3D Printing - How / Why / Where?
For 3D printing a water-tight 3D virtual model is essential for the ‘bacon slicing’ process. The virtual model must be a complete model with all surfaces (made up of triangular planes that wrap the surface of the object) unbroken. Some 3D ‘graphics-type’ packages are prone to problems of missing or reversed surface triangles as they are not specifically designed to create solid robust models for 3D printing. There are free applications such as Netfabb and Magics to download that check your model but do not repair it. Cloud9 uses solid objects (primitives – sphere, cube, cone, torus, cylinder and a line!) from which to model, deform, construct. Problems only occur if a surface is pulled back through itself or an inner surface is pulled through the outer surface of its shell to create a topologically incorrect model. So easy in the virtual, so hard with real materials! Cloud9 uses .stl which is a common file format widely used for exporting to 3D printing. As it is available in most 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software packages it can also be used to exchange files of models i.e. useful between Cloud9 and Rhino for example, but be aware that it is not a universal Industry Standard file format and problems, though rare, can arise.
Most users of Cloud9 will make use of 3D print service companies like i.materialise, Shapeways, Sculpteo and Ponoko, who are making direct access as easy and as smooth as possible. You open an account (under no obligation whatsoever), upload your model to their websites, and then, depending on which company is being used, the order for selecting parameters and what they offer is different. With Shapeways you select the unit of measurement (for Cloud9 this is usually millimeters) on the upload page, in Sculpteo you can re-scale your model if the price is too high, in i.materialise and Shapeways you can compare material and the cost of each. If you are happy with the price (is there a minimum order, is VAT and shipping included or extra?) and you order your 3D print you will receive it in 10 to 14 days. This will depend on material wanted – titanium certainly will take longer than polyamide!
Or you can go to a bureau if you need more support to work through the complexities of best material and system for successfully making your model, especially if there will be another stage such as mold making and casting. These are more expensive but you are well supported to get a successful model first time. Kits and low cost 3D printers are a huge growth sector as the instructions are open source and anyone can set up a group or company to make and replicate them. This viral DIY base is the principle behind RepRap and Fab@Home. There are major challenges still to be overcome. For example your model might include unprintable overhangs and if your 3D printer does not include a means of printing support structures you need to know how much of an overhang angle it can handle and whether your model exceeds that angle. With many many groups working to improve the quality and usability this is happening fast. So you too can build or buy one to sit beside your laptop and print off your models.
WHY? (why not!)
3D printing is such an exciting technology with so much potential, not only for prototyping but now also for creating finished usable pieces of work directly off the printer. As the range of materials has expanded, resolution improved and prices drop so the technology is finding uses in different sectors from dentistry and body parts, to jewellery and fashion, to prototyping at all stages for design, for animation models and characters, to ‘collectibles’ and customised accessories and useful hardware widgets.
3D printing is becoming a viable business proposition for individuals and small companies whether specialising into model creation and running bureaux. With the combination of 3D modelling software becoming easier to use (there are apps for mobiles and web based programmes for anyone to easily manipulate and customise designed 3D models) and greater competition in the 3D printing to attract your business this is a pretty good time to get modelling and not only test the market for your products and designs but sell them directly, hot off the printer.
Anarkik3D’s CEO is an long time enthusiast and had her first model printed in ABS plastic in 1998. This bangle was painted and had gold leaf applied and it is still very wearable. She also used Cloud9 to designed the wedding ring for one of her daughters in 2011. This was then 3D printed in titanium. Jewellery is so suitable for 3D printing as it fit easily into the 3D printer’s build envelope and being smallish the cost is justifiable.
Farah Bandookwala’s entire Master’s Degree work was 3D printed in nylon and steel and finished with magnets, dye and findings for earrings and necklaces. Her interactive sculptures for the Jerwood Makers Open 2011 Award were all 3D printed too.
More materials are being introduced as standard with development happening a both high and low ends. For jewellers, the introduction of gold as a 3D printable marterial will cut out the need for investment molds and ‘loss wax’ casting for production of small runs and one offs. Clay is being extruded to create ceramic work that can be fired and glass grains sintered together into vessels and artwork. 3D printers for edible materials, such as chocolate, are developing fast and will foster as many new businesses as there are applications. So don’t get left behind!
Simply type in 3D printing in an internet search and you will get nearly 10 million responses. To get you started, here are some links to the companies we know and trust.