3D printers present users with lots of possibilities, making them a technology darling in the past few years. Are they answer to fixing your broken appliances? 3D printing expert Dr. Mike Vasquez explores…
As an expert in the field of 3D printing, I have seen the users of the technology evolve from just skilled engineers to include the average Joe and Jane tinkering with a Makerbot in their garage.
Why so much hype and excitement about 3D printing? There are several reasons, but the main attraction is that the technology enables users to create highly complex shapes, something that wasn’t possible before and offers exciting opportunities for design and innovation.
Commercial and consumer opportunities
For companies, this technology continues to be attractive for research and development, production and to eliminate the need to create molds or tooling. As a result, it can save companies thousands of pounds and weeks of lead-time during the product design phase. This makes it highly attractive for prototyping and other small-scale manufacturing needs.
But the technology is also expanding to become of interest to the mainstream population. The expiration of key patents for material extrusion and some stereolithography technologies has resulted in a wave of machines that are much lower cost than their industrial counterparts. This has enabled people to bring the tech into their homes. As access to the technology expands, some hypothesise that people will soon be able to use their consumer-grade printers to fix broken appliances or parts in their home…
3D printing spare parts
Let’s dig a bit deeper to try and better understand where the technology is today and whether you’ll be able to use them to fix broken parts.
For consumer 3D printers, there remain a lot of inconsistencies that some of their more expensive cousins do not present. As I talk to clients in my consulting business, there are four key considerations I suggest to think about when purchasing these table-top machines.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say that you want to print a replacement part for your refrigerator:
Design: In order to 3D print the part for your fridge, you’ll need a digital design. There are two ways to get that – either contact the original manufacturer to get a 3D file (which they may or may not provide) or recreate the part yourself, which requires using 3D design software to create the part from scratch.
Materials: Once you create or obtain the 3D digital design file, the next hurdle is selecting the appropriate material. Different materials will offer different properties (in the case of your refrigerator part, for instance, ability to withstand cooler temperatures may be a requirement), so it’s important to select and use the right one. Many home printers only allow for a limited number of materials to be used, which can be a challenging limitation.
Machine: It is true that 3D printers are evolving, but for low-cost printers especially there can be issues with setup, operation and repeatability. The quality can vary widely and the mechanical properties often do not match those achieved in traditional manufacturing or using a high-end 3D Printing machine.
Finish: The layer upon layer manufacturing process used by 3D printing results in small voids within and between layers. These voids contribute to lower mechanical properties but also less smooth surface appearance, and may require you do some ‘post-production’ work to clean up your part before using it.
Clearly, there are some limitations with the current technology, but these are opportunities for innovative tech companies to disrupt the status quo in the industry. Given the focus and interest in developing this technology, the industry is likely to advance significantly in the next few years. For those contemplating how to integrate the technology today, understanding the constraints will ensure you make smart decisions when it comes to 3D printing.
Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Dr. Mike Vasquez, founder of 3D Printing Reports. All opinions expressed here are Mike’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.