I have formally started my learning process for 3D printing, hoping sometime this year to buy one and start making things. I jumped ahead in the learning queue back at the start of January, and I think I already know which model I am likely to buy (ADIMLab Gantry Pro). However, some of the variables are still mysteries to me, and I picked up a few ebooks plus a paper non-fiction title to help with my early learning. The book I am reading is called “Make: Getting started with 3D Printing”, Second Edition, by Liza Wallach Kloski and Nick Kloski.
I’m so new to the topic, I’m even learning stuff in the foreword. It is written as an introduction to 3D printing and the history, arguing that like many new technologies, 3D printing has followed the “hype cycle” mapping visibility over time — the initial technology trigger, a large peak of inflated expectations followed by a trough of disillusionment, and then it rises back up a “slope of enlightenment” to level off on the Plateau of Productivity.
The authors argue that 3D printing has reached the plateau already, but I’m not as convinced of that yet. Part of the challenge is that these types of graphs are actually more like “averages” of multiple people, multiple industries, even multiple sub-disciplines where one group is still in the initial hype stage, while other more mature models have levelled off. I’m not ready to pronounce where I think it is for home hobbyists, which is my only real interest.
I certainly see the value to entrepreneurs of the ability to produce prototypes. There are many excited people in the field who think everything is wonderful, they’ll be able to print 1000s of products, and will retire. Until they realize that 3D printing is generally great at producing unique items or prototypes, or even a series of similar products for individual use. But it is difficult to take it to large-scale production with small printers as it just takes so long to print stuff. If you build an exciting new product, and it changes an industry, generating thousands and thousands of orders, but it takes you 3d to print it, you’re in trouble, because your single printer will only be able to generate about 120 copies per year.
Sure, you can buy MORE printers. But in many cases, it would be more efficient if you could do injection moulding. Which doesn’t rule out 3D printing — you COULD design the moulds in a 3D printer and cast it in something else that then is used for the moulds. As an example. And many of the online fora for newbies, like myself, are filled with the newly converted entrepreneur who sees this as their way to take over the world. Not unlike the new web designer who thinks if they can launch a thousand websites selling a few products each, and they simply use SEO, bright graphics and fast sites, they’ll start receiving millions of orders a day for their relative crap products. And then they start realizing that web design is harder than they thought and that they’ll have to earn the money they thought would just “arrive” in their inbox.
For me, my needs are simple, so I’m probably on the slope of enlightenment. I got excited, I saw some opportunities, it crashed a bit as I realized the time it takes to do a lot of the prints, and the manual nature of managing a printer, handling the maintenance, etc. My interests are around personal gadgets, doodads that make activity X or Y easier…hacks, if you will. Some of that extends into specific interests for astronomy. And I want to do some DIY projects for eyepieces. In my most hopeful times, I dream of 3D printing most of the elements for a DIY telescope (or 3 or 4 styles of telescope). But I also want to do some board game design. It would be prototyping if we were going to mass produce them, but these are more just fun for us. Jacob has some ideas, and likes doing it, so my role will be more turning his designs into a working version. I’m not looking to sell products on Etsy or start making things for other people. Just me. And with the printer cost ranging from C$220 for a simple one and about C$450 for a mid-range one, that’s eminently doable as a new hobby.
But I digress, I’m supposed to be talking about what I’m reading.
The history of 3D printing surprised me, as it noted that a form of it has been around since the 1980s. I thought it was much more recent than that, perhaps because it notes that 2009 was the time when it started to come together with open source tools for enthusiasts.
People have asked me about 3D printers given my new interest, all with the same initial question as me of “how do they work”. I really liked the description in the book similar to that of a hot glue gun melting the glue in its situation and dropping a bead; similarly, the 3D printer heats up filament, essentially making it a liquid, and it too “beads” in small layers onto a surface, hardening as it cools. I knew that the types of printers I was looking at were called FDM but I didn’t know what the letters stood for — fused deposition modeling. It fuses the filament, deposits it in layers, and voila, modeling. Makes perfect sense. I won’t use the FFF acronym (fused filament fabrication), although it too is probably a good way to remember how everything works.
As I mentioned, I’ve already had some disillusionment from my initial spark of interest, and the book mentions some of the “reality check” that I’ve already experienced. Namely, knowing that:
- 3D prints fail — not all of them work perfectly the first, second or even twelfth time, it takes practice and adjustments for the individual printer and filament type;
- 3D prints take a long time — this definitely disillusioned me, as I had thought a bunch of the things could be done in an hour;
- 3D printers need ongoing maintenance — this is what worries me the most as I’m not mechanically inclined, and I was stressed reading about DIY kits, levelling challenges, special beds, etc., although one visit to the local store convinced me most of my concerns were exaggerated;
- Sometimes 3D prints need pre- and post-processing — this is the one that disillusioned me the most as I have very little interest in painting, for example, to make things look cool. I was hoping that I could just print in different colours instead, but that is not as easy as I first hoped.
And so, that’s where I am in my learning. I look forward to reading Chapter 1, the “introduction”.