Designing for That 3D Printer

No more teacups! It's time to get real when it comes to 3D printing.

Are you like me? Every time I see yet another pastel-colored mug advertising the wonders of 3D printing, I cringe. The whole idea of advertising such a high-potential technology with a decades-old gee-whiz approach galls me. 3D printing is a powerful tool in the hands of professionals. It can do jobs that no other manufacturing technology can touch, and it allows economic production of small runs.

The choice of that mug design highlights a problem with printing. The output-side technology (the printer) is well evolved, but the input side has languished. The printing technology has failed to take off and isn't yet fully adequate to the job. That doesn't make the printers unusable, of course, but they don't exploit the full potential of 3D.

The issue starts with CAD software tools. These are designed for the traditional processes of stamping, bending, grinding, and molding, and need to add a set of printing-oriented options to the front-end design creation suite. Concepts like constrained color control, shrinkage in fine-blanking processes, surface finish specification, and such need to be added to the design palette.

In some other areas, the tools available are unique to the 3D-printing space, though they are expanding out to other uses. Possibly driven by visions of a transporter beam or replicator from Star Trek, 3D scanning is a great complement to the printing capability. It is the solid version of a Xerox machine.

Not only can parts be copied, they can be copied from a wax, clay, wood, ceramic or metal template and converted to new materials. That's a powerful tool, since it allows new ways to create parts cheaply. This approach is spawning a new business model for replicas of art objects where realistic, accurate copies can be generated automatically. The museum replica business just found a new way of doing things, for instance.

Being able to scan shapes is a new tool in the jewelry trade. Free form, flowing designs are notoriously difficult to do with CAD tools. The ideal vehicle is to make a prototype part by hand in wax and then 3D-scan it into a computer.

The most innovative use of 3D scanning to date is a Christmas offer by a major department store to scan objects and create replicas. Using this approach it is possible to create figures or busts of loved ones. It is pricy, but it beats the heck out of green pastel mugs!

(Source: Wikipedia)

(Source: Wikipedia)

Some specialty businesses have created their own solutions to the input problem. One very impressive use is the building up of dental crowns and bridges. Here, the impression the dentist creates is converted by software to a model for a crown or even a full dental plate. My dentist has the printer running in a glass case in his lobby, and clearly stands by the results.

There's a considerable hobbyist market for 3D printing. Jewelry makers can get designs printed, and even molded in metal, by service bureaus. A variety of PC tools is available to create the design. We are just tapping in to the innovation this is unleashing, and again, more sophisticated software tools are part of the answer, while 3D scanning also has a place. We can expect 3D art to take off. Sculpture is likely to engender a sub-specialty of 3D-printed work, and this will extend to many other forms of art.

Medical sciences also have their own tools. Being able to create replacement body parts is a new and exciting area. We've seen the focus on just a few ideas, such as growing ears on substrates, but this area will expand to create replacement bones, and even major organs. This is all in its infancy, but it's a good bet that tools to ease the design task will become a sizable revenue stream.

3D printing is developing a set of task-specific infrastructures. The potential for the whole technology ecosystem is very large. Look for a rapidly evolving story.

18 comments on “Designing for That 3D Printer

  1. Nemos
    August 28, 2014

    A well written article , I have two very serious questions as currently I am thinking to make a new start in 3D printing. Therefore I would like to ask you how you see the future in hand made 3D printing manufacturing and with that I mean to manufacture small 3D printers mainly for plastic prints. Do you think that big companies will dominate the area as well as with the “normal” printers today ?

  2. _hm
    August 28, 2014

    I would never drink tea from mug made on 3D printer. That is quite detrimental to health.

    Unless new generation 3D printer can handle Bon China and bake it too.

  3. JimOReilly
    August 28, 2014

    The range of 3D printers has grown pretty quickly. Most are general purpose, so they are overkill for small format work such as jewelry or small “flat” objects. If there is a market for specialist printers, they will come, though.

    Right now, 3D printing is too new for the majors to be heavily involved, though HP is in the game. That should change over time, though who the dominant players will be isn't clear. I'd look to HP and Apple, myself.

  4. JimOReilly
    August 28, 2014

    I agree. It also is likely to leak or deform under the heat!

    Printing clay is a distinct possibility, since direct deposition of ceramics is already underway in high-end printers

  5. Nemos
    August 28, 2014

    Why you have so negative perspective ? there are 10000 uses and more that you can do and the most important you can DO IT by yourself.

  6. Nemos
    August 28, 2014

    Thanks for your answer Jim , so would you buy my future hand made 3D plastic printer ? 😉

  7. JimOReilly
    August 28, 2014

    Quite the opposite. I'm not negative about 3D printing. I think it will revolutionize manufacturing, but we do need to get beyond the tea mug phase.

  8. ahdand
    August 29, 2014

    @Nemos: Well I don't mind considering it 🙂

  9. Nemos
    August 29, 2014

    Thank you so much, I appreciate it and you will have a special discount if my plan will take place.  

  10. Himanshugupta
    August 29, 2014

    I agree that the main problem is to design the final product and the traditional CAD softwares are good to build the rough final product otherwise too time consuming. In traditional manufacturing also, the final product is not delivered in one go but the product goes through series of steps. But i am sure that manufacturing will warm up to the 3D printing.

  11. Taimoor Zubar
    August 29, 2014


    “In traditional manufacturing also, the final product is not delivered in one go but the product goes through series of steps. But i am sure that manufacturing will warm up to the 3D printing.”

    @Himanshugupta: I think 3D printing is a good tool when it comes to prototyping. Normally the prototypes take a long time everywhere when they're being made through other means but with 3D printing it becomes much easier and quicker. Hence this cuts down the total design time involved.


  12. Taimoor Zubar
    August 29, 2014

    @Jim: One think that I see happening is the reduction in cost in both in terms of the printer hardware and the material being used as input in the printers. This would cut down the cost of each print and eventually make them more widespread and easily affordable.

  13. JimOReilly
    August 29, 2014

    Price reduction is certainly helping the attractiveness of the technology. As part of the TCO calculation, you also have to factor much shorter development cycles and the lack of any tooling  


  14. Himanshugupta
    August 30, 2014

    @TaimoorZ, i agree that 3D printing can change the prototype landscape but real opportunity lies in the manufacturing of small quantity of products.

  15. fmotta
    September 2, 2014

    Nicely written posting.

    I have been a 3D print hobbiest for some time (including design and building my own from known components and customizing beyond the original).  Yes, CAD software is a challenge. It has always been a challenge and if you do not invest months/years into one CAD package to know its (unique) idiosyncrasies then it is even more of a challenge.  So, I decided to use OpenSCAD as I am able to code and think in code as well as 3D objects. 

    Like Electronics and chip (EDA) tools there can be many steps involved and each have their own pitfalls.  So, I think that the problem is not unique to 3D printing.  It is with the mentality of tools developers.  We need CAD/CAE/EDA tools that are usable without investing a significant portion of your life.  These tools need to have common functionality and (G)UI.  But, that is like telling someone that Windows GUI should be like OSX or someone elses.  No chance there.

    So, I code my designs and export them into a form that can be read into one or more tools to define or emit the GCODE for the printer.  No, this is not “consumer ready”  But, I remember when we had a “Copy room” and “print center” where we had people manage the oddities inherent in generating 2D products on paper.  Things should settle in and we should eventually find that there is a clear “winner” that makes 3D printing consumer ready.


  16. JimOReilly
    September 2, 2014

    @fmotta, too many software designers forget that mear mortals like us have to train ourselves on any new interface. They are so carried away with the elegance of their new interface that they make it tough to learn enough to be useful.

    Microsoft just saw the impact of that when Windows 8 caused them to lose most of their OS customers, who stayed put on Win7 or XP rather than learn a completely new GUI.

  17. fmotta
    September 2, 2014

    lol – well yes, BUT.  Microsoft is charging for Win 8 (part of OEM and bundle) and charging the end customer for fixing this debacle with Win 7 (if it is possible – some systems from companies like HP do not provide drivers for Win7 so we return them and buy an ASUS).

    I have tried many CAD packages and rejected them all as I can code faster than I can find the magic/hidden keystroke that gets that one drop-down so I can add one feature.  A feature I can code in far less time.


  18. Eldredge
    September 22, 2014

    3D printing is a powerful tool in the hands of professionals. It can do jobs that no other manufacturing technology can touch

    The unique capabilities of 3D printing is an important point. Because it is a build-up technology, it can produce an object with intricate internal features that would be difficult to produce with other manufacturing techniques.


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