/ 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?

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.