology. The good news is that 3D printers have rapidly come down in cost and you have a much bigger variety to choose from than a few years ago. In this section, we discuss the pricing and a few other tips to help you own a 3D printer. We also look at the possibility of creating your own DIY 3D printer.
3D Printer Prices
When they first came out, 3D printers were the most exciting tech gadgets around. But the hefty price tag kept them out of most people’s reach. Things have changed a lot since then. A combination of factors has led to a drastic price drop. Today, hobbyist printers range from $1,000 for the expensive ones to $100 for something super basic.
For professional work, expect to pay several thousand dollars for a powerful 3D printer. If you are looking for an industrial grade 3D printer, be ready to spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on a good printer and associated accessories.
Where to Get a Cheap 3D Printer
Essentially anywhere where they sell 3D printers. A few years ago, this question would have necessitated a lot of research as you look for an affordable 3D printer. These days, cheap printers are all over the place. Go over to Amazon and you will find good 3D printers costing from $200 to $300. For something with more functionality, you will spend from $700 to $900 or more. Go to eBay and people are selling new and used 3D printers in all price ranges.
Thanks to 3D quickly catching on, you do not have to search very hard to find a good cheap 3D printer today.
Things to Look for in a 3D Printer for Sale
If you are like most people, you are an amateur in 3D printing. Buying a 3D printer can therefore be a bit terrifying especially if you are spending a bundle. The first step is to do a lot of research. Get to know the basics of a 3D printer, how they work and the different types that are out there.
Then read up on specific brands and models. Here, 3D printer reviews will come in handy. See what experts and users are saying about various products. The aim is to find a 3D printer that fits your needs, skill level and budget.
Here are a few tips to remember.
Know the different types
3D printers are classified depending on how they function. For example, there are Stereolithography printers that use a UV beam to harden a photosensitive liquid. There are FDM (fused deposition modeling) printers that first heat plastic before creating the object layer by layer. There are SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) printers that use the Stereolithography but instead utilize a laser beam and powder to print objects.
FDM printers will usually be the cheapest while SLS printers tend to be expensive.
Know your materials
We have already looked at the different materials used in 3D printing. When shopping around for a 3D printer, check whether a specific model can be used with any material. Some 3D printers work with specific materials while others allow for more flexibility in the materials you use for printing.
There are several safety issues to be aware of when doing 3D printing. For one, there is heat especially with FDM printers. It is recommended that you get a printer with an enclosure around the printing area. Secondly, there might be some fumes emitted. Work in a well ventilated room. Third, if you are printing food-related objects such as plates and cups, be sure that the printer is rated as food-safe.
Print resolution and speed
A good idea is to look for examples of products made with a certain printer before buying it. You can easily get photos online. Look at the object to determine the quality of the printer. Two issues are especially relevant when you are talking about printer quality.
The first is print resolution. How detailed can the printer get? This is measured in microns. The more detailed the better the printing quality. The second is print speed. Find something that has decent printing speed. You do not want to spend hours printing a small object.
Check how popular a specific model is before buying. If there is no one using it, that could indicate a problem with it. One advantage of a large community of existing users is that you can get plenty of advice and tips for using the printer.
The Best 3D Printer for Your Money
3. The Buccaneer 3D Printer
For $700, this 3D printer takes the complexity out of 3D printing. It is perfect for anyone who want to dabble in 3D printing without doing anything professional.
It is Wi-Fi enabled meaning no need for messy wires. It comes with an iOS and Android app that you can use to select a model, modify it then send it to the printer.
2. RoBo 3D
The RoBo 3D printer starts at $800 though you can add on other accessories for an added cost. The printer comes out of the box ready for use, without you having to fiddle around with anything during setup. One unique feature about it is the strawberry-smelling filament it uses. So when you are printing, the room smells of strawberry. Certainly better than some nauseating plastic fumes smell.
1. BCN3D Sigma
This is frequently referred to as the best printer of 2016. It comes with excellent print quality, easy setup and use and dual extrusion. On the downside, it lack wireless activity, is a bit noisy and is quite bulky. It is also quite pricey with the cost well over $2,000. But for users who desire a quality machine, whether for professional or hobbyist purposes, the BCN3D Sigma comes highly recommended.
These three barely cover the dozens of options available in the market. Do not be afraid to seek out even more printers. Compare among various models until you find one that suits you perfectly.
DIY 3D Printer
If you are more adventurous and love tinkering around with gadgets, make a DIY cheap 3D printer your next project. While you can get cheap 3D printers, there are benefits to assembling your own printer. You get to understand how they work and the learning process is much more fulfilling than if you just bought a ready-to-go printer.
What you need to make your own printer is a kit. The kit will come will all the materials and parts you will need to assemble your own device. If you have the money, you can spend thousands of dollars for an expensive kit. But if you are just starting out and are just looking to experiment, try cheaper kits for under $500.
3D Printing – The Next Big Age In Technology
There is one trend overtaking the tech industry in recent years; that of personalizing technology. From electric cars to self-driving cars; from hand-held virtual reality devices to personal robots. Now, you can have your own factory at home with a cheap 3D Printer.
To say that the impact of 3D printing will be huge is to understate its effect. Like VR, robots and self-driving cars, 3D printing will literally change the world. Welcome to the future.
Do you think 3D printing is the world-changing technology it has been hyped up to be? Leave your comments below.