Three-dimensional printers – once available to a small circle of high-tech firms and professionals – are now available to the general public. The ability to produce a prototype quickly and with minimal investment is a boon for the creative sector.
“A glass of water with ice!” Almost immediately, Star Trek’s hero Captain Kirk holds his order in his hands. The replicators aboard the Starship Enterprise could produce anything – even edible items – as long as the chemical composition was stored in the spaceship’s computers.
Pure science fiction? Sure, figuring out how to reconstruct water and ice based on data should keep scientists busy for a few decades. Producing the glass, however, is no longer a problem. All that’s needed is a 3D printer – for example, the Replicator 2X, named in honour of its interstellar television predecessor.
Normal mortals should think twice about printing glasses, however. Admittedly, so-called selective laser sintering (see box) can produce objects out of glass or metal. But it might be better to get started with a 3D printer that prints with resin.
Prototypes in the blink of an eye
"In traditional industry you begin with a block of material, which you modify,” says Lucien Hirschi, director of Zedax in La Neuveville, canton Bern.
Hirschi, who founded his company in 2005, was one of the first people in Switzerland to acknowledge the enormous potential of three-dimensional printing. Or, to be exact, “stereolithography for rapid prototyping”, as the additive manufacturing process is called in his lab.
On the day of our meeting, the young entrepreneur has just received the data for the prototypes of a well-known luxury watch brand. He starts the program for 3D modelling, makes a few changes in the design, and starts the printing program.
It seems like a game. But in reality it’s more complicated. “Often, people forget that the first step is the programming. If you don’t have a three-dimensional design of the object to be printed, you have to scan the original. That takes a lot of time. It’s often easier to invent something from scratch on the computer,” he says.
The printing process has started. The spray nozzles pass quickly over a plate, each time leaving a layer of resin 16 microns (a thousandth of a millimetre) thick. After a few minutes they begin to print some watch glass and the watch model we saw on the computer screen.
After 37 minutes, the display shows that the resin prototype is almost finished. Now the supporting gel has to be removed and the object has to be sanded with another machine. The resin copies have become the 3D model.
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Total freedom of shape
With printers of the newest generation it’s even possible to mix different resins. There are around 50 types on the market, which allows experimentation with characteristics such as colour and hardness.
In addition to the fact that there is total freedom to design shapes of all kinds, one of the main advantages of this new technology is its speed. “We can deliver a prototype within a maximum of three days,” says Hirschi.
Most of his clients are from the watchmaking industry. “If the managers of a company have to decide between five variations of a new model, it’s much easier if they can hold a prototype in their hands, rather than look at a plan. It shortens the decision-making process,” he says.
The production of a prototype is also less expensive than with the normal method. A plastic model of watch glass costs between CHF100 ($107) and CHF150 ($160).
Is it possible to create more than just a “simple” prototype? “I just had clients who ordered special elements which then became components of a machine. It would have been too expensive to mass produce them, because only a few companies need these parts. They’re essentially individual items. This technique is not for mass production.”
More evolution than revolution
This opinion is shared by Gaëtan Bussy, co-founder with Jérôme Mizeret of Fab Lab in Neuchâtel, where “almost anything can be produced”, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote in 2001, when it was one of the first institutes to open a lab of this kind.
“3D printers won’t replace current industry models – they’ll transform them,” Bussy says. He believes “evolution” would be a more accurate term than “revolution”, the term used by US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in February.
“It’s still impossible to print some kinds of materials,” he adds. “But it’s also true that these technologies make production of extremely complicated objects possible, and they can change our way of thinking.”
For example, storage is to a certain degree unnecessary in 3D printing, and there are simple objects which anyone can produce at home.
Bussy gives the example of a person who needed something to fix a projection screen onto a wall, but couldn’t find what she needed in a shop. She created a small plastic part to do the job. “It’s sort of Handwork 2.0,” he says.
"Twenty years ago you went to a printing centre if you wanted to print a document. Today everyone has a printer at home and the printing centres have had to specialise. The 3D printer market will probably develop in the same way.”
Currently there are various types of rapid prototyping. 3D printers for the general public function according to the principle of Fused Deposition Modelling, a technology invented at the end of the 1980s.
These machines, which can print small objects, melt the production material, a polymeric thermoplastic, and print it according to a 3D model onto a working surface in three dimensions.
With stereolithography the data that define an object are divided into small slices and sent to the printer layer by layer. The object is created in a plastic bath. A laser beam polymerises only the parts that are supposed to be solid. At the end of the process, the object is allowed to harden.
Selective laser sintering uses a high-power laser to combine small particles of a resin in a fusion process. This also takes place layer by layer until the solid object is produced. A variety of resins (thermoplasts, metal, sand) can be used. This method can also be used for complicated metal objects which can’t be produced by traditional processes.
This democratisation has been going on for a few years already, ever since the patent for Fused Deposition Modelling, another method of 3D printing, ran out.
Today it’s possible to buy a 3D printer for CHF500. Naturally, the quality is very basic in comparison with professional machines, which cost tens of thousands of francs. But it’s enough to stimulate the creativity of hobby craftworkers – so-called “makers” – and budding digital entrepreneurs.
François Pellet and his wife Anne-Sylvie stumbled on the technology accidentally.
"My wife produces chocolate and wants to work independently. I’m a surveyor and try to help her where I can. For her project she wanted to produce wooden moulds for chocolate bars. We knew exactly what form we wanted. We asked a variety of carpenters, but no one could deliver the precision we needed.”
After some online research, the couple came across Fab Lab, where anyone can use the available material for a modest price.
"I came in with a vector-based design on a USB stick. First we wanted to use the 3D printer. Then we discovered that a laser cutter would work better. The result was perfect. It would have been possible with the 3D printer as well, but the plastic model wouldn’t have been sturdy enough to withstand the daily wear and tear,” Pellet says.
The visit to Fab Lab tickled the Pellets’ imagination. Their dream is to produce even more original chocolate moulds in the coming months.
"We have to run some tests, but technically it appears to be doable. I create the design in 3D, then we create the negative of the model with the 3D printer, and pour the chocolate into that.”
Captain Kirk would probably be green with envy: even he wasn’t able to ask his replicator for a chocolate model of the Enterprise.