The 3D Print Show 2012 was held at The Brewery, Chiswell Street, London, between Friday 19th October and Sunday 21st October. I attended on the 19th.
If you’re looking to sum up the 3D Print Show, you could turn to the official website:
“3D printing is not magic, and it’s not new. For the past twenty years almost every corner of modern life has been infiltrated and improved by this technology, and this October the extent of its reach will finally be unveiled to the public… For the first time ever, London plays host to a fully interactive 3D Printshow.”
But perhaps we could refer to the packaging of CB Printer’s 3D machine, instead. The cardboard boxes protecting their devices proclaim: “Ready to print!”. We’re at a stage that the personal computer industry must have gone through in its early days. Consumer 3D printing is still in its infancy, and a major selling point is not the production capacity of these machines, but a sense of wonder that they exist at all. They’re still a piece of the future, Star-Trek-style.
Firms are lining up to put a 3D printer in your home. The most consumer-friendly model I could see was 3D Systems’ Cube printer. 3D Systems’ products occupied a large room, with their “Cube Cafe” at one end, displaying lots of their printing machines. The Cube costs approximately £1100 to purchase.
The Cube uses its own Cubify design software as, I guess, it’s an attempt to lower barriers to entry. The commonly used alternative is the complicated-sounding STL file. STL files are the “design instructions” that can be read by (I expect) all of the machines at this show, they’re a widely accepted way to “describe only the surface geometry of a three dimensional object”.
If you’re unaware of STL and the finer points of 3D printing, I learnt today that an easy way to get started is to use a service such as Tinkercad. The chap at the MakerBot stand also told me that at the professional end of the market, AutoCad is the software of choice for 3D printing.
MakerBot are perhaps the best known of all consumer 3D printing companies. They took over a whole room at this show to demonstrate their Replicator 2 machine. The Rep 2’s functional aesthetic looks to be aimed squarely at enthusiasts and hackers. But it’s a polished design, and apparently very popular. They’ve only been available for one month, and already they’ve sold 1600 of them. They cost about £1800, if I remember rightly.
Near the entrance to the first hall of exhibitors I met technologist Paul Harter. He and his children were demonstrating Printcraft, described as “use Minecraft to easily create models for 3D printers”. From what I could gather, Paul was attending for the fun of it and/or trying to spread the word about his project. You can find out more at printcraft.org.
Paul also told me to look out for Formlabs, as their consumer 3D printer, the Form 1, is the device he’d consider buying.
The Form 1 uses a different printing process to the Replicator 2. It’s a difference that’s attracting attention. Fast Company says:
“The Replicator 2 and others are extrusion-based machines, in which heated plastic is laid down layer by layer. The Form 1 uses the stereolithographic approach found in higher-end printers, where malleable material [liquid resin] is hardened by exposure to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light. Using stereolithography, the Form 1 can print layers down to 25 microns tall, about 1/1,000th of an inch, and four times smaller than the Replicator 2’s 100 micron layers.”
I found Formlabs on the second floor of the venue. People were crowded around their stand. The Form 1 uses flashes of UV light to cure its resin models, which looks impressive. See the photos, below, for an example of what their machine can produce.
Also on the second floor of the show I met Ultimaker team members. What distinguishes the Ultimaker from the Replicator 2? “Quality” the representative replied. Apparently, his machine can print down to 20 microns.
I met Abigail from LinkNode, who showed me their Augmented Reality “with gravity” app: 3DTry.it and I also took a look at the Econolyst stand, they offer advice to those interested in 3D printing. Europac’s Mephisto EX-Pro/ST BodyScanner looked interesting – they’d set up a full body scanner in a room and were scanning willing participants, then displaying the results as 3D models on computer screens.
The Digital Forming stand caught my imagination, too. They’ve just launched “Co-Design Platform”, a “collaborative design platform that will allow designers and design-led companies to set up an online customization business without the need of a web developer.”
In essence, a designer creates an ‘Original Design Object’ (pens, lampshades…), then through the Digital Forming platform parameters are created that allow a “co-designer” to modify the design within boundaries. This allows the consumer to directly alter colour, add their name and more all from a website.
“Intelligent software on the platform will never allow the co-designer to take the product design to a point where it’s no longer functional, fit for use or aesthetically pleasing.” says Digital Forming. When the consumer / co-designer is happy with their modified design, it’s printed then delivered. This could promise affordable, accessible mass customisation.
What does the future hold?
So, what is the future of 3D printing? Well, more advanced versions of these machines will be heading into our homes, and we’ll wonder what we did without them. Eventually they’ll even print livers and other body parts, said the chap at the MakerBot stand. He also said that these devices will augment, not destroy traditional manufacturing.
Paul Harter pointed me towards the political and economic implications. Apparently (if I’ve remembered correctly), UK law is currently less restrictive around the replication of commercial intellectual property for personal use, than US law. If UK homes are using 3D printers to produce what US homes cannot, should we be expecting a trade war? Or at least bracing ourselves for new legislation protecting incumbent manufacturers, restricting what can be done with these machines?
We’ll find out the answers to these questions soon enough. Without wanting to sound too melodramatic, what we do know is that it wouldn’t be a revolution without some disruption and pain.
By Ciarán Ryan, London