/ Technology

3D printing – the future of spare parts

Makerbot Replicator machine

One day we’ll all have a 3D printer in our homes. And if not in our homes, they’ll be somewhere on the high street printing toys, kitchen implements, spare parts and anything else you can imagine. That’s my prediction.

In fact, my big 2012 prediction was that 3D printers would become a more viable and affordable purchase for consumers.

It’s a prediction I bounded along to the Which? Tech podcast with, but was left coiling in embarrassment after apparently picking something that was too ‘out there’.

I changed my prediction to something safe and obtuse (you can find out what that was by listening to the Which? Tech podcast), but I’m now starting to feel slightly vindicated.

3D printers at CES 2012

At last week’s CES 2012, two 3D printers made their debut. And although their prices are way out of most people’s reach (from £850 to £1150), they were at least debuting at the Consumer Electronics Show.

So what’s a 3D printer? Paper and ink isn’t involved in any way, so you can forget about automatic origami folding. Instead, 3D printers can use any number of liquid materials (plastic/clay/glass/metal) to build up layers that then dry to form a solid object.

They’ve been around for years, but they’ve only just started to become more affordable, meaning more companies are beginning to experiment with them. Most importantly, they’re now being offered to you and me.

Both of the 3D printers at CES – Makerbot Industries’ Replicator and 3D Systems’ Cube – use plastic. This is fed into the machines, melted and then fed into a print head which draws the object layer by layer.

The most obvious application is in creating toys for your kids, whether it’s a train, chess set or the bunny pictured. But, in theory, it could print anything (up to a certain size) that would normally be made out of plastic.

Run out of curtain hooks? Just print some. In fact, Which?’s Ben Stevens checked out the Replicator at CES in Las Vegas and saw a hat being made, though he was reticent to wear it.

All you need to do is create the design using free online software, which is then transferred to the 3D printer with a memory card. And if you’re not up to that, you can simply download other people’s designs from vast online libraries. 3D Systems’ Cube can even utilise Microsoft Kinect camera to scan your face and then recreate it in plastic.

Printing spare parts

However, I see the most useful aspect of this technology being the ability to print spare parts.

If you’ve broken the door on your 20-year-old or so washing machine, and its manufacturer doesn’t produce parts for this particular model anymore, you could print it off yourself as long as you have the original designs. And if you can’t afford your own 3D printer, I can envisage 3D printing shops appearing up and down our high streets.

Makerbot’s chief executive, Bre Pettis, has an even more radical vision, telling the BBC:

‘We’re delivering on that dream of the future where you can have anything you want – you can download it on the internet and just have it manufactured in your house. It’s my hope that if an apocalypse happens people will be ready with Makerbots, building the things they can’t buy in stores. So we’re not just selling a product, we are changing the future.’

Perhaps he’s being a little hyperbolic, but I can certainly see a big future for 3D printers. One day they could be as commonplace as the old-fashioned paper and ink printers that are currently in all of our homes. What would make you buy a 3D printer?


My crystal ball suggests that 3D printers will be affordable but the plastic will be very expensive and the manufacturers will contrive to find ways to prevent us from using anything other than their own plastic.

To be serious, plastics used in home appliances and other equipment varies according to application, so this could be a specialist tool rather than something used in the home.


Hi Wavechange, it’s early days for these printers and the two at CES did use solely plastic. However, these printers could in the future (and already are) mix materials – ie. metal and plastic.

How about printing your own coffee mugs? 3D glazed ceramic printing already exists – all you have to do is put in the design: http://www.shapeways.com/blog/archives/1050-3D-Printed-Glazed-Ceramics-Are-Back.html

I think for future applications it’s best to forget about the particular materials, as multiple materials are already being used.


Sorry for being dismissive, Patrick. I will get back to defending CFLs straight away. 🙂

It would be interesting to see some real examples of items produced by users who do not have any expertise in 3D printing.


The spools of plastic cost about $50 each, and they weigh around 1Kg – so you’d get plenty of curtain hooks for that investment.

The material felt quite brittle, but we dropped a lidded box from a height of around 1.5 metres and after bouncing once we picked it up perfectly in tact.

I was really impressed with the Replicator. Joint product of the show for me alongside the Canon G1 X.


Thanks Ben. It certainly sounds like a lot of fun and perhaps more suited to use in schools than the home.


I’m not sure I can see this taking off in its current form, though I do wish the technology every success. I’ve seen plastic printed items and in fairness they often (though not always) look rough and simple – nothing at present can beat injection moulding for uniformity, cost efficiency and quality. At any rate the printed materials would still need some kind of finishing to make them look attractive and I’d be very interested to see the fail rate of the plastics, especially if used in high stress applications (Curtain hooks for instance!). Also how would printing your own parts for appliances work – would this invalidate the warranty? Would “fake” parts flood the market? As Wavechange highlights some manufacturers may well take us down the road normal printer manufacturers have in the past 10 years by making exclusive inks etc. I think it poses some very interesting consumer rights questions!


These 3D printers look great. From an arts and crafts perspective they’re brilliant. Handy if you need the result to be accurate and replicable, although I admit you risk losing the uniqueness of a hand crafted piece.

I’d expect the useful applications of the technology for creating spare parts to be limited if the printer is only compatible with certain polymers, or because the ‘print’ is built up in layers – surely that would have an impact on the strength of the printed piece and rule out printing certain load bearing parts.


I agree Katie and Scott, but did not want to get into polymer science. I would be interested to know which polymers, plasticisers and fillers are used in the plastic, and whether I would need to wear respiratory protection from toxic fumes. Making spare parts could be difficult if the original is broken.

Anon the mouse says:
16 January 2012

Try looking up Reprap (replicating rapid prototyper), these were started with the goal of being able to create the parts needed to reproduce themselves.
I check on them every few months, but I’m not sure if they have managed to create all the parts yet. I know that they have used one machine to make parts to fix another.

General wikipedia info. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RepRap_Project
Project homepage. http://reprap.org/wiki/Main_Page
How to build your own. http://reprap.org/wiki/Mendel_Build_Manual

Anon the mouse says:
16 January 2012

Almost forgot,

That makerbot CEO sounds like he has read Cory Doctorows book, Makers. Pretty much sums up half the plot in 2 paragraphs.


Thanks Anon the mouse for these links. I have read enough to believe that the plastic components made by 3D printing could be useful but not suitable where much strength is needed. Definitely not suitable to make a replacement for the door catch on my 30 year old washing machine.

I am still worried by toxic fumes from heated plastic but that’s nothing compared with creating mouldings in Woods metal, which is one of the low melting point alloys that can be used for 3D printing. Woods metal contains lead and cadmium, so is not the nicest material to work with, though there is no problem for use in laboratories or other environments where it can be used in a safe way.

For art and craft use it should be possible to use plastics that produce no toxic fumes when heated, and that seems the best way to take the concept forward. Bring it on, but not too much hype please.


There was quite a good piece on this type of technology on BBC Click some time last summer.

Perhaps I could make a 3D telly that I will never watch……

PeterW says:
18 January 2012

The toy and craft applications seem likely to happen – if costs get low enough – but I am less inclined to think that printing spare parts for old domestic appliances lies just around the corner:

Is it likely that the appliance manufacturer would be willing to release the technical drawings and specifications for the part that has failed? If still in business, they’d surely prefer to sell you a complete replacement appliance.

How would a 3D printer be able to match the specific structural properties of the particular metals or plastics used in the old part that has failed? And

Who would be liable for accidents or damage caused by failed replacement parts?


PeterW raises some interesting points. I agree that manufacturers would be unwilling to hand over plans and drawings for parts that they could sell themselves. I also saw the BBC programme last year on 3D printers, and I seem to remember the object(s) made were facsimiles of existing objects and not from drawings. If this is the case, a broken door handle could be made by simply glueing the pieces together and instructing the ‘printer’ to make another one.

Walk to the Light says:
20 January 2012

@Wavechange, I think you mean “I would like to see items produced by normal people without 3D CAD (computer aided design skills)”.
Putting aside the creative process for a moment, there technical criteria that a object designer needs to contend with, such as wall thicknesses and manifold joins etc……

In principle printing in 3D should be no different than printing in 2D, in both cases you can with (requisite skill) create something to print and then submit it to printing. In that same way that most people can use word processors to create letters and signs etc, but it doesn’t mean to say they are going to write the next Blockbuster Novel. Alternatively, someone could sell or give you a file and you could print it on a 3D printer in the office or local “print shop” (e.g. like the photographic chain shops on the high street)

Now, clearly at present the technology isn’t yet at this level of maturity but it will come. In the same way we have moved from old slow noisy clunky ‘dot matrix’ printer to hi quality colour printers than can reproduce photographs or magazines etc. On the subject of photography, this used to be a complex process with chemicals, equipment and specific skills, now you can print photos in the home with virtually no skill… (not to mention the cost of buying the original films) this shift has contributed to Kodak going from from having a solid business for over a 100 years to virtually nothing as technology and social media have change the face of how we take and exchange images and experiences,

@ Kaite Waller – As for the skill of a crafts person, this is not in the skill of the 3D modeller, ok one produced it can be reprinted easily (but these could be limited edition, or customised from a core design) If you look on Shapeways you will see all manner of interesting jewellery and sculptural designs as well as the hobby/Craft items. This isn’t just about print in plastics, you can print in metals and ceramics. With this change in technology the skill moves from working with traditional mediums of wood or metals to digital, this echoes the debate from the 80s of the music scene or the 90s of the film world…
It actually enables people who are rubbish with their hands to create new and imaginative objects based upon there conceptual and visualisation skills using 3D models.

Also, in the same way that you can get ‘public domain’ or ‘shareware’ software there would be a community of people willing to exchange files for free, this already exists in the 3D modelling world for Flight Simulators and other Games etc.

I think there could be someway to go before we are printing replacement parts for appliances at home, again this could managed by “authorised dealers” holding a library of design files and printing them on “industrial scale” printers – no more having to wait for the parts to be shipped from Italy or the USA?

Adie says:
20 January 2012

Don’t bother, the resolution, will be poor, you will get ‘layer-stepping’ you need decent 3d software to design your parts in the first place (solidworks, et al) Believe me these are a toy.


You say this is a toy, Adie, and I’m inclined to agree. But adults need creative toys. Many adults use X-boxes and Playstations rather than doing anything useful or creative with their spare time. I don’t see much opportunity to make any decent spare parts with this technology but there is plenty of scope for creative use.

Vin Everett says:
20 January 2012

3D printing will be fantastic for product prototyping, in addition it will offer limited production runs in countries that do not have access to injection molding systems where the mold is expensive.

They will not however overtake injection molding for volume, its mostly going to be for cheap accessible design. Think what cutting your own CDs did to the music industry, now think of what you could do at home for anything made out of plastic!


Oh dear, Adie. These are similar to the arguments put forward by Eastman Kodak back in the 70s when they invented the digital camera. Poor resolution, heavy electronic apparatus to carry around, batteries on trolleys, as opposed to lightweight ‘throw away ‘ cameras, pocketable films, cheap and easy developing and printing. I was employed by Kodak UK at the time and heard it all!! look at where that thinking has got them today.

Andrew says:
20 January 2012

I can’t comment on the particular 3-D printers shown at CES, but I can report that I have seen components made by this process with astonishingly good surface finish – I had to use a magnifying lens to see the layers. Where did I see these? At a talk by an engineer from McLaren. I have no hesitation in accepting that components of appropriate strength can readily be made by this process for most domestic applications. What will make me either buy one – or buy time on one – is the need to create replacement parts for one of my classic sports cars – like the little plastic widget in a traffic indicator switch that breaks and renders the whole thing useless. I agree with an earlier comment, though, that the ability to ‘scan’ a broken-but-glued-together component is key to lay usage.

June says:
20 January 2012

Just ‘printing’ a replacement part doesn’t mean it will be possible for anyone without the required skill to fit it into the proper place.
I can see a use for such technology in arts and crafts, but not (yet, if ever) for more mundane uses.

becky says:
20 January 2012

Initially I thought this would be the death knell for manufacturing for some countries who rely on it as a source of income. But then I thought well printers and ink have not killed pen and pencil. Things do survive.

On a similar note, on the link I give below there is a 3D printer shown to produce glass objects purely from sand and solar energy. This can have an excellent input in third world countries to provide cups, plates and even pipes to supply water.


Charles McG says:
21 January 2012

Last year I came across a chap using two teaching “how it works” type 3D printers making filters for airport bird scarers in central Asia, he was doiing well, low enough volume that it wasn’t worth having them made in Asia, where was he… In a lock up in Cumbria!


Bre Pettis, the apocalypse might happen, but don’t you think i’d rather save my electricity for something else? maybe if they come out with solar 3d printers. that’d be awesome. then i can print away making my own power grid. yeah.


It’s funny you should say that Adam. Such a machine exists, using the sun to turn sand into 3D printed glass:


To show that 3D printing will be a revolution. Here is a 3D printed heart made of gears… kind of shows how this could work for moving parts. Bit late for Valentine’s Day, but still:


Right, if this isn’t the future I don’t know what is. A museum is going to make some of its pieces available for people to print at home on 3D printers – so you can have these items, to scale, from their collection. That, I think, is incredible: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13772_3-57384166-52/smithsonian-turns-to-3d-to-bring-collection-to-the-world/


This could lead to immortality. All we need to do is 3D print ourselves in our 20s (too late for me) and when we get to our mid 50s, voila, there we are back in our 20s. Much simpler that cloning! Seriously, Patrick, this is incredible.


Problem is, we’d be made out of plastic/metal/glass etc… so a robot version of yourself might be possible 🙂


The 3D printers available for home use are, in my opinion, best regarded as toys because they can only use one or two types of plastic to make crude objects. There’s nothing I would want to make with such 3D printers.

Fortunately it is easy to get access to 3D printers that can do interesting and useful things in a wide range of materials. Example materials include paper (optionally coloured with an ink-jet printer), brass, gold, steel, silver, ceramic, aluminide, titanium, wax, and I’m sure there are others. In addition, foundries can also make objects cut by laser from materials including card, felt, wood, MDF, bamboo, rubber.

Such materials are already being used to create very diverse items including jewellery and functional rocket motors.

All those materials are available at a fraction of the price of buying a 3D printer for the home. All you do is create the 3D model on your home computer using whatever software is convenient for your object. Next you use the WWW to find a foundry, send them the CAD file, check the price, pay by credit/debit card and wait for your creation to be delivered – typically in between 1 to 3 weeks, depending on the price.

C Landymore says:
20 July 2014

A small plastic part I needed for my bread-maker was obsolete so I had no way of fixing the machine which would have had to be thrown out so I was really excited to find a company in The States who could supply the part in metal using 3D printing. I received the part in the post this week and it works perfectly. What a brilliant way to reverse our throwaway society and save money. Bring on the new technology; I hope we won’t have to wait too long for this service in the UK.