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For some people 3D printing is just hopelessly futuristic technology; for some it invokes scenes of scientists and engineers in labs; for others it is a hobby for old men tinkering in sheds (who we love by the way, check out the men in sheds initiative.)

But it’s not something that just anyone can pick up, is it?

Well actually… yes. It is.

Over the last few years 3D Printing has become an affordable and accessible hobby, with printers available for just a few hundred pounds. If you’re already in the know, you might want to skip this bit; but for those of you who are new to 3D printing, here’s a very quick run down of what it is and how it works.

There are 2 main types of 3D printers that you can buy for personal use (at a reasonable price.) These are FDM and SLA printers. Techie people just love acronyms, never fear, let’s break it down.

FDM stands for fused deposit modelling – no bonus points for figuring this one out. It does exactly what it says on the tin and is likely to be the system that you will have seen demoed. You load a plastic type filament into the printer which then feeds it through a HOT extruder causing the filament to melt and basically paints a very thing layer onto a “printer bed” using motors and rails. This dries almost instantly and as the printer reads “slices” of a computer generated 3D model the object builds up as layer on layer of filament is added to the object.

SLA stands for stereolithography. This one takes a bit more work to understand.

stereo means solid in greek and lithography… well what the heck is lithography?

Dictionary time.

noun: lithography;

1. the process of printing from a flat surface treated so as to repel the ink except where it is required for printing.

Which leaves us with:

noun: stereolithography

1. a technique or process for creating three-dimensional objects, in which a computer-controlled moving laser beam is used to build up the required structure, layer by layer, from a liquid polymer that hardens on contact with laser light.

Basically, Laser beams solidifying runny plastic to make pretty much anything. Sounds mad doesn’t it – like something from the future. Except I have one sitting on the bench in my workshopright now, (alright, technically its the dining room, I’m hardly Adam Savage), and it cost less than one of those posh coffee makers.

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So what’s the point?

I’m going to start with the most obvious one:

3D printing has sped up the prototyping process, cutting down costs and speeding up innovation. You’re probably interacting with 3D printed parts all of the time without even realising.

That’s right, I’m talking about Gran.

These days there’s a good chance that Gran’s hip is 3D printed. Thanks to the innovation of Dr. Guido Grappiolo 3D printed hips have been in used for over 10 years now – they’re printed to a unique shape (for each patient) in titanium alloy with lots of hollows that mimics natural bone properties and causes bone to actually grow through-out the structure!

Speaking of medical innovations, I was once searching for a heart model to print out, for a school workshop I was due to run, only to discover a treasure trove of real peoples hearts with different defects. I could print out any number of defective hearts from MRI scans hosted online by doctors seeking to educate themselves and other in rare conditions. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, you can take a look here.

In a similar vein, have you SEEN what people are doing with artifical limbs? It’s truly inspiring – Aged 17, Joel Gibbard started to tinker with building robotic hands in his room, fast forward to 2014 when he started Open Bionics https://openbionics.com/about/ They make fully functional, custom fitted prostetic arms with haptic (touch sesitive) feeback for as little as £2,300 and can be printed and fitted in around 40 hours. If that sounds expensive to you, bear-in-mind that ones with similar capabilities cost up to £73,500 and can take months to make. Before 3D printing it was very unusual for a young child to be fitted with a working prosthetic, it simply cost too much to grow out of – All this good, from one guy tinkering in his bedroom!

Which leads me nicely to my second reason why 3D printing is awesome.

Here’s a good one for you, how do visually impaired people (VIP) read music? It’s certainly a niche market.

Actually, most VIP are taught to read music in Braille using the names of the notes, but you can’t convey the same depth of information through Braille as you can through notation. With 3D printed staves they can learn alongside their sighted peers.

In fact, 3D printing has a host of uses for accessibility including making tactile 3D ‘illustrations,’ making Braille picture books, and nanonan’s wheelchair ramp for beating curbs. These adaptation tools highlight my next big positive for 3D printing:

Did you know that they have a 3D printer on the International Space station? It makes sense when you consider that before 3D printing they had to send up a rocket everytime something broke!

The same logic applies at home, too: screwdriver handle broken? Print it. Odd bit broken off of the hoover? Print it. Want a custom umbrella stand that fits exactly under your sink? Print it.

Not only will you be thwarting planned obsolescence (where companies build things to break on purpose so that you have to buy more stuff) but you’ll be doing your bit for the environment, too. Ordering less replacements and making things last longer means less shipping based C02 emissions and less single use plastics in packaging.

Many FDM printers also have brilliant environmentally friendly filaments too, we use PLA which is cornstarch based – biodegradable, non-toxic and can be recycled. If you want to take it even further you can get filament that is made of recycled material or invest in a filabot, which you can feed old plastics and failed prints into, in order to make more filament. What’s that? You’re a hardcore environmentalist? Alright, alright… filament made of soy. Yes, seriously. Or if you’re concerned about the water and land impact of soy farming, there’s PLA made from nuisance algae, too.

To be fair, there is a slight learning curve to making your own models. My next point?

Teach yourself, teach your kids, teach your dog!

If you can use a computer comfortably, then you can teach yourself to make 3D models with CAD software (more acronyms, this one means Computer Aided Design). There is a wealth of instructionals and open source (free) software online for 3D printing and CAD design.

For a super basic introduction to TinkerCAD – the “my first CAD software” of choice for the innovation lab check out our workshop.

Mental health benefits of learning a new skill aside, you’ll find yourself competent in a seriously desirable skill. 3D modelling is big business. If you’re not in it for a job, however, you can always set up a side-hustle and sell your models to other hobbyists on sites like sketch-fab (It’s all about that passive income!)

And now for my number 1 reason for getting into 3D printing as a hobby:

THE CREATIVITE COMMUNITY

Remember the guy in the shed? Let’s call him Gary – to be fair, he probably is printing trains.

And Gary might be a 65 year old fella, but Danny who helped him learn how to use the CAD software is a 16 year old design student, (who’s learned a lot about trains and engineering as a result) and Evie is a 36 year old mum of two with an interest in electrical engineering and micro computers, she helped Gary wire up his creation to make it battery operated and remote controlled. The project gave her the confidence to go back into education to retrain for her dream job. Evie’s boys, Riley (8) and George (14) love the group – George has discovered that he has a knack for 3D sculpture and Riley just loves having so many grownups around to talk to, it’s really improved his confidence. Sanjeev is 74 and just comes for the tea and conversation, it’s the only regular interaction he has with people since his wife died last year.

Together they worked through a design process and came out the other end with a functional product, a host of new skills and a community.

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

Helen Keller

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