back to article Drilling into 3D printing: Gimmick, revolution or spooks' nightmare?

3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is a subject that pumps out enthusiasts faster than any real-life 3D printer can churn out products. In conventional machining, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CADCAM) combine to make products or parts of products by cutting away at, drilling and …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The future of 3D printing is already written. Just look at 2D printing and replicate.

    So at the moment most people will look at the prices and go "No chance". Few people are prepared to spend £2000 on a decent one, the budget ones look too fiddly for the masses.

    So the price will fall to £200 and you'll spend a small fortune on supplies instead. So you'll get a small spool of plastic cord, but replacing it will cost you £300.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "plastic chord" from the pound shop costs, well, a pound. Hopefully the materials and printers will drop in price in the same way printer, paper and ink did. £50-£100 for the lot?

    2. Andrew Moore
      Thumb Up

      Agreed totally. In fact the "hobbyist" nature of building your own 3d printer reminds me of the same thing happening with people building their own plotters in the 80s.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        How many people do you know currently own a Dremmel rotary tool? Like a dentists drill, it can be used for polishing, engraving, cutting and sanding. It is useful, and costs around £80. I know of two people who own one- a professional sculptor and and a hobbyist jewellery maker. I can't see the market for consumer 3D printers being much bigger.

        One area where 3D printing bureaus can make a dent is in undercutting replacement parts. My Whirlpool tumble-dryer had a small plastic door latch that melted, and their website very efficiently charged me £18 for a replacement.

        1. JetSetJim
          Thumb Down

          > My Whirlpool tumble-dryer had a small plastic door latch that melted, and their website very efficiently charged me £18 for a replacement.

          But surely the fittings on that small plastic door latch are proprietary IPR owned and licensed by Whirlpool so the creation of blueprints to replicate these will be an offence punishable by fines of ~$20K+ per infringement. You could redesign the shape of the handle, naturally, but being able to fit it to the door will require licensing of the right IPR.

          1. Dave 126 Silver badge

            >But surely the fittings on that small plastic door latch are proprietary IPR

            Good point, don''t know how it would work here. In the automotive industry, car manufacturers are not allowed to invalidate car guarantees because quality 3rd party parts have been used during servicing.

            I wouldn't be ordering a specific Whirlpool part, but rather a piece of material of "X by Y by Zmm, with two 9mm holes, and an angled boss of 18 mm by .... " (well, I'd be submitting a CAD drawing, or maybe the bureau can do something with photos using clever software).

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Thumb Up

            "But surely the fittings on that small plastic door latch are proprietary IPR owned and licensed by Whirlpool "

            Well, if I might (uncharacteristically) offer a glass half full thought for you both:

            The chances of a home 3D printer being able to turn out a component of the accuracy and strength to replace the carefully designed and made door catch on a machine is in my view slim, and will remain so, because you won't be inclined to maintain separate supplies of powdered metal, polystyrene, polycarbonate, ABS etc etc. That means we won't see the emergence of options like buying the digital pattern to print at home. But where 3D printing might help is that if the makers can print parts using a proper professional tool that uses the original design and the right type of plastic (or whatever) then this might revolutionise the world of spare parts, since other than for high volume parts you'd not make and warehouse components, significantly reducing your overall spares cost base (much of which is inventory management, warehousing, and working capital).

            Of course, lower production costs won't necessarily stop the makers pricing the parts at extortionate costs, as anybody who buys spares for Panasonic breadmakers will know, but there's some companies who are very good for spares (Bosch, Makita, come to mind in my experience).

            1. david bates

              A part that was carefully designed enough to melt in presumably normal use? I'd take my chances with a 'probaby good enough' replacement, as the official part is demonstrably NOT good enough.

            2. Stoneshop

              Door catch

              The chances of a home 3D printer being able to turn out a component of the accuracy and strength to replace the carefully designed and made door catch on a machine is in my view slim,

              With an object the size of an average washing machine door catch, you're wrong about the accuracy, and close to wrong about the strength. Accuracy is more a matter of getting the dimensions right, which can be tricky in cases, than with the printer's ability to lay down material with the required precision. Strength can be a bigger problem, but having the catch fail again can be reduced to the matter of actually replacing the damn thing if you've printed a couple in advance, after you've got the design right. And well-designed 3D-printed parts can be remarkably strong; it may require some tweaks to the original design (within what's possible given the space constraints), but a true handyman dremeling a replacement out of a nylon/ABS/teflon block would do the same if he thinks the original was lacking.

          3. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Complete tosh.

            If I have access to a lathe and workshop and make a replacement part for my car (perfectly possible for small parts), Ford or whoever wouldn't sue me for copyright infingement.

            The same would be true if I created a "blueprint" to re-create a plastic part using a 3D Printer, then made and fitted it.

            I would be infringing on their intellectual property if I then started to make and sell said part. Not sure about the publication of the "blueprint" or 3D Printer file though.

            But simply replicating such a part for my own personal use in no way could be seen as "an offence punishable by fines of ~$20K+ per infringement".

            1. JetSetJim

              err, I think you have the wrong end of the stick in thinking that personal use != copyright infringement.

              The rights & wrongs of the current legislation can be debated, but as it stands the current law states you're not allowed to make unlicensed copies of IPR for any purpose (outside of fair use provisions if you're in the US and other countries that have these). You might be able to claim that looking at the CAD drawings fall into fair use, but using them to make a new physical part is certainly not within fair use

              1. Dave 126 Silver badge

                >The chances of a home 3D printer being able to turn out a component of the accuracy and strength to replace the carefully designed and made door catch on a machine is in my view slim

                It was 'carefully designed and made'.... 'carefully designed and made' to fail that is, and thus steer me towards their on-line spares shop! That was kind of my point, that their business model is compete on price in the showroom, then recuperate the cost by selling the spare parts. A business model that might conceivably be disrupted if a 'made to measure' plastic parts printing bureau (using some sort of Fused Material Deposition process but then chemically cured to create a thermosetting plastic part)

              2. MacGyver

                I'm not sure how making a new part to replace an old broken part is outside of fairuse. I mean that is almost the exact reason that CDs and DVDs are allowed copies, in the event of the original becoming damaged.

                I think the the question you are proposing is whether or not you are buying the right to possess an object made from their IP. If that is the case, then the answer should be yes, at least one at any given time, and a copy from their IP to replace a defective/broken one should be well within fairuse.

              3. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                You might get sued in the US, but outside of the Land of Litigation common sense is likely to prevail.

                In the UK, it is technically illegal to copy/rip CDs for personal use, but no-one has ever been prosecuted for that and the same will very likely apply to someone using a 3D Printer to make a part for their tv/washing machine etc

                Hyperbole such as these claims that you'll be breaching "fair use" is simply that - hyperbole. There's no way anyone will ever get sued or prosecuted (outside of the Land of Litigation, that is) for using a 3D Printer to make a copy of some widget for their own personal use.

              4. John Bailey

                err, I think you have the wrong end of the stick in thinking that physical objects of a purely non decorative functional nature fall under copyright.

          4. Nigel 11

            Perhaps surprisingly, no.

            There's a lot of law pertaining to exhaust pipes in particular. It was established that car manufacturers had no rights over the manufacture of functionally equivalent parts which, externally, were indistinguishable from copies of a registered design, because they HAD to be exactly the same shape, diameter, etc. in order to attach to the car and not impede the operation of its engine. The internals were a different matter - there is freedom inside to make changes, and the third-party manufacturers were indeed making the innards differently to the car manufacturer.

            Further, if you are making your own parts rather than manufacturing them for profit, you have even greater license. For example, you are allowed to make an instance of a mechanism described in a patent for your own curiosity, enjoyment, maintenance of a broken purchased item, etc. even though you need a license to sell such parts for profit.

            As with audio and video, watch out for attempts to take away the freedoms we currently enjoy!

            1. imanidiot Silver badge

              Patents are not the problem

              Patent laws protects the commercial exploitation of an idea. Meaning an individual is allowed to make a patented mechanism for his own use. He's not allowed to commercially market them though. Intellectual property law is a lot fuzzier though. What is and is not allowed has to be judged on a pretty much case by case basis. However, if you make a component that is not exactly the same, it's not the same design, thus not the same IP. And how the heck is a company going to find out about you making a few replacement parts for your clothes dryer?

              As a mechanical engineer I'm extremely skeptical of all the claims about 3d printing. Most of them are simply false. Having witnessed the stupendous amount of specialist materials for all kinds of different application in just thermoplastics alone I can't see any individual ever being able to keep enough different materials in stock to be able to make parts with the same properties as the original. The design of thermoplastic parts is also not something for the layman. There's a lot of things to take into account to come up with a strong and lasting product. Lastly, when looking at cost, it's surprising how much cheaper economy of scale can make the production of parts. Some manufacturers order enough spare parts for something in a single run to last the supported lifetime of the product in a single run. Simply because the cost benefit of doing a single run is so great, it outstrips the cost for storage and shipping by a large margin. There is no way 3d printing is ever going to meet that kind of cost benefit. Just shipping the base material is probably as expensive as shipping a finished product.

              When looking at the production of 3d printers themselves I also don't get the whole "self reproduction" idea. It's a nice thought, but in practice dedicated industrial milling machines, lathes and off the shelf parts are so much more effective at producing the required parts and tolerances it's amazing most hobbyists don't bother pursuing them. (For instance, most hobby printer designs I see still use brass or bronze friction bearings. However, recirculating ball bearing bushings of that size, with better accuracies and matching ground to size and made to length shafts can be had for couple of tenners. Throw in matching bearing blocks and the price rises to may rise to just over 100 coins. So why bother making the stuff yourself.

              I can actually BUY ground shafts at the required length, including surface hardening and mounting holes pre-drilled cheaper than I can buy the base material. All this requires is that I set up a registered "company" and sell a few products in the name of that company every now and then for tax purposes (This costs quite a few bob every year unfortunately so you do need to make sure you save enough to justify the expense). I can then buy products directly from industrial suppliers)

              1. Stoneshop

                Re: Patents are not the problem

                Having witnessed the stupendous amount of specialist materials for all kinds of different application in just thermoplastics alone I can't see any individual ever being able to keep enough different materials in stock to be able to make parts with the same properties as the original. The design of thermoplastic parts is also not something for the layman. There's a lot of things to take into account to come up with a strong and lasting product

                But the replacement part, printed on a 3D-printer by someone who's fed up with using a tiedown strap to keep his washing machine door shut during operation, doesn't have to be as good as the original, it merely has to be good enough to do the job. And manufactured parts are also designed to use a minimum of material, or rather material times volume price. So what if the 3D-printed part uses 50% more? If it fits and it works, that's what matters. And even at a (generous) few Euros worth of filament, accounting for the tries in getting the design right and the couple of extras printed, you're probably still ahead of ordering a single one from the manufacturer.

                And there are the parts that you simply can't get anymore because the manufacturer's stock has run out, or they've gone out of business. Or the parts that may still be available NOS, but that will be just as old and brittle as the one that you're wanting to replace.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          re: door latch

          So did ours. You should have searched online. We got a replacement sent in 2 days for £2.50 including delivery.

        3. Alan Brown Silver badge


          "How many people do you know currently own a Dremmel rotary tool?"

          My local B&Q sells enough to justify keeping a fairly large selection of wotsits for it, as well as a good stock of varying spec units (They do change so it's not just old stock).

          I haven't bought one because I can't justify the need (haven't drilled PCBs in more than 15 years), but if it was a useful addition to a 3d printer I might just be tempted to do so.

          1. Dave 126 Silver badge

            Re: Dremels

            Thank you Alan for engaging with the question. True, a Dremmel can be an accompaniment to a 3D printer, as well as an alternative to a 3D printer for some tasks.

            Yeah, I've spotted a fair few in B&Q, but still: I only know two people who own one. They are no where near as common as 18v drills.

            Still, 18v drills, like timber yard CNC routers, are handy for real stuff - like furniture and shelves. Dremmels and 3D printers are for smaller fiddly things that are often mass produced anyway.

        4. GreenOgre

          @Dave 126

          "How many people do you know currently own a Dremmel rotary tool? .... I know of two people who own one- a professional sculptor and and a hobbyist jewellery maker. I can't see the market for consumer 3D printers being much bigger."

          ... and there's only a world market for about five computers.

    3. Why Not?
      Thumb Up

      Luckily due to the open source nature the ink cost is being handled

      I think it will provide simple prototyping and custom parts for one off / concept designs.

      I suspect jewellers, Artists and designers will have one in their arsenal. Hobbyists will also aspire to them, its going to be the hardware hackers equivalent of a lathe some weird guy you know will have one in the shed.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Thumb Up

        This is very exciting. It begins the process of not just building the printers but also the infrastructure to

        support the printers.

        Still a long way to go before a printer can self duplicate (I know they can do a version of the structure. I mean the motors, drive screws etc).

        But a good first move and like others, so simple once someone has worked out how.

      2. Dave 126 Silver badge

        >Hobbyists will also aspire to them, its going to be the hardware hackers equivalent of a lathe some weird guy

        you know will have one in the shed.

        That's my take on it... 'Consumer' 3D printers will mainly appeal to people who already have lathes, Dremmels, tap and die sets etc.

        Another model is that of a local bureau, servicing end users and other local businesses. Our local timber yard does CNC milling for £100 / hour (but it is such a big sturdy (and expensive) machine it can do jobs quickly, so depending upon the design it only adds 20 - 40% to the cost on top of the material) but you don't hear tech sites making as much noise about an arguably more useful technology (for making furniture, shelves, children's play equipment etc), though buzz-phases such as 'virtual manufacturing', 'long tail', and 'thousands of markets of a few' get invoked from time to time.

        Something can help the bloke on the street make use of these services might be devices like the Kinect- MS's new SDK (for the Windows version, not the cheaper but near identical XBOX version) could easily be built upon to scan the back of your car and give you a 2D DWG of a replacement parcel-shelf. It has the bonus of making people look like Hans Solo in carbonite. Oh, a free DWG editor, including a version for your penguins[swfreetools]-[middle]-[intext]-[]

        Hell, even the upcoming Playstation 4 allows for 3D modelling in a way that looks like it could complement traditional packages.

        Other noises are being made about 'additive manufacturing', in which related technologies are used to achieve shapes and form that are hard to make by traditional means. Substrates for catalysts are an example, since they require a very high surface area to volume ratio. Another example would be structural components with 'property gradients', such as a beam of constant cross-section but of varying mechanical proprties along its length. This is possible using Selective Laser Sintering, using materials such as titanium. Such things are used in aerospace and motorsport- but then they tend to have small production runs anyway.

    4. 20legend

      Apart from the fact

      that you can already build your own 3D printer for around 200 - 300 quid, and a kilo spool of ABS plastic can be had for under 40 quid...............

  2. The Axe

    Why the state involvement?

    Why does the state think it needs to get involved with handing out a few million? If it's good, then pure market forces will ensure that the good products will succeed. As it is, government hand outs tend to keep the bad stuff going.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why the state involvement?

      "Why does the state think it needs to get involved with handing out a few million?"

      Because the pols and civil servants can be seen to be "doing something", and because they aren't spending their own money. Wherever you look there's a few million leaking here and there, but when they already spend £120 billion pound a year more than they raise in taxes, what's another few million?

      Another example is the government's idiotically conceived "Green deal", whose central premise was that the peasants could pay for property improvements through a loan whose costs would be lower than the savings on energy bills (so no cost to government or other energy users). This became a ghastly, bureaucratic nightmare, so to try and drum up some demand the clowns at DECC rustled up £125m to pay as cashback to early adopters. Look at all the money being channeled to BT to roll out rural broadband - on the presumption that farmers, vets, rural artists and retirees will somehow generate a return on this "investment" that they won't pay for themselves.

      That's now the mindset of both government and civil service - that anything that doesn't have "billion" after it is such small change that it can be routinely frittered on whatever daft and ineffectual idea spring into their vacant little brains.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why the state involvement?

      Because you failed Econ 101. Go back and reread about externalities until you understand the most obvious reason why free markets are imperfect and governments can improve overall utility through taxation and subsidization.

      There are other reasons why free markets are imperfect, but externalities are the simplest and most often cited one. Monopoly/oligopoly behavior is also likely to come into play here.

  3. S4qFBxkFFg

    The technology is a long way off, but part of the "spooks' nightmare" is probably the ability to print functional firearm parts, googling the name Cody Wilson gives you an example of one of the movement's more famous publicists.

    Essentially, their goal is for every citizen (in the world) to be able to download a CAD file for their weapon of choice and print it in their own home. Presumably, all that would be required is the computer, printer, electricity, and raw materials (steel, plastic, gunpowder, etc.).

    One of their quotes is: "How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet?"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      They already do in the country your talking about. (There have been updates on the story you refer to)

    2. Thomas 4


      ...they'd be far less eager to raid saver's bank accounts to prop up European bankers.

    3. Andrew Moore

      really, how different is it from me making my own bows and fletching my own arrows?

      1. S4qFBxkFFg

        to Andrew Moore

        Presumably, that requires certain skills (choosing and working the wood, attaching feathers and points, nocking/stringing etc.); these would take time to learn and possibly a teacher too. The same could probably be said about "traditional" gunsmithing.

        Compare with pressing "Print".

        Although, I'd accept that if two people tried these different approaches, starting today, the aspiring bowyer/fletcher would probably have a useful product before the aspiring firearm printer.

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: to Andrew Moore

          Yeah, I have the blueprints to the AK-47 and sten sub-machine guns right here. (aka grease-gun) I also have a lathe, a milling machine, some steel stock, plate working tools, access to a welding machine, etc. I can also get the needed material to make a barrel without much fuss. The tooling I can build myself as well.

          Building a working sten would be pretty damn easy. Building a working AK not that much harder (although getting the gas system to work is supposedly a bit of faff). Building a single shot or breach loaded weapon I could do in a few hours, without blueprints. Getting the ammo for them would be a little more difficult in this part of the world though. I have no interest in doing so, but building an arsenal without raising any suspicion is already not that difficult.

          Building a completely printed 3d weapon however is not as easy as most of these idealist nutcases would seem to believe

  4. Dave Bell

    Part of the process

    It is rather obvious to me that 3D Printing, of one sort or another, could make a big different to metal casting.

    The two main options are actually making moulds, and making the master-models from which the mould is made. Depending on the particular process, those parts can be damaged or destroyed at later stages.

    Can a 3D Printer make the sand-based moulds for casting iron? I doubt it, and I doubt whether developing the tech to do so would be worth it.

    Could 3D printing make the master model for a process such as lost-wax casting? It seems pretty likely to me, and it is a process for high-value cast metal items.

    And there are in-between processes, such as what Games Workshop does. Put a 3D printer in the chain from designer to production, and it might lead to changes in what the business can do.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Part of the process

      I could see Games Workshop being challenged by this technology... If people enjoy building their own armies and painting the miniatures, they would enjoy designing their own characters online as well before having them printed and posted out.

      1. S4qFBxkFFg

        Re: Part of the process

        I can see them making piles of money if they get into this sensibly (i.e. doing what you described).

        However, as it's GW we're talking about, that's probably a 72 point "if".

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Part of the process@Dave 126

        "I could see Games Workshop being challenged by this technology... "

        I can't. The whole GW concept is that THEY create the rules, the points and the whole of various different worlds (orcs/spacemarines etc), and they then sell the nicely profitable models. Just because somebody else could make similar scale models, unless they are identical to GW items (and therefore in breach of copyright) then they have no value in the nerdy, rules based world.

        You could modify an Airfix 1:72 model to use in GW games, and save a lot of money. But generally speaking people don't, because for Warhammer players, authenticity counts, I think you'll find.

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: Part of the process@Dave 126

          >- the only complication is scaling the pattern to allow for the shrinkage of different metals in casting.

          Moulding simulation and design software has been around for a while... it'l cost you, though!

    2. JetSetJim

      Re: Part of the process

      > Can a 3D Printer make the sand-based moulds for casting iron? I doubt it, and I doubt whether developing the tech to do so would be worth it.

      But can't a 3D printer make a copy of the object to be cast in iron and that could easily be used to make the sand-based mould? Or does it get rather more complicated than this simplification in "real" industrial processes (IANAIron Caster)?

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Part of the process

        I've heard of people printing in wax.

        These samples look good:

        1. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

          Re: Part of the process

          "I've heard of people printing in wax."

          So, you are a good way through the investment casting ('lost wax' casting) process. I see a business for foundries taking the wax original or the ceramic shell built on the wax original and doing the molten metal pour for reasonable prices.

      2. Chemist

        Re: Part of the process

        "But can't a 3D printer make a copy of the object to be cast in iron"

        Don't see why not - the only complication is scaling the pattern to allow for the shrinkage of different metals in casting. These patterns used to be made in wood and various non-standard rulers were used to get the correct size for the finished product AFAIK

      3. Magnus Bombus

        Re: Part of the process

        As it happens they can print sand moulds.

        Both Zcorp and Eos offer systems offer systems that will do just that.

        As I'm unable to at links here I can provide you with web pages but a simple google search "zcorp sand" or "Eos sand casting" will give you the info you're missing.

    3. Marco van Beek

      Re: Part of the process

      Yes, already done. I have seen various ones on YouTube. It prints the sand mould layer by layer into a box, so can be far more intricate than a traditional wooden pattern, and you do not need to split the mould to remove it.

      1. Ian Johnston Silver badge
        Thumb Down

        Re: Part of the process

        You don't split a sand mould. You smash it.

    4. CastorAcer

      Re: Part of the process

      Hmm... there's no need to go with all that complexity - apparently the US Army were experimenting with a 3D metal printing process using powdered metal and laser sintering back in the 90s to produce tank parts. There are already metal 3d printers that work in a range of metals up to and including stainless steel.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Part of the process

        >Hmm... there's no need to go with all that complexity

        A wax-printing desktop machine (a few hundred dollars), plus the kit required to cast aluminium is with the reach of anyone who wants it. A selective laser sintering machine? I wish!

        Someone might be able to reformulate 'silver clay' for use in small 3D printers - silver particles suspended in a clay-like binder, which after the sculptor has created their desired form is placed in the kiln. It produces something like 95%+ solid metal part after firing.

        1. Stoneshop

          Re: Part of the process

          The matter of using other materials than PLA or ABS filament in 3D-printers lies not with the printers as such, but with being able to fit the right extruder. One that weighs several hundred grams wouldn't combine well with a printer that uses a moving head, unless the stuff can be fed through a hose, with a small enough regulator right at the print nozzle controlling the flow rate. For 'silver clay' it looks to me as being quite possible.

  5. Pete 2 Silver badge

    The new injection moulding

    In the 50's and 60's there was a large increase in the availabilty of cheap tat from the far east. This came about from cheap injection moulding technology, that became affordable and allowed manu's to fill the world with little plasticky things, often with rough edges that would break after a short time.

    Obviously the technology improved - as did the ability of people who designed stuff for IM manufacture. So today there is less tat and more high-quality IM produced stuff around. To the point where nobody cares, or knows, what the process was that created all the stuff they surround themselves with.

    3D printing is similar. As it's still in the novelty stage, the attribute "3D printed" is often promoted more than the actual thing that was produced. Whether or not you consider the stuff to be cheap (or expensive) plasticky tat is up to the reader. However the technology still has a way to go before it matures to the point where nobody, except the maker, cares how their new "thing" was produced.

    The one thing I can see that stands in the way of 3D printing is the speed of production. It still seems to be a slow, rasterised, process. Adding one thin layer after another. While the low speed of the "printer" lends itself to making high-precision parts, it's pretty hopeless at making them by the million. Until the process can match the speed of other manufacturing processes, it will always be a high-cost, niche technique. Great for one-offs, but useless for making a billion keyboard key-caps a year.

    1. Nigel 11
      Thumb Up

      Great for one-offs

      I think this hits the nail on the head.

      It may revolutionize prototyping. Design a complicated 3-D object on your computer, and print one. Handle it. Stress it. See what feels good or bad, what breaks or bends too easily. Revise your design. Print another prototype. No problem with going around this loop several times.

      For manufacturing, you'll still bite off the large expense of having a mould manufactured, so you can knock out the item in thousands or millions for cents per unit.

      It'll also mean that at the other end of the cycle, one-off spare parts for obsolete models will be similarly easy to manufacture. What is the state of the art in 3-D scanning? Take a broken part, reassemble it with superglue, 3D scan it and 3D print a replacement? Maybe not there today, but soon. Photo-copying for objects.

      It may revolutionize lost-wax casting, because it'll be easier to make the wax originals. What makes sense for jewellers today (with hand-sculpted wax), may make sense for any smallish cast-metal object tomorow.

  6. Kubla Cant

    Spooks' nightmare

    How odd that a community of the (presumably American) military and security establishment should feel so much concern about people printing their own firearms.

    In Britain, and no doubt in some other countries, it's just about arguable that the difficulty of obtaining firearms restricts their use in crime. Even here, it's probably mostly unpremeditated or loony crime that's prevented. Professional criminals and terrorists can usually get all the guns they need.

    But it's hard to imagine why anyone in the USA would go to the trouble and expense of printing a gun when they seem to be pretty freely available for sale.

    1. S4qFBxkFFg

      Re: Spooks' nightmare

      "But it's hard to imagine why anyone in the USA would go to the trouble and expense of printing a gun when they seem to be pretty freely available for sale."

      They might not, but you can be sure they want the ability to do so.

      Rightly or wrongly, lots of them believe universal firearms registration, followed by confiscation, is the ultimate goal of their Government.

    2. Naughtyhorse

      Re: Spooks' nightmare - 2 reasons...




      :-) - though i feel i have to point out that all the 3d printable firearms i have ever heard about require all the proper bits to be fabricated from traditional materials using traditional methods - having printed the trigger guard and stock, and bought in all the other bits can you realistically claim to have printed the gun?

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Spooks' nightmare

      "But it's hard to imagine why anyone in the USA would go to the trouble and expense of printing a gun when they seem to be pretty freely available for sale"

      True, but Texas is a pretty long drive for some people (well you can't fly given what you're bringing back right)

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Spooks' nightmare

      Probably they don't really give a toss either way.

      However, military and security organisations need Growth to provide opportunities faster than "the old bastard in the corner office poping his clogs" can provide. So they must always and forever come up with newer and better/scarier "threats" that can be marketed to politicians in exchange for funding.

      From the growth-perspective it is just fine that people can buy real guns and they buy even more of them "'cause Obama will take them away" and some nutters shoot up the school occasionally stoking the paranoia about a ban. Society is finally getting some value from all that psy-ops research and training :)

  7. Richard Harris

    Ignoring the speed...

    Isn't this technology heading towards the concept we've already seen as Star Trek replicators?

    1. Chris Miller

      Re: Ignoring the speed...

      Possibly, in the same sense that the Wright brothers were heading towards the concept of warp drive.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Ignoring the speed...

      What about the replicator in The Fifth Element. I wan't one of those...oh, and some fingernail clippings from (a quite long list of people)

  8. Timo

    have i seen this before?

    Seems like some of the Wired writers proclaimed years ago that on-demand printing was going to revolutionize bookstores. But that hasn't exactly happened now, has it? And now they're saying the same thing for manufacturing? Definitely a sexy idea, one that is good enough to engage your imagination of what could be (and for you to get swept away in the romance of it.)

    Same idea with 3D printing - sell the plans for anything online, you call the nearest shop and have them print one out for you. Although e-publishing has done away with the printed page, there surely seems to be more than that as factors. I'll guess that the biggest competition to 3D printing will be cheap shipping...from China.

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Re: have i seen this before?

      Print at the point of sale was a nice idea rendered pointless by e-readers. Print on demand is hugely successful and dominates self-publishing. Of course, if you have a design for a working holo-projector. . .

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: have i seen this before?

        'Print on demand' is a bit in-between... if you need the book this week, order it from a large warehouse somewhere and enjoy the savings given to you by economies of scales or the second hand market. If you need it this minute, download a copy to your e-reader.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: have i seen this before?

      It did. But it's on demand printing on the Computer Screen, not paper. Or are you reading the print version of El Reg?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Who will be the first

    idiot to secure a Darwin award for using a firearm with a chamber created by a 3D printer?

  10. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    BTW Some US law student already has permission to try printing gun parts.

    Seems to have a few more details than some.

  11. Gene Cash Silver badge

    One thing we're ignoring...

    3D printing is a **lot** easier and cheaper for a software geek than the "subtractive methods" i.e. machining. It requires a bit of expertise in a 3D modeling/CAD program or the download of a model, the printer, some stock, and a bit of time and patience.

    The digital equivalent might be a Computer-Aided-Manufacturing machine to digitally cut stuff, but those are seriously expensive and I only know one person rich enough to own one, and he uses it in his business.

    Regular non-CAM machining is pretty damn difficult, and requires one or more of a drill press, lathe, etc which are neither small nor cheap. Just drilling an accurate hole is an operation that can take an hour all by itself. Anything more complex and I find it easier & cheaper to outsource it to a small local machinist who has all the tools and expertise that I don't.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: One thing we're ignoring...

      We didn't quite sacrifice chickens to ensure smooth running of the CNC machine over a 36 hour job, but we did become superstitious and played Sabres of Paradise at it very loudly! It turned out that upgrading its controlling PC to Pentium 4 with Hyperthreading cheered it up no end, like virtual oil.... previously the CPU would sometimes hit 100% load and lose contact with the machine, which in turn would engage its safety locks- to the detriment of the work-piece.

      You would never seek to reproduce all the features you want on the machine, even it it wasn't a mere 3-axis job- threads, for example, are better done with a tap- and the same is probably true of 3D printed parts.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: One thing we're ignoring...

        "You would never seek to reproduce all the features you want on the machine, even it it wasn't a mere 3-axis job- threads, for example, are better done with a tap- and the same is probably true of 3D printed parts."

        The next stage will be a CNC+3D printer combination - and I've seen CNC systems handling taps. You just need enough axes and enough toolheads.

    2. Steve Mann

      Re: One thing we're ignoring...

      So much not correct here.

      3D printing is still, in the "inexpensive" printer arena, an art rather than a science. I'm not going to go into why, the build blogs are out there and all you have to do is look.

      If you don't want to be left "finishing" a piece post-print you need to spend upwards of $2K. Below that the vertical resolution on all commercial machines (yes, including RepRap) is so poor you get striations on the finished part.

      For about $1.6K Sears will sell you a ready-to-cut wood milling machine, about the size of an ink jet printer. Good for making signs, decorative boxes or whatever else you can think up. Plug and play.

      NC milling machines can be gotten for around $2-3k that are worth owning. There's a bloke sitting not ten feet from me who won one in a raffle last November when he attended a seminar run by the manufacturer. Turns out, not just computer firms give away stuff at jamborees. Who knew?

      A Unimat lathe can be bought for under $2k. I see them on eBay all the time. Then it's a matter of acquiring the skills by lathing materials and reading books. You'll need other tools, micrometers and so forth, but those you can acquire as you develop a need for them.

      It takes a few seconds to drill a hole using my floor-standing 15-speed drill press, which cost me about $350 - less than the price of a cheap laptop. If it took an hour to drill a hole, the bit was blunt. The hint would be the small of hot metal and (optionally) melting plastic or burning wood.

      I know people who own laser-cutting machines for cutting wood. Never looked into those myself, but given the people concerned that means they can't be ruinously expensive. Laser-cutting can be used in all sorts of fab projects - the case for the makerbot was laser cut the last time I looked at them.

      Perhaps one of the real advantages of moving to the USA was is there is ready access to inexpensive machine tools of all shapes and sizes. Makes up for all those guns blasting away in every direction night and day, and having to run from one piece of cover to the next just to go anywhere.

      As for your computer geek who can't drill a hole - perhaps one can only truly claim to be an engineer if once one has written some code one can solder a few components to a board on which to run it and knock up a case to put it all in.

  12. dr foster

    What about the environment?

    Please don't make this technology accessible to the masses.. The land and the sea is already saturated with plastic. Now if everyone start printing crap on their cheap 3d printer, you know where most of it will end up!

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: What about the environment?

      >you know where most of it will end up!

      shredded and put back into the machine's hopper?

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: What about the environment?

      At last, a case for home recycling of plastic bags.....

  13. Steve Mann

    Extremely Loud BAH!

    Yeah, this is the way to report on a technology still in its infancy.

    Use comments from academics and fellow journalists (who like to coin three-dollar words to make ordinary concepts sound more clixby) and politicians (and their catspaws, government agencies) who don't know the difference between star trek and real life.

    This is my view. Imagine a time when this technology has moved out of the garage and into the home. Can we find an analogy...sorry I can't. Imagine you drive a classic car, say a Thunderbird or a TR3, and you break a tail light filter. Imagine being able to order the pattern off the web and buy a kit of the raw materials which your handy-dandy universal fabricator (rather optimistically named by some large corporation) will, before your very eyes, work up a replacement for you.

    Not as exciting or controversial as "me build gun in garage!" but that is where the future will bring us, in good time.

    All the rubbishing of hyperbole cooked up by fellow journalists is, to be honest, a bit masturbatory. Of course the hobbyists are keen. Did you ever try talking to someone who makes and flies model aircraft? That doesn't mean the technology won't live up to the hype given enough time.

    I'll finish up by saying that I started my working life in a machine tool manufacturing plant in the UK where we made hydraulic, multi-spindle machines of great quality. What management refused to believe was that the new Japanese machines would steal our market from under our noses. After all, theirs were single spindle, made of plastic rather than iron and steel and were controlled by these new-fangled "microprocessors", which were not durable in those days. Do I have to spell out how that ended? The road where the factory used to stand is still named for the company. I doubt anyone who lives nearby knows that, though. The factory was history before most of them started school.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Extremely Loud BAH!

      >the new Japanese machines would steal our market from under our noses.

      Round here we still have Renishaw, who make metrology equipment (encoders, CNC probes) that is used in the Japanese equipment, along with everybody elses. Hell, one of their probes was even featured in the Apple iPhone 5 promo video (with visible logo) but Renishaw are so above it that they don't bother to mention it on their website.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Extremely Loud BAH!

      Actually, I can find a rather good analogy: open source software.

      Open source software is great, all the hobbists love it and some professionals even use it to get their job done. But it's done almost nothing for consumers. Why? Because consumers don't care how their computer works. They don't even want to know how it works. All they want is to be able to use the thing to read their mail and look at funny videos.

      So, I fully expect that it will be a very long time before 3-D printing becomes anything more than a enthusiast toy or small business production tool. Now, the local home improvement store or auto parts store could do a lot of business by making those one off parts for consumers that come in and say they need a new tail light filter for their '69 Chevy. A consumer facing shop could easily have someone sufficiently trained (read: the equivalent of a Hell Desk drone) to find your part rendering in a database and enter it into the printer and [the shop] would be able to absorb the cost of printing out the wrong part on occasion.

      But as a consumer used technology, 3-D printing is about as likely as open source software. If you can package it in a way that makes it completely transparent to the end user, then it has some chance of surviving; otherwise its dead in the water. But once you've packaged it that way, then you've thrown away much of the decentrallizing (democratizing, if you're one of those screwballs from the article) properties that some people find wonderful about both technologies.

      1. Steve Mann

        Re: Extremely Loud BAH!

        "Actually, I can find a rather good analogy: open source software."

        I was shooting for the Personal Computer.

        3D printing is at the Acorn Atom/Sinclair Spectrum stage right now, and in about half the time. Imagine where we will be by the time Windows 95 hits the shelves.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Missed the point by a mile, I'm afraid.

    The professor seems to be treating the 3D revolution entirely from the small-start-up angle. In a sense, he's right. For mass-production of certain items, like Lego for instance, the standard high-pressure moulding process has the proper scaling properties. High up-front costs, low per-item cost. 3D printing doesn't really do it for the small business, or the return of cheap manufacturing to the west.

    However, the real story about the 3D printing revolution is the explosion of innovation. The hundreds, nay thousands, of ordinary people building these things, experimenting with different techniques, trying entirely new methods, building things not conceived of before. It is a new tool for the aspiring artist.

    The often forcasted problems of IP related to patents and copyright are what the lawyers are gearing up for though. As ever, manufacturers fearing their bottom line will push for the clamping down on the sharing of designs and file swapping on the Internet. As the world moves into a new age of design and innovation, incumbant businesses will fear this "democratic" revolution. It happened in the film, book and music industries: it will happen here also. And of course, the lawyers will make a ton of money.

    ${DEITY} help us.

    If we could only drag ourselves as a race out of the dark ages, goodness knows what we could achieve.

    1. EWI

      Re: Missed the point by a mile, I'm afraid.

      I rather don't think he has missed the point at all, and neither has AO.

      Google on who Spiked! are, and who James Woudhuysen/James Wood is.

  15. CASIOMS-8V

    Games Workshop Space Marines, old Airfix kits

    more than i could have ever imagined maybe ?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nice article, but a bit americanocentric?

    As a EU-member-country citizen I've come to enjoy a more globally diverse perspective provided by the Register.

    However, I've become increasingly irritated due to the incessant US references; by the point Thomas Jefferson (!) was mentioned I think I had a light reflux. I was expecting Pilgrims and the Mayflower next.

    Honestly, this is even more eggregegious given the author is UK-based. Perhaps the professor was misled as to the nature of the Reg's readership (which AFAIR did become more, but by far not exclusively, American) ?

  17. Alan Firminger


    The immediate users will be game aficionados, think chess and all the games that require figures. Figures with character or aesthetic quality are especially valued. There will be twenty versions of Napoleon, perhaps 50 beautiful princesses.

    These will be produced by artists and sold by post. Then the artists will put files up for sale over the web. Enthusiasts and games clubs will have printers, Salute is coming soon ( ) , we should see if 3D printing is there.

    That is not earth shattering, but it is a commercial start.

    No one knows where this will lead. Come back in twenty years, perhaps tourists will buy their souvenir of Pisa emailed to home to save having to carry it

    1. Alan Firminger

      Said so

  18. 1052-STATE


    PLA, one of the most common materials, is biodegradable.

    Make-on-demand as needed - versus make-a-million-and-hope-we-can-sell-em.

  19. 1052-STATE


    To those thinking the only adopters will be those with a Dremel, LOL...

    "When we set the upper limit of PC-DOS at 640K, we thought nobody would ever need that much memory."

    The same bloke muttered in 1977 "a computer on every desk and in every home" -- back in the day when people laughed at the statement. Why would everyone need a computer? AT HOME even!!!

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Niche-not

      Okay, fair enough....

      If you offered people a Star Trek-style 'Replicator' - any object, any material- including meals - then yeah, for sure, most people will say 'Hell yeah!' However, even on the Starship Enterprise, I would imagine that there is a central replicator that is dedicated to making uniforms, and another that is tuned to the production of Phasers. There would probably be a replicator that makes replicators. I.e, if you have the technology to make a machine that makes anything, then you will have the technology to make a more specialised machine even faster/efficient.

  20. johnwerneken

    dot com redux

    Attended MIT; saw some of the beginnings.

    Funny about Jeffersonian cults. It’s a throwback to BEFORE agriculture really – the last time the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian-egalitarian-democratic idea made ANY sense. Hasn’t since. In the recent era – say the last 14-15 K years –it is civilizational technology – primarily theology – and cultural technology – primarily political and military science – that has led. This is the strongest becoming stronger by recruiting the next strong and targeting the next following strong as enemies…based on the Roman understanding: the State is a Playground and Gold Mine for the Strongest.

    Really taming that dragon in my experience requires being polite to it in public, and vital to it in private. What Jobs did: capitalist Ninja wielding all the weapons of the counter- and hacker-cultures. Truth is out lately though: Apple is guess what A BUSINESS…

    I guess we like to need to believe. That’s the deal, with 3 D printing.

  21. Kwakker1000

    The Professor has given us some useful context ...

    I liked this treatment of the issues. What the prof has done is remind us that there is a long history to technology innovation, and that there MAY be some lessons from which we can draw in that history. And he included caveats on the way through. I'm going to go back and read this again. Only then will I look in my piggy bank to see if I can afford that $2,000.

  22. dave 93

    I stopped reading here...

    "3D printing does not represent a pervasive, durable and penetrating transformation of the dynamics and status of manufacturing."

    Bullshit for controversy's sake from someone who has probably never tried to 'manufacture' anything other than opinions.

  23. Unicornpiss

    Heading towards Neal Stephenson's "Diamond Age"?

    Well worth a read. A little long, but I could see this eventually being the future... In maybe another century or so.

  24. Jon Green

    Certainly has its uses

    We fabricated component parts for the STRaND-1 satellite using a 3D printer: far cheaper and quicker than sending the specifications to an engineering lab. If you find you then need to alter the design, the turnaround time is unbeatable - seconds from saving the CAD file to starting the print.

    I don't think that 3D printing is the be-all and end-all - the materials are limited for low-cost printers, and the resolution is a problem for now - but it's great for prototyping and small-run manufacturing. Will there be one in every home? Not until the technology matures, and perhaps not even then. But there's a big potential there, and a goodly-sized market gagging for improved, cheaper devices, and I'm certain that market will be fulfilled.

  25. Omegazeta

    3D printing isn't new

    The only thing new about 3D printing is the new low cost hobbyist machines.

    3D printing or stereolithography as it used to be called was a well established technique being used in the automotive industry back in the early 1990s. Even companies like Rover used them in house.

    Production SLA machines can produce polymer or sintered components up to about 1.5m in length.

    Just show how few of these forecasters and pundits are manufacturing engineers.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: 3D printing isn't new

      Eskimos were doing it with ice before then. Clay/mud even further back. If you take a "brick" as a pixel in a "print". ;)

  26. Kay Burley ate my hamster


    I read the first chapter of this rant. Clearly the Prof has something or someone to protect.

  27. Drew 11

    Not quite

    "We need also to recall, first, that America, land of the car, inventor of the assembly line and inventor of the sit-down strike"

    I'm fairly certain the assembly line came from France (bicycle manufacturer). The Merkins get credit for "moving assembly line".

  28. John L Ward

    Shurely not...

    ...just a focus on what it means to individuals.

    If the technology improves as it surely will, at some point it will begin to affect worldwide logistics. Many cheap items have poured into Western markets based on simple mass-production and low cost shipping. Even in higher value items the reduced costs of mass-production can be seen, for instance paying more for smaller memory chips than their higher capacity replacements as the production lines tail off.

    If you take 3D-printing to one logical endpoint, the economies of scale argument will yield, at least in part, to the flexibility of local supply - in the case of the washing machine part, why mass produce a part having made an expensive injection mould template, spend money producing and storing it in the hope that the 20,000 units you have made will sell out eventually (although in a decreasing return vs. cost of storage and sunk cost). Even it if moves to the professional 'print and collect' model of local (country or region-based) commercial part printers, this changes what is currently a complex logistics component (ha!) of the manufacturing cycle to the delivery of raw materials to those localised printers.

    It will probably also have other, less expected effects - for instance manufacturers who design their products to be more (or let's face it, less) able to be repaired or modded using 3D printed parts - printed iPhone ear-clips anyone?...

    So IMO the more interesting space is how and when it will start to impact all those container ships circling the world full of mixed goods and spare parts (which incidentally have been credited with removing one of the key advantages behind the EU economic model at about the time that the treaty was first signed...).

  29. Steve Mann

    A Use Case

    For all the people looking for a use for this technology that proves it is a Force To Be Reckoned With, I offer the credit on the Aardman "Pirate" movie of last year, which quietly mentioned "rapid prototyping".

    That's what non-hobbyists call 3D printing though sometimes the term involves CA Milling.

    Did you know you can make a machine to do that from a 3D printer chassis and a Dremel rotary tool? You need to add some bits to make it clever and experience tells me the rotary tool doesn't have the bearings for ultra-fine work, but for gouging wood into submission with a router bit you are in like Flynn. There's even a company that sells the chassis you need.

    This lash-up will separate the men from the boys though, since a DRT runs at such high speed there is a real danger of setting fire to the workpiece if you don't gauge the feed rate properly. But, as I always say, where's the fun in making things if there's no chance they will burst into flames in the process?

    My experience has been that using a DRT to drill anything is inviting trouble since in most materials the bits will cook-off at even the slowest speeds. Found that out the expensive way. Dunno why they even sell the bits.

  30. vroomfondle

    Thing is, I don't use my 2D printer to print books or magazines. I use it to print documents relating to my personal or professional needs, but not things which I might otherwise pay for (I suppose the exception, for some people, would be printed photos and the occasional will). I *could* print books (thanks, Project Gutenberg), but I don't. I buy books. I don't even buy eBooks and print them myself, and even if eBooks were much cheaper, I suspect I still wouldn't. I pay for someone else to print and bind them for me. Suits me fine.

    I can see a market for consumer 3D printers with regard to simple products which will require no (or little) assembly once printed, but when it comes to the more complicated products I suspect Future Me will still be more than happy to pay for someone else to do it (and, preferably, deliver it to my door).

  31. Desidero

    I hear the cotton gin will revolutionize humanity. Or is that "Civil"-ize it? What could go wrong with a simple machine that simplifies producing textiles en bulk?

    1. BrenBren


      wasn't it that one in the Stephen King movie that ate people

  32. BrenBren


    I would place this printed in the gadget/toy category. Its cool, but no revolution for sure. When it can pump out a wind up watch give me a call. Until then, sure when I have a few extra thousand and nothing else to spend it on maybe. Wake up folks. There is no wizard behind the curtain. Even the smallest product takes more than a 3D printer to get it to market.

  33. Your Command
    Big Brother

    Oh, my hyperbole hurts!

    >Where did El Reg dig up these anti-technology 'left'-over Stalinist hacks?

    "Foreign Affairs is the organ of the US foreign-policy establishment"

    Oh, and parenthetical kudos: "Toffler, an ex-member of the Communist Party of the USA..."

    "it need only barely arrive on the world economic stage for zealots to overrate it, and for others to turn it into an object of fear"

    >Back to the Future: 1984?

    "the world’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – always, for capitalism, the dominant source of employment, and always hailed as a major source of innovation"

    And who could miss using "an autarchic vision of the American economy coincides with an autarchic vision of the American home" to refute the idea that "... those who exaggerate the power of 3D printing to turn everyone into a budding inventor /entrepreneur/manufacturer follow very much in this utopian tradition"?

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