The first time I saw a 3D printer in action I was fascinated. It seemed like magic that something could be printed into a complex 3D figure. The first 3D print I ever saw was a little Yoda figurine. This seems like the initial impression that 3D printing has on the general population. I see tons of videos on YouTube of all sorts of crazy 3D printed objects. I even saw a video on Facebook the other day on a 3D printed house that took only 24 hours to build. As cool as all these 3D printed objects are, these videos give the perception to regular people that 3D printers are only for hobbyists or engineers. However, this is not the case. There is an abundance of practical uses for 3D printers, other than printing out Star Wars figurines. I use a 3D printer at work all the time and want to share how practical and useful one can be.
The core concept of 3D printing is actually quite simple. You create a digital file that allows your printer to make the 3D object. It functions similarly to a inkjet printer, instead using material such as plastic to be added in layers. The type of material can differ greatly based on your needs. You can print materials made of ABS which is a form of plastic all the way to stronger material like titanium. There are even biotech companies out there that can use liver cells as the material to create a model to test drug toxicity.
3D printers can range from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands dollars. I have an Ultimaker 2+, which is around $3000. This is considered a hobbyist 3D printer, but it is more than enough to print the objects I need at my biotech company. I work in a biology lab and the biggest advantage a 3D printer has for me is the ability to custom parts that I need to use around the lab. The biotech industry is incredibly expensive and simple parts such as vial racks can cost hundreds of dollars.
These same parts can be printed for less than a dollar with a 3D printer. This is because the 3D printed material I use is ABS or PLA, which is a type of plastic. 1 kg of plastic costs around $50 and will last me months. You can also mess around with the settings on the 3D printer to use much less plastic to save even more money. By using a hollow, lattice formation, the object maintains 90% structural integrity and uses much less plastic. Plastic is very durable and if you aren’t using it to do something like build a bridge, it is more than likely durable enough for your needs.
Now you may ask, what kind of stuff do you print? I primarily print simple lab equipment based on my needs in the lab. I commonly print things like racks for chemical vials, support structures, etc. For example, one of my coworkers needed a way to weigh out chemicals in a conical tube. Rather than ordering something from an overpriced vendor, I printed out a small test tube holder within hours.
Custom parts are extremely expensive when you outsource it to other companies. The white object pictured to the right is a cap holder. Its purpose is to hold caps while the vial’s contents are being used. This cap holder prevents any mix-up when re-capping and helps to prevent cross-contamination. This may seem like a cheap part, but it actually cost over $1,000 to custom design and manufacture. Our company needed 10 of these so the cost was well over $10,000. Not only that, there was a lot of time involved with designing the cap holder. The one pictured below was the third prototype tested. This is a lengthy endeavor that can be mitigated with a 3D printer that can be used to test prototypes right away. The red cap holder to the right was 3D printed with one of my Ultimaker 3D printers and cost less than a $1 to make.
I’ve also printed things for non-work related things as well. Our company had a Connect Four tournament and I made the trophy on the 3D printer. It was a little trophy that fit in the palm of your hand with a Connect Four piece at the top. I’ve also printed trophies for fantasy football with my buddies.
This is the greatest benefit of having a 3D printer. Many of the problems you encounter can be solved with a simple design. Don’t have anywhere to put your coat? Print a coat hook. Don’t have a bottle opener to open up a cold one after a long day? Print a bottle opener. You aren’t limited if you are terrible at designing 3D objects. There is a big 3D printing community that share their designs. Some of these designs are crazy complex and downright beautiful. There are people out there that have the ability to design prosthetic limbs. Check out Thingiverse to browse cool 3D designs.
Despite what you may think, making a 3D design to print is pretty easy. I use a free website called Tinkercad, but there are tons of other free alternatives such as SketchUp. For my purposes, the basic gist of 3D design involves manipulating different shapes to make the object you want. I had absolutely no design experience before I started 3D printing. I was printing simple 3D designs within an hour after using resources like YouTube. There are tons of video tutorials using Tinkercad on YouTube. After finishing a design, you can save your file to an SD card and you’re ready to begin 3D printing.
The overall point I want to make is that there are many practical ways to use a 3D printer. It seems that most of the exposure towards 3D printing gravitates towards prosthetic limbs and crazy stories like building houses with a 3D printer. Its versatility lets you print objects that are as simple or complex as you want it to be. Plastic is also dirt cheap as well. Even though a printer like the Ultimaker 2 runs at a high price tag of $3000, it is not difficult to get your money’s worth quickly. My printer paid itself off in about 10 prints. The prints I made were support structures that normally cost $300-400 dollars a piece. I made 10 support structures with less than $50 worth of plastic. If you can design it, there is nothing you can’t print.