The third dimension

3D Printshow LondonLast week I went to the 3D Printshow in Old Billingsgate, London. I’m greatly interested in 3D print technology though I’m still not sure what it’s for. The people on the stands say that it’s only limited by your imagination but most of the stuff at the show could have been produced quicker and cheaper by conventional means. Still, the same was true of digital photography in the early days and look where we are with that now.

The show was quite busy, with lots of people milling around, and felt as if a lot had been shoehorned in. It’s not a large venue, but there were quite a few stands hidden around corners and behind larger stands so that it paid to walk around the edges. However, the show also reflected the dual character of the 3D world, with lots of visitors crowded around the smaller, more consumer orientated machines, though the bulk of the printers on show were aimed at the lower end of the business to business market.

There weren’t many new machines on show, though Roland brought its new Arm 10, a 3D printer that uses an acrylic type liquid that is then LED UV-cured. Andrew Dudley, Roland’s business manager for 3D and consumer products, says that it can produce finer detail and can be faster than printing plastic as you can expose the whole bed in one go. The bed is 70 x 130mm and objects can be 70mm tall.

Roland announced this Arm 10 3D printer, which uses UV curing to create solid objects.
Roland announced this Arm 10 3D printer, which uses UV curing to create solid objects. Nikon D800 with 24mm f1.4G. ©Nessan Cleary

Roland will expand the range in the future but there are no details as yet as to how. Dudley suggested that the main area that needed developing was the liquid resin, with different textures and softer materials likely to come in the future. The machine costs £4,000, but he claims that it should be cheaper to run than most of hard plastic models aimed at the business market.

Roland also showed a milling machine, the SRM20, which costs £3,000, which has been available for a few months now.

Autodesk, which is best known for its CAD design software, has made a big play as a design tool for 3D work. Jesse Harrington Au, program manager maker for Autodesk, says that the software is capable of producing a water tight mesh and that the designs can be exported to any printer, using the ubiquitous STL and OBJ formats. AutoDesk also makes Maya, a 3D animation program that’s widely used in the film industry to create 3D effects. This is also capable of producing designs that can be 3D printed.

The company is also planning to launch its own 3D printer later this year. Au says that it will be an open-source project using resin-based materials. He explains: “There’s not been a lot of innovation in the cured plastics so we want to let people build on this machine,” adding “We have done as much as we can to make it easy for people to work with.” He says that materials science and the printing speed are the two stumbling blocks and that Autodesk hopes this machine will stimulate people to overcome this, adding: “The materials science is so crucial to everything in 3D. We know these materials are feasible and the costs can come down.” The printer itself will still be aimed at the small business market so is likely to cost around £5,000.

The Ultimaker 2 has proven to be popular, selling around 200 per month in the UK.
The Ultimaker 2 has proven to be popular, selling around 200 per month in the UK.  Nikon D800 with 24mm f1.4G. ©Nessan Cleary

Ultimaker showed off the Ultimaker 2, launched 10 months ago, which costs £1890. Daniel Abram, community support manager for Ultimaker, says that interest in 3D printing is growing quickly now with around 200 of the Ultimaker 2 printers sold each month in the UK. The machine can use PLA, ABS and Nylon. He says that ABS is slightly stronger than PLA, but PLA appears to be more common. It’s a biodegradable material made from corn.

Makerbot demonstrated its three models, the Z18, which costs around £4,500, the smaller Fifth generation, which is £2,000 and the tiny but affordable Mini, at around £1,000. These all use PLA, with the most popular being the mid-range Fifth generation, which can produce resolution of 0.1mm per layer, fine enough that it doesn’t need any sanding or further finishing. It’s also possible to pause the printer to change the filament if you want to print in multiple colours. Makerbot also has a database, called Thingiverse, where customers can find free print designs to download.

BeeTheFirst has concentrated on the consumer market, having launched its portable printer a year ago. It’s a neat design, with a handle hidden in the top and a choice of eight colours (with a further four colours to be added later this year). Bee is hoping to add WiFi and battery capability to it.

The PLA plastic filament as used in the Bee free printers.
The PLA plastic filament as used in the Bee free printers. Nikon D800 with 24mm f1.4G. ©Nessan Cleary

One of the more interesting printers on show was the Mcor, which uses paper rather than plastic. The idea is quite simple – the object is still built up layer by layer but each layer is made of paper – standard 80 gsm office paper at the show. Each layer is printed on a sheet, using an Epson printer with aqueous inks designed to bleed through the paper so that the colour shows up on the side of the object. The sheet is then cut out and a layer of glue applied. The next sheet can then be printed, cut out and bonded to the previous sheet and so on until the object is complete. The objects are completely recyclable, in luring the ink and the glue.

It does cost £34,000 but the running costs are said to be considerably lower than with plastic printers since it’s just paper and glue. The company claims to have sold several hundred machines in the two years that it’s been available. It’s apparently proven popular with commercial printers who are comfortable with the whole idea of printing ink to paper. It’s used in art and design colleges and also for consumer goods such as figurines, which is simply a matter of extruding a photograph.

The show attracts several exhibitors from overseas. Thus Pirx travelled from Poland to show its printer. The company launched its first model in March and has already sold 500 units, mainly to universities land schools. This costs around €600, but the company is also looking for funding to build a slightly larger model that will cost €1100 a €1500, and which will be able to print in RGB. Both have 50 micron resolution.

MiniFactory is a Finnish company that has a printer with two extruders so you can combine different materials though CEO Janne Pihlajamaki warns that you have to be careful they don’t stick together. It will take a wide range of thermamorphic materials, including all the common plastics. He says that it has a robust frame so there’s no need to constantly recalibrate it, an issue that some of the smaller machines have. The machine will go down to 10 micron resolution though he says that for most applications there’s no point in anything finer than 100 microns.

The Choc Creator 3D chocolate printer can print variable patterns to small objects such as this biscuit.
The Choc Creator 3D chocolate printer can print variable patterns to small objects such as this biscuit. Nikon D800 with 24mm f1.4G. ©Nessan Cleary

There were quite a few food printers. Rigid food form, for example, showed a machine that was easily configurable for different requirements, with for example heated nozzles for hot foods or with the base removed so that cakes could be placed beneath the printing units. It will take almost any kind of liquid food, including chocolate, ice cream, humus and purees, with two holders for mixing different ingredients. Luis Fraguda, who was manning the stand, says that it’s all about offering chefs the capability to do 3D printing – it obviously works as he’s already sold two to restaurants in Spain and a third to a pastry shop. The cost is €6-10,000. So, it seems that it really is possible to combine two of my favourite passions – printing and chocolate; now if only I could come up with a reasonable business plan!

The next 3D Printshow takes place in Paris, 17-18th October, with a New York show scheduled for August next year.






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