Household 3D printers still far off

Owning a 3D printer may still be reserved for hobbyists with time to invest into how to use them, says MakerSpace founder Stephen Gray.

Owning a 3D printer may still be reserved for hobbyists with time to invest into how to use them, says MakerSpace founder Stephen Gray.

3D printing is becoming increasingly mainstream and users are finding interesting ways to use the new technology. However, those who own the machines remain in the realm of hobbyists or the professional sector.

Stephen Gray, founder of Durban’s MakerSpace, a place where 3D printers and other tech is available for people to learn to make things, says even though costs of printers have reduced in the last few years, a lot of time needs to be invested into learning how to use the machines.

Gray says the technology is hitting the “trough of despair” in the classic new tech hype cycle.

“At first, the idea of 3D printing captured popular attention, then the reality of how hard it is to print and 3D-model something set in, and the hype pendulum has swung.”

Printing in 3D is not as easy as loading the machine with a material and pushing a button. It requires knowledge of the program used to create or tweak designs, understanding of material strengths and weaknesses, how to calibrate a printer, and patience to keep trying until the product comes out right.

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Gray believes 3D printing will find its place in the future local printing shops. “I think commercial 3D printers will continue to drop in price and increase in functionality until every corner copy shop has one, and you can go in and 3D-print a replacement part for your washing machine, or a tripod shoe for a camera.”

He says it would cost around R5 in material to print one of the above-mentioned items and about half an hour in time. “You can’t beat that for convenience.”

However, it depends on if the design files are freely available.

Gray says: “As access to 3D files increases and print quality improves, I think we will get to a point where many companies will sell and release their designs so you can print replacement parts at your local print shop. It will make sense for practical reasons like logistics and stockholding.”

Earlier this month, it was reported the worldwide 3D printing market will experience a five-year compound annual growth rate of 22.3%, with revenue reaching $28.9 billion in 2020.

The fastest growth will come from the Middle East and Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe regions, according to research firm IDC.

Printing music

The MakerSpace offers courses on how to use 3D printing, as well as a space for people to practise. The space is part of the local chapter of the global maker movement − a post-consumerism lifestyle, where people look to make things themselves instead of buying off shelves.

Gray says people have printed everything from custom cookie-cutters to prosthetic hands at MakerSpace.

Recently, Gray 3D-printed a ukulele from a design found on Thingiverse, an open source Web site for downloading files to build with a laser cutter, 3D printer, or a computer-controlled cutting machine.

It took 20 hours of printing to complete the instrument: 11 hours for the body and nine hours for the neck and about half an hour for the tuning pegs. The design had to be optimised to suit the printer used, a Kossel Mini Delta. This meant the soprano ukulele design had to be scaled down to 90% of its full size.

Stringing a printed ukulele was tricky, he says. “The peg mechanism for tuning works on friction and it’s very sensitive so it takes some care and fiddling to get it in tune.”

The video below is of Gray playing the ukulele, and performing a cover of Riptide by Vance Joy, with his daughter.

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