Prototyping and the benefits of 3D printers

Startups and tinkerers alike are starting to bring their creations to life with 3D printers becoming cheaper year by year and the technology rapidly advancing to give higher resolutions and more intricate prints. Whether you wish to create a remote controlled plane, housing for a Raspberry PI or even a working model replica of an engine – investing in a 3D printer is a good thing to do.

File Types

The most commonly used file types are .STL and .WRL. Most Desktop 3D printers use .STL files (stereolithography) which allows for the use of one filament. These files are normally used on 3D printers with 1 extruder due to the fact that stereolithography allows for only 1 filament to be used. Industrial and Higher tier/modified dekstop 3D printers will accept .WRL files (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) which allows for the use of more fillaments.

The Materials

The two most common materials which are used in desktop 3D printers are PLA (polylactic acid) and ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). Both materials have their advantages and disadvantages however PLA tends to be the most used material in desktop 3D printing.

PLA

Noted as the easiest material to print out of the two, PLA is a biodegradable plastic with a melting point of 180-220 degrees celcius depending on the specifics of the plastic itself. Being biodegradable means that it does not weather well over time and certain shades of the plastic are not UV resistant making the objects created with PLA turn paler over time. However for its flaws, the material is easier to print with than ABS and gives better looking models straight off of the print bed.

ABS

ABS is a weather resistant, none biodegradable plastic with a melting point of around 230 degrees celsius dependant on the manufacturer. The plastic has a harder time sticking to the print bed due to the transition temperature being 105 degrees celsius compares to PLA which has a transition temperature of around 60 degrees celsius. The biggest issue with ABS is the fact that if it is cooled incorrectly the plastic is likely to warp or crack which means that it is better suited for more expensive printers with better cooling equipment specifically made for ABS.  The plastic is more durable and will be better suited for objects which need to be left outdoors for a long period of time.

Although the objects may not look as good of a quality straight from the print bed, ABS plastic can be smoothed by putting the object inside of an acetone vapour-bath for a short period of time due to the way that acetone reacts with the plastic. This allows for the final model to be of a higher quality than PLA if you have some time spare to smooth the object.

Personal Experience

Due to the fact that I enjoy creating small robotics projects at home and certain brackets/objects are hard to craft out of wood, glue, PVC Pipes and whatever else I find lying around my room, I decided to buy an entry-level 3D printer.

Choosing the 3D printer was difficult. There are a lot of horror stories on the internet about terrible printing quality, prints stopping halfway through and even printers setting on fire. I decided to buy the Anet A8 (Prusa i3 clone) after having a bit of a play with both the M3D and the Anet A8. If you are looking to buy a 3D printer then I would definitely suggest that research and having a tinker with the 3D printer you want will help you to understand it better before you commit to buying one.


The Anet A8 has known issues but it also has a lot of support in the community being an i3 clone. Not just that but there is the ability to flash the board which comes with the printer and add extra extrusion nozzles so that more than 1 fillament can be used at once means that the printer can be upgraded over time to fit your needs.

Objects

So far I have successfully printed a spitfire model plane with fully functioning ailerons, rudders and elevators. In theory the model should fly due to the fact that I found it on thingiverse.com and other people have flown it before but due to an accident the motor and ESC which powered the plane stopped functioning and needs to be replaced before testing can begin. I have also printed candle holders, gears and hexapedal legs of my own design, mounting brackets and key rings.

The process of printing is relatively simple and the printer is quiet enough that I can leave it on when I am at home with the printer. One of the biggest issues is to not print a ton of trinkets such as the 3d models that I have created using Blender.

Prototyping The 3D Workspace

Mass production is cheap and efficient compared to singular production. If you want to print a single PCB board you may pay £20-£30 however to print 20 it will cost roughly £80 (dependant on where you buy). The reason for the exponential decay in cost is due to the fact that creating objects once requires schematics and blueprints which need to be generated for each sole part, however when a schematic or blueprint is created the actual manufacturing cost is cheap hence the decay.

I am currently working with Tom Mcnamara (Founder of a company called FreeUP) who is using an Anet A8 to create prototypes . Tom models his ideas and then waits for the prototypes to print.
Once printed he checks how the these fit, if there are any flaws in the design and finally looks at how he can improve his design. Tom can create a new iteration of his design in order to fit new parameters which may come along as the technology changes and hold the design in his hand in less than a day. All in all each iteration costs roughly 30p. Being as this is a startup with limited money, asking a specialised company to create the models for him would be out of budget.

Tom’s plan is to create the final proof of concept product himself before mass production. The process of iterations of the design allows for the final product to be perfected for the use case and it saves him money by getting a company to design it. After being filled, sanded down and painted the desired finish is achieved which looks like a real product.

The tooling cost is why it is so important for startups to use the benefits of 3D printers. If you get it wrong, it will cost a lot of money to re-tool but if you get it correct the first time then the price to create each individual unit after this is low.

3D-Design Sprints

After attending a Jake Knapp event in London, I realised the benefits of 3D printing and Design Sprints. At the end of the Sprint process, there is a day in which a simple prototype design which is a culmination of the week is produced to be tested. This prototype is usually a mockup of software and code but can also include a mockup of 3D objects.

In the past, mockups have been other companies products with different labels attached as a placeholder until a new design can be created. 3D printing allows for an accurate prototype of the model you wish to make to be created so that you can use the design in testing. Testing designs and ideas is very important and if done correctly can be the spark of inspiration on which a great idea comes about.

Final Words

3D Printing has come a long way in recent years and is still progressing. People are experimenting all of the time with materials such as Nylon for increased strength and the print resolution and speed of the printers is becoming much better. NASA has used a 3D printer in space to print a ratcheted wrench that was needed on the International Space Station and slowly the printer’s are finding their way into business and homes.

In some aspects it is still a long way from the perfect solution but currently they are very useable – the issue is to not overuse and create useless objects.

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