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Thursday, June 2, 2011

3d Printing: A Shed for the 21st Century, part 1

3d printers have been around for a while but up till recently have been used mainly for rapid prototyping . This is a commercial, industrial process used to make one off or small sets of parts for which tooling will later exist. The tooling itself is expensive but the rapid prototypes have been relatively inexpensive and made by specialist rapid prototyping houses like Formero . Rapid prototypes are a way of completely evaluating a part and averting the disaster of a badly or wrongly made tool. So that was it for quite a while, at least for most of my career as an engineer. But now the genie is slowly coming out of the bottle.

Whereas previously rapid prototypes were relatively inexpensive, we are now coming in to an age where 3d printers (the things that make the prototypes or parts) are relatively inexpensive. Costs have come down from upwards of $20,000 a few years ago to below $1000 today. An industry that did not exist a few years ago (home 3d printing) is starting to thrive today. If the costs of 3d printers come down at the same rate as the cost of (say) laser printers then we will all have one in our house in 10 years. I attended a seminar on 3d printers today and as one industry player put it: "kids will print out some game tokens on a 3d printer, play games with them all day, and then eat them." The good thing about inexpensive 3d printers is that the mobs that sell them are not the big guys, and some of the ones in production now were built and started in garages. See A very new and good looking product is the Ultimaker.

About 20 years ago, "desktop publishing" was something quite special and carried with it the notion that we could print 1 or 100 of a printed page at home - and previously this had been the domain of large offices and professional printers. Now many of us just have computers and printers and we do stuff with them. And eventually 3d printing will come to be the same, just a commonplace.

So why the title for this blog post? 3d printers fit inside a modern house or bedroom or flat which may not have a real shed or even space for one. They are capable of making almost any small object that can be designed in 3d cad: personalized gifts a specialty! The skills needed to use them are computer skills which kids these days are more likely to develop than traditional shed skills like welding, brazing, lathe work etc. And so we have making stuff, in a small space, and people will know how to do it. A shed for the 21st Century.

More to come in this series. A commentary on the PAMF 3d printing / additive manufacturing conference is next.

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