Having made the leap from science fiction to reality, 3D printers are now available for home use. And you might be surprised to learn that they are both affordable and user-friendly.
So, how do they actually work? Like a conventional print job, 3D printing begins with you fashioning a digital blueprint - except in this case, depending on the ambition of your design, it may take you a matter of hours rather than minutes (and for less artistic users, rest assured there are a selection of ready-made templates available for download).
Thereafter it is as simple as clicking "print" and then waiting. The machine essentially slices deftly thin layers of the chosen material and seamlessly binds each one to the next to replicate your blueprint in three-dimensions. Unfortunately, this is a process as slow and methodical as it sounds, and some users have reported a printing time numbering in the days.
With this kind of ordeal, three-dimensional printing is easily dismissed as being more effort than it's worth - particularly when the output appears rather one-dimensional. But there are probably more possibilities than you realise, and they aren't just limited to architecture planning and novelty gift ideas.
More practical every-day uses include furniture parts, buttons, hinges, handles, jewelry, even shoes. Remember that the standard plastic featured in all the ads is far from the only material compatible with 3D printers (as a measure of their versatility, the medical profession is currently using a gel substance infused with human cells to fashion prosthetic body parts).
But this is just the tip of the iceberg; domestic 3D printing is still a relatively new development that entails both the teething problems and inquisitive excitement associated with emerging technology. Users can expect further innovations in the not-too-distant future: greater scale, more materials, quicker prints, and hopefully cheaper production costs too.
There is no getting away from the fact that we are a few years away from declaring a personal 3D printer an essential purchase rather than a luxury one. And though they are not unreasonably priced, buyers should be warned that the cost of materials is not included in the initial outlay - and neither will it be limited to an yearly stock-up, presuming you want to make your investment count.
If your curiosity has been piqued, here are three printers that have caught our eye:
CEL Robox, £999.99
At the high end of the 3D printer market, the CEL Robox purports to be up to 300% faster than rival models (though one suspects this is based on estimates for the more basic jobs). The printer's size facilitates fairly ambitious projects, and it is comfortable with several materials. Featuring built-in fail-safes to prevent waste, the bumper pricetag will eventually prove worthwhile.
FlashForge Creator Pro, £799.00
Reinforced with a bulky metal frame, FlashForge's latest 3D printer is said to be robust enough to cope with the wear and tear of regular use (and, at this price, users should not underestimate the importance of durability). Also in its plus column is a steady, precise nozzle as well as a simple and easy-to-use button interface. If user reviews are anything to go by, the Creator Pro's customer satisfaction record is largely unblemished.
Printrbot Simple Metal, £579.95 (kit); £615.95 (assembled)
If budget constraints are an issue, then this discount model is worth a look. Compared to other printers, it is noticeably bare - featuring a fairly small canvas unprotected by an exterior shield - but the overall quality of the prints largely exceed that implied by the low price. The more tech-savvy buyers might be tempted to opt for the cheaper unassembled version, for which there are helpful tutorials available online.