Tea, Earl Grey, Hot. 3D Printing – not as straightforward as you might think

Mention the process 3D printing and generally there is an image of a Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Pickard pressing a mysterious button on the wall Tea. Earl grey. Hot. Exactly what he wanted. The Reality is often not quite that easy.

While 3D printing comes under the umbrella processes of ‘Rapid Processing’ which includes computerised lathes and Mills (CNC). Arguably 3D printing has excited the media and general public drawing parallels to sci-fi an gathering great optimism for the technology. More surprising is the lack of understanding that still surrounds the process. The machine itself is just a glorified printer, a 3D printer yes but it has all the same issues as the home LaserJet: blockages, connection problems etc.… the area that should have more focus is the process before the machine.

Up-stream in the 3D printing pipeline is the Computer Aided Design (CAD). The Printer requires CAD data, a 3D model to know where to go. The better the 3D model in CAD, the better the print.

3d printing applications ultimaker 3
Ultimaker 3D printer making a rotary blade from a 3D CAD model through ‘Cura’

This element of the process is where start-ups who are reliant on the technology can stumble, especially if they envisage doing the process themselves. So what are the options for a start-up?

  • Source a CAD modeller to create the object for you it is a good quality CAD model for your design and can be scaled up in manufacturing
  • Buy the copyright of the computer file and data (otherwise you are only entitled to the 3D prints the modeller gives you – they own the copyright of the digital model).
  • Outsource the whole process to a bureau like shapeways but again you need to ensure you are clear who holds the Intellectual property (IP) for the model.

Alternatively you could keep it in house: If you intend to go this route then you need to invest in a Computer Aided Design (CAD) course. Many courses are available online but you may need to invest in a substantial course of several Hours (20+ hours) if you want to be creative with your products.

3D printers range in price, Ultimakers and Form 2 printers are great for quality of finish and are used by professionals but price can be high. In addition, all 3D printers need software to interface between the CAD drawing and the machine; another cost. Cheaper alternatives are available but less reliable.

My advice; unless you are serious about using 3D printing yourself, regularly or professionally:

Use a bureau like Shapeways


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