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3D printing possibilities are beautiful but not limitless

Nothing to wear this evening? Sorry, but 3D printing can’t help. Rain Rabbit, CC BY-NC

3D printing has to be a contender for the most talked about technology award at the moment. Gone are the days when I’d start talking about my research in this area only to be met with glazed eyes or polite disinterest. Now I only have to say the words “3D printing”, be it at work or on the tram home, and I’m immediately rewarded with genuine interest.

Sometimes it’s a life-changing medical application, or a quirky story to tug at your heart-strings. Sometimes it’s the downright controversial – such as when someone takes it upon themself to print a homemade gun. Every time something new happens in the field we all hear about it. A lot.

There’s no doubting that these technologies are exciting but the hype is leading us to think our future homes will all feature machines suspiciously similar to the Replicator in Star Trek, probably alongside a robotic housemaid and hoverboard.

The use of 3D printers in industry will definitely continue to grow, and will have a major (if often unnoticed) impact on our consumer choice but those of us who don’t make things for a living will not suddenly become digital artisans.

We’re now able to go online and choose from a staggering range of affordable, easy to use 3D printers or even walk into a high-street store and pick one up to take home there and then. Does this mean we will all rush out to buy one? No. These personal systems will certainly continue to improve, but they will never develop to the point where they can make everything we ever need and at an affordable price.

As things stand, the quality and choice of the materials that feed into 3D printers just isn’t there, and you still need skill to model your parts in the first place. Even if it is economical to pay to download the file for a particular product and produce it at home, there’s the question of whether or not it’s still simpler to just order the part online or pick it up from a nearby store.

Realistically you are probably not going to use your home 3D printer to replace that broken part on your toaster or make yourself a new pair of shoes. It’s more likely that you and your family will use it to produce a selection of novelty items you’ve either designed or downloaded from a website such as Thingiverse. You’ll probably be making Christmas tree ornaments or a pair of earrings vaguely resembling your pet before the excitement wears off and your 3D printer is consigned to the spare room with all those other gadgets you’ve bought over the years.

Put simply, most of us aren’t all that creative when it comes down to it. We don’t often make things at home and being able to own a 3D printer is highly unlikely to suddenly transform us into a nation of designers.

That’s not to say that 3D printers are not an exciting prospect, though. Part of the fuss stems from the ability of these technologies to produce parts without any form of tooling. This removes many of the design restrictions often encountered with more conventional manufacturing techniques and allows the production of extremely complicated geometries at little or no extra cost. How else could you make a wind-powered walking animal in one go?

Tied in with this is the ability to economically produce single, one-off items. What this means for us as consumers is more exciting designs and the option for personalised items at affordable prices. We may not all be wearing Dita von Teese-style 3D printed dresses any time soon, but we will certainly start to make more use of the freedom this technology gives us.

The good thing is, 3D printing covers all levels of design skill. If you’re simply excited by cool accessories, you can go online and buy a new lampshade or an iPhone cover that’s a little bit different from what you’re used to.

If something unique is more to your taste, you’ll find various levels of personalisation - for example customised jewellery with low or high design input. Or you can create personalised versions of yourself, such as superimposing your face on a Disney princess or Star Trek figure.

If you’re a whizz at design, you can order your own designs to be produced via an online provider such as Shapeways or Sculpteo. You’ll also be able to do it through in-store services more and more. Many such services allow you to sell your designs to other customers into the bargain.

3D printers will never be a necessity – even 2D printers are becoming less common in the home – but they do open up many unique and useful applications. They’re not for everyone, and they may struggle to fully meet the hype generated on their behalf, but they will continue to have a profound effect on our choice as consumers.

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