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3D printers: coming to a home near you?

Katie Waller and a 3D printer

3D printers got their own zone at CES in Las Vegas. And with new models on the horizon at lower prices, is a 3D printer worth owning, or just an expensive way of making your own cracker toys?

3D printers aren’t new, but the latest models announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this month are edging home 3D printers nearer to affordability.

MakerBot and 3D Systems – both established 3D printer makers – will have new models available this year that are expected to retail for less than £700.

The great thing about 3D System’s new Cube 3D printer is its ability to print in two colours – usually the stuff of more expensive models. But even though the cost is coming down, is there really any point in owning a 3D printer?

Cheap and cheerful 3D printers?

Of course, by ‘cheap’ we mean £700. And although that’s a lot of money, this cheapness can impact results. Although these entry-level 3D printers can be used to print existing designs, as well as your own creations, you won’t get a super-smooth finish. The plastic is laid down in layers that are clearly visible after it hardens. You’ll have to invest in a pricier 3D printer to get down to layer thicknesses closer to a smoother 20 microns.

Prints can also warp a bit at the bottom – entry level 3D printers don’t have a heated plate. The cooling rate of the plastic on the unheated print table can cause the edges to curl a bit.

That doesn’t sound like great news for the sub-£1000 printers, but some makers have really stepped up their game when it comes to the software they provide.

Makerbot has introduced its own online store that you can purchase designs from to print at home. 3D printer software is also getting smarter – many now automatically add support struts to stop your own print design toppling over during printing. Even Adobe has added a feature to its Adobe Photoshop CC software to add these struts to your design and avoid costly printing errors due to lack of ‘support’ for your print.

Are 3D printers actually useful?

The usefulness of 3D printers depends on your expectations. If you’re a designer, DIYer or artist you may well get some use out of a 3D printer. They’ve long been used for rapid prototyping as a quick way to see designs in three dimensions, make tweaks and reprint to hone the design.

However, we’re not in the realm of printing replacement parts yet. Materials you can print with are limited and printing in layers will affect strength – I certainly wouldn’t trust a home printer to turn out a strong enough part for my bike.

Bakers can start getting excited though, with the introduction of 3D Systems’ ChefJet confectionery printer. Watch a video of me trying out one of its creations:

So if you’ve dreamed of being Willy Wonka, maybe it’s time to stop dreaming and start printing.

Comments
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Guest

As you say, what are you going to do with it when you’ve got it? My guess is it will always be a niche market for domestic use, but high quality devices will appear in places like key-cutting shops for people to get one-off jobs made up.

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Guest

I would love to spend a day playing with a 3D printer, but a decent one rather than a toy.

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Guest

There are masses of uses for a 3-D printer but not one that takes three days to make an item! Let’s wait until they have been fully developed, at the moment, even key-cutting shops cannot use them.

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Guest

The other day I read that a surgeon had used a 3-D printer to fabricate a replacement joint. This seems to have enormous potential.