There’s a lot of movement on the ‘fabbing’ front, i.e. the ability to make 3D objects out of the comfort of your home (by either owning a 3D printer, or sending it by email to a company which sends you the object).
This is important to the P2P Foundation, because it is one of the underlying trends, the miniaturisation and distribution of physical productive capital (and therefore the undermining of the economies of scale of the period of centralized industrialization, which has become an unsustainable model), which accompanies the shift of peer production and ‘free modes’, from content and software, via open design communities, to relocalized and possible ‘free physical production’ (free as in freedom, not price). In other words, the vaunted economies of scale (bigger is better), is being morphed into diseconomies of scale (distribution is better than centralization, provided that we are unified through open design communities and the global coordination of small group efforts).
Tim Pickup has done an overview of a number of 3D printers, the introduction of which we reproduce below.
But first, what we are talking about?
1. Defining 3D printing is not easy because there are many competing concepts!
“3D Printing is currently rather a hard term to define. Officially it is just one of the rapid manufacturing techniques. Currently however the term 3D Printing itself is used as a synonym for Rapid Manufacturing, Digital Manufacturing, Direct Digital Manufacturing, Rapid Prototyping, Desktop Manufacturing, Freeform Fabrication and Fabbing.
Each one of these terms has a distinct meaning but they are all vying for your attention to become the official term to describe any process whereby the information in a digital file describing an object virtually (such as an STL or CAD file) is used to rapidly make a real object. Usually by one single machine and usually in limited production runs.
The official definition maintains that 3D Printing is is just one of the many ways that you do this.
At Shapeways we have noticed that we, our designers and partners tend to use 3D Printing as a general term to describe any rapid manufacturing technique.”
2. In light of that complexity, nevertheless a defintion:
From the New York Times:
“Three-dimensional printers, often called rapid prototypers, assemble objects out of an array of specks of material, just as traditional printers create images out of dots of ink or toner. They build models in a stack of very thin layers, each created by a liquid or powdered plastic that can be hardened in small spots by precisely applied heat, light or chemicals.”
And from Shapeways:
“3D Printing is a technique that deposites material layer by layer using a head similar to that of a inkjet printer. The head tends to move along the X and Y axes and the object being printed moves up and down on the Z axis.”
3. Review of 3D printers
With this definitional context in mind, we can now turn our attention to Tim Pickup’s comparative analysis of 3D printers. I’m not reproducing the details, just the introduction to give you a feel for the development of the field so far.
(summary: they’re becoming much cheaper, but even the cheapest do still cost a few thousand British pounds)
“In the last few years Rapid Prototyping has become more automated and much cheaper. Machines suitable for offices and academic environments have appeared on the market and have been christened 3D Printers. A range of different RP technologies exist and two companies have come to dominate the market, Stratasys & ZCorp. A quality 3D printer from either of these two will cost in the order of £30,000. Each has its advantages but to me the color capabilities of the ZCorp 510 makes this easily the most desirable machine. It is the machine currently used by the majority of the top UK 3D print bureaus. Also Bristol Fine Print Research have a couple of ZCorp machines. If you had a larger budget (£100,000+) then you could look to go to the high end Rapid Prototyping machines again from Stratasys which can build to a much larger size and precision and also use a bigger variety of build mediums. There are also some cheap and cheerful approaches you could take with a budget of a few thousand pounds.”
4. More Information:
– a movie explaining 3D printing
– a tutorial, five ways to print your own designs