3D printing: the new, bottom-up industrial revolution

When Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism as a process of creative destruction more than 70 years ago, he couldn’t have conceived of the miracle that is 3D printing.

Yet this hair-raising technology is about to tear apart existing structures in a way that would undoubtedly have shocked even Schumpeter, a great economist struck by the free market’s revolutionary, anti-conservative tendencies.

chairmaker: They're a great tool for prototypes and very short-run production for items like model railway bits and bobs. However, it's a long way from being able to compete with injection moulding for mass production, so the vast majority of plastic will be shaped that way for some years yet. Never say never though: 3D printing will happen on a bigger scale one day, but the hype currently far exceeds the reality.

Smell Da Quoffee: chairmaker Yes of course it will take time but its quite interesting and I think schools should have the reprap level of 3D printing machines so our young people can get to use their imaginations as to what is possible. And they remove the barriers to entry for prototyping also enabling people to get the design and practical skills cheaply. Most of the parts for building a REPRAP printer can be found on ebay quite cheaply. It essentially consists of a frame, a base on which to print to, some stepper motors and timing belts which move a printer head and then some electronics to control the stepper motors (RepRap Sanguinololu board) and a hot end to go on the printer head.  The Sanguinololu typically works with a PC but electronics have also been made so that designs can be on SD cards. The frame is often made with a set of steel rods but the plastic that holds these rods together is produced from another REPRAP machine, again these parts can be brought cheaply on ebay.  And there are also fully built machines that can be brought, here is one (i have no connection to the vendor)   http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Vergia-L-3d-Printer-RepRap-Prusa-Air-i3-Complete-Set-DIY-Free-Shipping-/271195074077?pt=UK_Computing_Other_Computing_Networking&hash=item3f247c6e1d The printer head works in 3d to create a plastic or another object. Although the are a whole host of applications besides plastic. chocolate   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21399930a car  http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-02/28/3d-printed-car electronic circuit boards http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfapBnzLzF4 human tissue http://www.webpronews.com/3d-printed-organs-are-here-and-theyre-very-tiny-2013-04

On_our_way_home: I absolutely agree "chairmaker"!  It's not exactly going to be easy to 3D print, for example, a new washing machine at home - many of the parts (such as the drum) would be way too big and 3D printing cannot (yet - or for the forseeable future) cope with electronics such as PCBs, microchips etc. I fear that Allister Heath has been reading too many science fiction stories.  Perhaps his article next week will talk about food replicators to solve the problems of third world famine…

simonward: "would be way too big" Essentially that is due to the Great Printer Scam.  Take inkjets - an A4 printer is chep but A3 and A2 printers are many times more expensive.  To go from A4 printing to A3 printing, the print head just has to be able to move an aditional 12cm!  Other than a slightly bigger box, there is nothing to justify the huge extra costs of bigger printers. 3D printers are the same.  If you want to print something bigger, then the print head just has to move a bit further in each direction. However, since some of the 3D printers are Open Source, a small printer could print the parts for a big printer and the software could be adapted.

youknowyouloveit:  Economies of scale justify the cost differential dear boy.

grettasands: Sometimes the drawer where the washing liquid goes or door handle can be lost or broken, this machine would be just the ticket.

stephenmarchant: chairmaker, Totally agree. As an engineer I saw a 3D printer being used in the early 1990s and it has taken this long for the technology to get to the mass market. They will be great for those of us that want to prototype inventions without the need of huge capital outlay. It will allow engineers to test models and prove the effectiveness before the expense of obtaining patents. It will inevitably shift power from corporates to individuals and encourage entreprenerial activity.

cheddar_george: #chairmaker Yes, I agree. The finished product from most of the 3D printers I've seen to date is not generally great, but certainly good enough, as you say, for some scenarios. I'm sure in maybe five to ten years the technology will have improved dramatically though. There was an article in Make magazine (last year, I think) which even demonstrated producing one's own 3D printer.

alexlong: machines being able to make copies of itself? Not long before judgement day actually happens, imo. 

grettasands: That's right, parts can be printed to repair an existing machine, I forget it's name but it' also an open source effort, so you can see the type of market this is going for right now. The current products are getting better and better, you have to see some for yourself from today's machines. Right now on Kickstarter there is a very popular project to recycle plastic from bottles and such into the plastic used for these machines to print, now that's recycling!

escoville: The raw product from most injection moulds is not that great either.  You mustn't think that the product that emerges from the 3D-printer is 'finished'. It isn't. 

Spanner1960:  It's called RepRap. http://reprap.org

jamesbottom: This technology is already being used in the medical arena to 'print'  body parts and the like. Was long (DDD) last year in the American stock market and more than doubled my money in just six months. This technology is hot and those who invest in it will see a multi bagger over the years! http://seekingalpha.com/symbol/ddd?source=search_general&s=ddd

LegalTerms: May I inject some reality into the 3D printing bubble. I use 3D modelling and printing on a professional basis in precision railway modelling. I create models that sell in small numbers but at a higher price than the mass market would ever tolerate. 3D printing is not a mass market manufacturing technique. It is specialist manufacture only.3D printing ( additive manufacturing) imposes severe limitations in the quality of model that can be achieved  The surface finish is a serious problem and only a one 3D printer manufacturer with patented Voxel technology have systems that are capable of producing ready for paint finishes. These machines cost >£25000.The systems are certainly not D-I-Y and generally have to be bought and paid for within the framework of a specialised business.The big names in Railway models such as Hornby and Bachmann manufacture in China use multi axis milling machines ( subtractive manufacturing ) since they will ultimately be producing steel tooling for injection moulding machines. Even a premier British model maker who makes models which are " just like the real thing" in resin, uses the milling process to make master for the models.The high quality 3D solid printing machines are not rapid, large prints may take 48 hour of more to complete. Obviously the bigger the volumetric capabilities of the machine the higher the price.Now there are start up D-I-Y companies, trying to develop 3D printers which can achieve quality results but at a fraction of the cost of the commercial machines as some controlling patents expire. Many valiant attempts have been seen recently and there are more to come but none match the resolution and surface finish afforded by the high cost commercial machines. None produce results that are suitable for anything other than amazing D-I-Y creations or perhaps dental or jewellery items.

nbforrest: I agree that the 3d hype is overdone at the moment but 25 years from now, who knows? I think it more likely that the 'printers' will evolve into more than just the inkjet type technology. It already has with robots running machines to manufacture almost anything. The author is right, though, the possibilities for good (and evil)are mindboggling.  I can see a large printer that has a scan of , say, Rembrandt's self portrait in it's software, loaded with oil paint and varnish and able to make an exact copy including brushstrokes. It would not be the original but damned close and affordable. Like the internet that broke out with over-enthusiasm that cost many stockholders and investors a fortune when the bubble burst, it will eventually settle into what it is now, a world-changing entity. 

grettasands: Someone could be at your door right now with an axe, shall we ban those from the hardware store?

scorpion_derooftrouser:  The same was true of 2D printing for many years. Things progress much faster now, and what costs £25000 now will cost £250 in say 10 years time.

LegalTerms: Computer printers became cheap so expensive ink could be sold in a mass market. There will never be a mass market for solidprinters because 3D models do not just happen they have to be created on 3D graphics or CAD packages. Not the kind of thing Joe public will want to buy or be prepared to learn. A capable engineering CAD package would cost around 4K and a top class solid printer( prints ready to paint) will cost around £45000 that could print the volume of a small toaster. Of course there are cheaper alternatives but you plays for what you gets.

paulweighell: Agreed. Would add that there are bureaus as well of course who will print your file.

LegalTerms: I tried "Shapeways" as one of these Bureaus and the quality of the print was supposed to be "detail". It was totally unusable as the surface finish was ridged and furrowed making it impossible to paint.  They do not specify the surface finish in any engineering terms such as the Ra value which is used in all the manufacturing industry in Europe. They will sell you a set of samples so you can select which should be used but will not specify what surface finish value they will achieve on you model. It just pot luck.

HJ777: Allister Heath is a very good writer on economics but he is not a scientist nor an engineer. He (increasingly) gets very excited about the potential of new technology without understanding the technical difficulties involved nor the limitations. 3D printing is, indeed, a very useful technology for things such as producing prototypes without investing in expensive specialist tooling. However, it is slow and expensive for anything else and can only produce fairly small items in small quatities using a relatively small range of materials. The items that can be printed are often not of the same structural integrity as conventionally manufactured parts. What is more, so many of the things that we buy contain a mix of materials, components, electronics, etc. - such things cannot be printed (and never will be able to be printed). So very useful, but not a "new bottom-up industrial revolution".

RCTurner: Electronics can already be printed and there are millions being spent in big tech companies in this area.