Few technologies have garnered as much buzz over the last several years as 3d printing. But for all of the attention that 3d printing has gotten, many people are still confused as to what it is used for, how it works, and – most important to the majority of consumers – what it can do for them. In this blog post, we will shed some light on exactly who can make use of 3d home printing technology right now.
First off, for those of you who are still confused about how 3d printing works, here are the basics. A 3d printer, simply put, is a machine that builds physical objects based on a computer program, called a 3d model. Most 3d printers, including all home 3d printers at this time, primarily use plastics. The plastic material comes wrapped on a spool like metal wire. This plastic thread is fed into the machine, which melts it down and then extrudes layers of the melted plastic on top of each other, essential drawing the object in 3 dimensions. When the plastic cools, you have a fully-formed, sturdy, and (sometimes) usable object.
A few years ago, 3d printer manufacturers, tech journalists, and the like were predicting that by now, 3d printers would be common household items, like TVs, computers, and regular printers. As you can see, that still hasn’t happened. For several reasons, 3d printing has not caught on in the mainstream, and many people still don’t understand what all the hype is about or what 3d printing could possibly do for them.
So maybe you’re thinking about buying a 3d printer as a gift for someone you know but aren’t sure whether they’ll get enough use out of it to justify the purchase. Or perhaps you are curious about the possibility of adding one to your own collection of gadgets. Here is a rundown of a few different types of people who might get a great deal of use, inspiration, or just plain fun out of a 3d printer. It is by no means an exhaustive list of all possible applications for a home 3d printer, but it just might give you a head start in understanding this still developing technology.
Many artists like to stay at the forefront of technical innovation, exploring how new forms can allow them to express themselves in different ways. Over the last few years, 3d printing has made a splash in the art world in both large and small scale applications. Some artists, like Ioan Floreia with his series of modified cars, have taken to creating large sculptures through industrial-level 3d printing, the kind that is going to be off-limits to home users for the foreseeable future. On an even bigger scale, the Chinese company WinSun has been printing houses and apartment buildings for the last few years. That’s right, whole buildings. And it only takes a few days.
Of course, if you don’t have access to an industrial-level 3d printer, your ability to create things is going to be a lot more limited. Nobody is going to be printing a new house in their backyard anytime soon, if ever. Besides the fact that home users are limited to a smaller scale with their projects, one of the main limiting factors is the material. Home 3d printers are made to be used with plastics, although metal-infused plastics are now available that produce objects that have a unique feel all their own.
With that being said, artists can use 3d printers to create some seriously cool sculptures. Also, the fact that all of the models are created using a software interface makes this perfect for artists who like to incorporate technology into their work. Making a 3d computer model is completely different from molding or crafting something by hand, and this new perspective may yield new levels of inspiration. 3d printing could be perfect for adventurous artists who like to stay on the cutting edge of artistic creation or who like to regularly expand their skill set.
You could consider jewelry makers to be a subset of artists, but they deserve special mention because in certain ways, 3d printing is a perfect fit for their craft.
For one thing, most jewelry is relatively small, and that is almost a necessity at this point when using a home 3d printer. The cost of the material for larger objects is still prohibitive for most people. Also, 3d printers allow you to create items like rings and pendants with great detail and precision.
Jewelry makers have a few options for how to use their 3d printers. Home 3d printers don’t get hot enough to melt pure metal, so printing metal jewelry in your living room is not currently an option. However, a jewelry maker can use a 3d printer to print a plastic model for casting. This would be used the same way a traditional jewelry maker would use a wax model.
You might be surprised how much cool looking jewelry can be made from plastic, though the style isn’t for everyone. There are also a few different types of metal-infused plastics available that produce objects that have a look and feel that falls somewhere between metal and plastic. You probably won’t fool anybody into thinking it’s made of pure metal, but you can create some very interesting, unique jewelry with it. It can also be sanded, finished, painted, or polished to change its appearance.
If you know someone who is a “tech nerd”, who likes tinkering with things, is into electronics, etc., a 3d printer might give them countless hours of enjoyment. The hobbyist is not so much interested in the practical applications of 3d printing; they just want something to play with, learn about, and perhaps eventually master.
This may be the perfect type of person to buy a 3d printer for, being as the technology is still in its nascent stages. It is not yet efficient, cost effective, or fast enough to be an essential item, but hobbyists don’t care about this. In fact, that probably increases the allure. A lot of tech hobbyists want to be playing on the forefront of gadgetry. Every if they throw out everything they make, it will still be time well spent.
If you’re buying for a hobbyist, you may want to consider a 3d printer kit. It is typically cheaper than an assembled machine, and it allows the user to really learn the inner workings of the printer by putting it together with their own hands. Be forewarned, however: most people who have built a 3d printer from a kit will tell you that it takes a lot of patience and sometimes hundreds of hours to get a home-built printer up and working at 100%. It also helps to have more than a little knowledge about electronics and some experience in all kinds of tinkering. If this describes someone you know, a 3d printer kit could be an ideal gift.
Whereas a hobbyist enjoys simply learning something for its own sake, a DIY-er is interested in being able to make useful items. And there are countless small utilitarian items that you can make with a 3d printer. A quick Google search will give you dozens (if not hundreds) of ideas, from wine bottle holders to decorative light switches to drawer and cabinet handles.
It’s debatable whether any of these items is actually cheaper (usually not) or more convenient (depends on your priorities) to make at home with a 3d printer than to order online. So don’t buy it because you think you’ll save oodles of money making your own stuff. 3d printing is definitely not at that stage yet. The kind of DIY enthusiast that will benefit from a 3d printer is the kind who enjoys the satisfaction of being more self-sufficient. Some people simply like making things they can use. And as the methods, materials, and hardware associated with 3d printing improve, the scope and quality of homemade items is going to increase by leaps and bounds.
Oh, and 3d printed items make neat novelty gifts when you’re in a pinch and out of ideas.
That’s a Start…For Now
Those are a few of the primary groups who are into home 3d printing at the moment. However, as the technology progresses, it is bound to become more efficient, cheaper, and faster, which means more and more people will find value in having one in their home. Will it ever reach the status of near-ubiquity that was predicted when 3d printers made their first foray into the mainstream market a few years ago? Maybe, maybe not. But it is certainly a technology worth keeping an eye on, and it may just make an all-time greatest gift for someone you know.