More people are using 3D home printers to turn their own designs into real products
When Eric Weber’s wife told him one night that a part of her electric breast pump was broken, he switched on his 3D printer. To her delight, he handed her a plastic replica of the missing part a few hours later.
The 35-year-old German manager in a telecommunications company bought the printer two months ago so that he could use it to rapidly create parts for his remote- control model planes and cars.
He has also been using the printer to make educational toys for his two-year-old son, and items such as clothing hooks and cabinet door handles.
“They do not have the same finish and smooth surface as commercially produced items, but the important thing is that they work as intended,” says Weber, a permanent resident of Singapore.
What he finds most satisfying about the 3D printer is that designs created on the computer become tangible objects in a “very short period of time”.
“It’s an entirely different thing to see something on the computer, and to hold it in your hands a short while later,” he says.
Weber is part of a growing trend in Singapore, where more people are making their own toys and household items without stepping into a shop. All they need do is click on their digital design – chosen from websites dedicated to the sharing of such files – send it to their 3D home printer, and wait for the solid object made of sturdy plastic to emerge.
Developed in the 1980s, 3D printers build tangible objects from computer design by depositing thin layers of material one over the other.
Modern 3D home printers use plastic materials such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and a biodegradable plastic called PLA (polylactic acid), which give the product a glossier finish.
Most machines designed for home use can create an object with a maximum size of 20cm high or wide. The printing takes between one and six hours or more, depending on the density and details of the object desired.
If a 3D home printer is beyond your budget (they can cost more than US$2,000), you can just pass a 3D file of your design to companies which offer the service and get your prototype back within a couple of hours or days, depending on the size of the item.
Unlike home models, professional 3D printers cost between S$90,000 and S$1.5 million (Bt2.2 million to Bt36.6 million). Highly precise, they can capture details such as the dimpled feel of orange skin or the texture of fine hair.
Industry insiders estimate that about 40 home 3D printers are sold in Singapore each month – double the amount being bought in 2011. The futuristic machines first arrived in Singapore around 2008, through orders placed with US-based online stores.
But at least two companies have started selling the printers in Singapore. SG Tooling began ofering DIY 3D home printer kits from local company OrangeKnob LLP last year. It has since switched to American brand MakerBot, the market leader in ready-made 3D home printers.
The MakerBot Replicator 3D home printer costs between US$2,199 and $2,799.
Mike Kong, 40, who set up SG Tooling, which specialises in hobby tools and desktop machines, said he has seen a 30 per cent rise in demand for such printers since last year. His customers include research students who want to create prototypes of products they have designed, and people who want to make toys and household items.
DIY machines such as the Panther 3D printer can be bought from OrangeKnob LLP, believed to be the only local maker of 3D home printers in Singapore. Its home printers cost between US$480 and US$960.
Another local firm, Pirate3D, is developing what it hopes will be the world’s most affordable 3D printer, the Buccaneer. It is forecast to cost about US$347.
Pirate3D made its debut recently on online crowd-funding site Kickstarter and is hoping to surf the wave of interest among tech geeks for its products.
But early adopters of this technology should beware. There is still a long way to go before 3D printing is as simple as printing a letter.
A user needs enough technical knowledge to, for instance, replace damaged or worn parts. The good news is that 3D printing rookies can turn to online forums for tips.
Weber said his two-month experience with his first 3D printer has been bittersweet. He is happy when he gets his product, but it usually takes two or more attempts and the process can be frustrating. He is optimistic, however, that things will improve, and sees a bright future for the new tool.
“The technology should get better, and maybe one day every home will have a 3D printer.”