3D printers are making life easier for companies and users all around the world, offering a money-saving and stress-free way to bring designs to life. There are no longer long delays between designing and creating objects, as items are made at the push of a button.

On top of this, 3D printing software offers the chance for companies to calculate costs and the amount of material required before printing, offering total control over their creations. Even with the vast benefits of 3D printing, there are some limits to this fantastic technology. So, where do these marvellous machines struggle?

Limitations to design

Most 3D Printers use FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) technology which involves injecting layers of plastic onto a surface. The reason companies use this technology is that it’s low cost and doesn’t require any extensive equipment. The downside is that 3D printables can suffer the effects of gravity. Printed plastic can droop during the printing process, meaning some shapes can be a challenge to print, especially if they have ledges or steep angles (usually more than 45 degrees). More often than not, plastic supports will need to be printed to ensure that the design prints accurately. In most 3D printing software, adjustments can also be made to minimise the risk of failure.

The finished product

Another problem with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printers is the finishing. The process of adding layers of plastic over and over again can mean that once the 3D printing has finished, lines are sometimes visible and can look rough or uneven. Even though the correct lines of code were input during the software design process, the only real solution is to use sandpaper, 3D printing chemical finishing products, or paint. The problem with finishing is that measurements can drastically change.

Limits to heat resistance

Unless you have thousands of pounds at your fingertips, most machines are limited to printing plastic. Plastics are fantastic for a wide range of items, but, depending on the purpose, certain plastics can be impractical.

Before printing any item, you should consider which type of plastic to use and the effects of printing with it before and after. An object made from PLA which is kept inside a room with temperatures above 40 degrees can deform. There are types of plastics which are capable of withstanding higher temperatures, like Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS). Still, the downside is the fumes which can be released during printing. Therefore, a well-ventilated room is essential due to the toxicity.

3D printing has opened up new doors in the world of technology and manufacturing, but there are some downsides too. Make sure you are aware of the limitations of 3D printing to avoid facing disappointment whether you own or are looking to purchase a machine.

So, what about the benefits of 3D printing in the home?

Replacement parts

Some companies claim items will last a lifetime, but excessive use or stress can render an item unusable. The only options used to be to go without or to find or buy a replacement, both of which can be inconvenient.

A quick measure of the damaged item using callipers and a transfer to software is all that’s needed to print off a new part. People with less time can buy a 3d scanner to help. An available hack is to use an old Xbox Kinect motion sensor to scan and print without spending a fortune.

Finding a solution

Are you struggling to mount your android box to the wall? Or have you got a design you’ve always wanted to bring to life?

3D printing machines are simple to learn. Anyone can purchase a low priced printer with some machines available online for under £100. Once bought and set up, designing objects for everyday problems like a broken cupboard handle or a screw can be done simply. As long as the item fits on the machine’s build plate, it can be printed.

Graphic designers or those working in small businesses who prototype items will find 3D printing can save time by working out whether an item is fit for purpose.

Educational

Owning a 3D printer is about more than just creating objects. Both kids and adults can learn valuable skills, from assembling their machine to learning bits of coding, and when parts eventually break diagnosing and repairing.

Thanks to organisations like the Rep Rap Project, 3D printing is an option for everyone regardless of their budget. For instance, children can learn about difficult topics like the body by printing off structures like the skeleton or internal organs.

3D printing is a fascinating area for anyone to get involved in regardless of their past experiences of technology. Owning a machine can help you replace parts, find a solution to problems, and can be great for educational purposes.

Photo: 3D printing filament by westonhighschoollibrary licensed under Creative Commons 4.0