Should you Buy a 3D Printer?

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As the buzz surrounding home 3D printing grows, we run through the pluses and minuses of the technology available.
Could 3D printing herald a change in manufacturing?
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Could 3D printing herald a change in manufacturing?

The Next Revolution?

 The talk is of 3D printing becoming the second Industrial Revolution. Factories and manufacturing plants will shut down as consumers easily replicate products in their own homes.

A gigantic portion of today’s buying process – the manufacture and supply of products – will be no more. Instead of a production line churning out car parts and the latest toys into vast convoys of trucks, we will need only an internet connection and spools of plastic to create almost anything we want.
The adoption process for 3d printers is slow
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The adoption process for 3d printers is slow

Who Benefits Now?

With any new hardware, initial success is driven by early adopters, the same group of tech fans who rush out to buy the latest smartphones, cameras or games consoles. But despite the hype, 3D printing is very much in its infancy.

The process is lengthy, you’re limited in what you can actually print and the materials needed are expensive: the plastic required to feed a 3D printer can cost up to £30 per spool.
 
So those early adopters will include professional users – architects, industrial designers and artists looking for a new way to model ideas – as well as the die-hard hobbyists eager to get their hands on the latest innovation.   
A typical 3d printer spool, costing up to £30
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A typical 3d printer spool, costing up to £30

Limited Options

At the moment choice is rather restricted. Small items such as figurines and containers are about as complex as it gets for home users, as the majority of 3D printers print in one type of plastic and in a single colour.

However, more advanced machines are appearing which allow the use of two or three colours and plastics that offer different properties, such as strength/flexibility.
The G Flex's electronics could be recreated via 3D printing
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The G Flex's electronics could be recreated via 3D printing

What Can I Print?

Often trumpeted as a means to print out replacement parts for everything from your washing machine to your laptop, the current state of 3D printing means that superficial, aesthetic models are easily possible - but creations with working parts or circuitry will take a while to arrive yet. 

Pioneering moves have been made by the likes of Rolls-Royce, printing jet engine components using lasers to mould metal dust, and LG, whose G Flex smartphone features plastic electronics circuitry that could be recreated by a 3D printer. 
3D scanners should help the design process
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3D scanners should help the design process

How Do I Print It?

Printing an object in 3D is the easy part of the process right now. The tricky part, and one of the biggest reasons 3D printing is such an exclusive activity, is delivering an accurate design to the printer. That could change drastically with the onset of 3D scanning.
 
3D printers will inevitably evolve with each new model, and 3D scanning will help those of us not blessed with expensive computer-aided design software to build complex items using detailed plans.
Online community sites can help with 3d printable designs
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Online community sites can help with 3d printable designs

Smart 3d Printing

Smartphone cases and tablet styluses, for instance, could be scanned and the files uploaded to a service such as thingiverse.com, the online community for sharing 3D printable designs. Others can then download the files to their printers and create replacement parts.
 
It’s early days for 3D scanners, but a few years from now they could make downloading designs and printing them as easily as cueing up a movie on Netflix.  
3D printers are not simplistic machines
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3D printers are not simplistic machines

Can I Use Professionals?

Most 3D printers are confusing, complex beasts that require expert knowledge to assemble/operate. So even if you can afford to dabble, it’d be all too easy to make a crucial set-up mistake in your first 3D creation.

Using a professional 3D printing service is a great way to check your designs are right without the costly outlay. What’s more, the quality of the output will be far higher with a commercial system. The finish will be better and the variety of plastics options greater. The flipside? It isn’t quick, and many services will have a minimum order value before you can start printing. 
The Royal Mail is trialling a new 3D service
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The Royal Mail is trialling a new 3D service

3D Printing Trials

Want to get started? The Royal Mail is trialling a 3D printing service at its New Cavendish Street delivery office in London. Thanks to a partnership with 3D printing firm iMakr, you’ll be able to buy a range of ready-to-print items such as rare stamps, or take in your own designs to print.
The outlay will not be cheap for a 3D printer
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The outlay will not be cheap for a 3D printer

How Much to Get Started?

Home 3D printers range from £100 for a used device all the way up to £5,000-plus. Add to that the costs of base plastics and software that enables you to create the blueprints for new objects, and the outlay is hefty for such a fledgling sector.

The advantage of early adoption is that, when the advances that help 3D printing crack the mainstream arrive, you’ll have a head start in the race for the next great technological frontier.  
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