3D Printing… A revolution ?

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All analysts forecast an increase in the market of 3D printing with increases of 2 or even 3 digits numbers for the coming years. I think they are right, but it will not be the way it has often been presented : Every home will not have a 3D printer for at least several years (decades?) to come.

Many articles or TV shows have somewhat ‘inflated’ the technology…

I once saw a TV show that featured workpieces in printed metal (I think it was aerospace parts) and it was saying a few seconds later that we could have a printer for ourselves for less than € 2,000,  when one knows the price of an entrance ticket to a metal sintering printer, it makes you smile and wonder how they come up with this number.


3D printing has, in fact, very little interest to the consumers, except of course for some special ‘enlightened’ ones, super Do-It-Yourselvers or some very passionate people. I provide an example a little further in this article.
3D Printers FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) are the most economical and the simplest to implement, and they can be found for less than € 1,000.
In reality, unless you print Yodas, Gugusses, bracelets and other gadgets like, vases or pots… which you can download, it is not so easy to use a 3D printer.
It requires expertise in product design and CAD, print times are long and plastics materials are not always adequate, which renders some parts unserviceable in « real life » (for example, do not leave your super GPS support in PLA in your car during summer, as it will melt away).

An example of the possibilities of 3D printing by slightly adapting parts : One of our customers, a « private individual » passionate of model construction who takes a Pro approach (you will understand why I put this particular word in quotes).
Dominique bought us a SpiderBot. I was quite surprised because he took over the machine in a very pragmatic way. Above all, he sought to understand the technology, its possibilities and limitations. He was printing various types of parts, just to see how the material reacts. He spent hours to assimilate the material withdrawals, the minimum thicknesses that were possible (for its implementation), what play he had to put in its assemblages … He asked me several questions, all « enriching » and « sharp »!
And he did adapt his design to the limitations of technology, that’s far from a « private individual » approach !
Finally, one Saturday morning, he went to the office with pieces of a magnificent scale model of a plane minimised to a scale of 1.40m and printed in ABS with his Spiderbot.

We sympathized and exchanged experiences. In fact I found out he was not really a « private individual » but he had a great experience in plastic injection and in designing pieces.
He learned about this tool in a very Pro manner, he took the time to understand this technology and he adapted its design for this type of manufacturing.
Our customers are amazing! The whole plane will be printed in ABS : cabin, tail surfaces, wing … and it will fly for sure! I will make an article on his plane sometimes later… After it takes off!

FFF technology cannot do everything, for example, as much as it is easy to print a shell for an I-Phone 4 (flat bottom, vertical and right edges), it is not however that simple for all phones. If you find one that is already modelled on the Web, try printing a Samsung Galaxy S6 hull or an LG G4 one, and you’ll soon realize 3D printing FFF is far from magic.

What interest is it to you to also print Gugusse and Gadgets? Once the “Wow! it’s magic” effect has faded – unless you make a long post-processing and this is not always possible depending on the material used (PLA grinds very badly)- the parts are not as nice as they should be, we can see the layers, they are not always strong enough (especially if they have not been designed for 3D printing).
I don’t figure myself either offering my wife a printed plastic junk jewelry as seen on some video presentations.

The machines will improve, speeds and material will too, but I do not think in the short term, there will soon be a 3D printer in every home.

The « Wow” will soon fade away, whether this year or in 2016.

The Industry

However, for the industry, the revolution is definitely here!
The 3D printer is the new design office tool that has had the biggest impact and has most advanced the profession since the democratization of CAD in the 80s/90s years.
There… it’s magical ! If you take the time to understand the technology and to slightly adapt the design of your prototype workparts, all the superlatives that we have heard or read are correct.

The « Incremental Design »

Another example that explains this revolution. This technology allows what I call the « Incremental design ».

– Before 3D printing, the designer / developer had to try to foresee everything initially, whether to incorporate everything in his single part or whole set of parts (and when there are a lot of unknown areas, it is not really easy to integrate everything). Then when he thought: « Well well … that’s it … This time, everything is Tip-Top! » He would launch the production of a prototype, receive the workpiece a few days (weeks?) later and then frequently his reaction would be: « Damn, it does not work, I had not expected that! » which concerned much of the new workpiece … And he had to start all over again looking for a new design.

– With 3D printing in the office you can solve problems in an incremental way : What is the biggest unknown in my workpiece? OK, I’m trying to solve this, I have a proto few hours later and I will change it depending on the results. When the unknown # 1 will be solved, I will pass to the second … and so on, without any loss of time between the prototypes. To illustrate this possibility, some time ago, I had to develop a prototype of a liquid-cooled extrusion head for a special application.
I spent about eight hours on my CAD software to design the 3 plastic parts integrating the circulation channels of the coolant, and other purges. I was able to focus solely on the significant unknowns: How to make the water circulates enough with this type of hose and pump? How can this ‘pass’ on a standard head support? How to keep as many standard workpieces as possible? How to cool down the PTFE delivery tubes … while skipping over common problems: mounting process, sealing … (for prototypes, a joint compound exists ;-).

And… 3 hours later, I have the parts in hand ! This is the revolution !

Another 4 hours of work, and the head was assembled. This allowed me to discover 80% of the problems with just this first prototype, and I was able to validate the pump, principles and at the same time a part of the assembly process. The CAD of the second working proto took me less than 4 hours because I didn’t have any important unknown processes.
Without the 3D printer, I would have spent three times more trying to solve everything for the first proto and in any case, by definition, I would never have « guessed the unexpected » (I do not know about you, but I have a lot of trouble of “making it all good” from the first try).

A revolution…

Printing 3D FFF is far from magical, and finally it is like any other manufacturing technologies: Injection, Machining, Laser cutting, Stamping, Water jet cutting, Sand casting, Blowing, etc … There are strengths and limitations!
3D printing is a revolution, but currently only for the industry!
Unfortunately it has not always been presented as such…

Happy printing