/ 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_Pa