3D printing: Everything you need to know and when it'll be affordable

The hyperbole around 3D printing, with talk of revolution and a new age, is getting ridiculous. Will 3D printing really impact our world more than the internet? If so, when will we be able to afford it? And more importantly how will 3D printing make such huge changes?

The answer is that this is the start of a new industrial revolution. Or more aptly, the death of the last one. Once they are able to print multiple materials in detail, 3D printers will become the equivalent of Star Trek’s replicators, letting you create virtually anything at home. This is a big deal.

The industrial revolution, in a nutshell, came from steam and electric power improving transport and manufacturing. Suddenly materials, say from a forest, could be transported to factories where items were made en masse thanks to machines. This meant people flocked to those factories for work making cities explode in size. Shops then located near these factories, attracting more people and growing the city further.

Now 3D printing, combined with the internet, could rewrite that history. They could, and probably might, end cities, with people moving back to more natural village-like settlements. We'll no longer need to shop in a certain area, build items in factories or deliver items anymore as everything we need is downloaded and printed at home. The only requisite will be printing materials, which could conceivably be pumped into your home printer like water to a tap.

So that’s a look at the potential future, but what about now?

Right now the level of 3D printing is still very much in its infancy. Home 3D printers vary in price from £300 to £3,000 but usually print only two types of plastic: ABS and PLA. The process is a long one and often a tiny error can render the entire print useless. So right now it’s still hobbyists, designers and artists who lead the way with early adopting. But that’s about to change thanks to 3D scanning.

READ: $100 3D printer made from e-waste by African inventor

While 3D printing gets faster, more accurate and easier to use with each update 3D scanning is also making leaps. This is important as it will mean websites like Thingiverse, which lets users upload 3D files for printing, can grow. People no longer need to be able to design objects using CAD, which takes training and skill. Anybody can scan an object (say, a spare back cover for a certain model of TV remote) then upload for others to download and print. It’s a bit like being able to rip CDs easily and share music online. Which brings us to the next speed bump - rights.

READ: 3D printing to be made easy with Windows 8.1

How anything can be kept by designers is going to be tough. In the same way that a film can physically be bought then shared all over torrent websites, most objects (without complex innards, for now) can be bought, scanned and uploaded to Thingiverse to share. While this isn’t a major issue now, once 3D printing becomes more complex and able to print complete builds, like a smartphone, this will be a hot issue.

Already printers are able to create circuitry, and phones like the LG G Flex are being made with plastic-based components. It’s only a matter of time before 3D printing a smartphone is as common as streaming a song on Spotify.

Should I buy a 3D printer to become an early adopter?

Right now all you have, as an at-home option, is extrusion printing that uses plastic. Even at the top end you’ll get only two or three nozzles, for a few plastic types or colours. That means you can print at different flexibilities but isn’t exactly complex. While HP plans to launch in the 3D printer market in 2014 with a plan to bring the price down, a few good options available here and now are listed later in this article.

READ: HP to bring 3D printer prices down in 2014

One of the big things you’ll miss by adopting early is the ability to print metals. This is only just getting used in manufacturing now as Roll-Royce is beginning to test printing 3D parts for its jet engines. But it works. Just recently the world’s first 3D printed gun was made entirely of metal using 3D printing. This process is called Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) which effectively heats metal dust into shapes using a laser.

READ: Rolls-Royce to 3D print aircraft engine parts

 

3D printers you can buy now

3D scanner options

3D printers coming soon

What now?

Right now investing money in a 3D scanner and 3D printer won’t give you any return on your buck, unless your work can be helped by it. So if the area excites you and you fancy getting involved now is a fun time to try, if you have the spare cash. But don't fret if it all sounds a bit steep, because prices should start dropping fast, with more kit becoming available to print, and 3D scanning is going to improve.

So if you were one of those people on Freeserve with dial-up internet in the late Nineties and look back fondly on your early adoption, maybe you should do it again now. Because ten years from now everyone will be doing it.