3D printing nears the mainstream

Almost since its inception as a technology, we have been promised that additive manufacturing will become a mainstream industrial technology. Thus far, this has not proved to be the case, but a number of new technologies have appeared that seem to be moving 3D printing into much more accessible areas.

Now in its 20th year, the US-based RAPID show has become the place for the latest additive manufacturing, 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies to be announced. In this respect, RAPID 2012 in Atlanta was no exception, with leading names in the market having shown their latest machines. One was Mcor Technologies, which announced the Mcor Iris full 3D colour printer. The Iris joins Mcor's family of paper 3D printers and continues the vision of producing high-quality, low cost and eco-friendly 3D printing solutions. This technology offers a full-colour 3D printer using regular letter paper. The Iris, it is claimed, prints photo-realistic 3D parts with the resolution you would expect from a high quality 2D colour printer. Objet was another launching a new machine, offering the Objet30 Pro desktop 3D printer. As its billing suggests, the machine offers a small, genuinely desktop, footprint (many other 'desktop' printers would require a desk of mammoth proportions to hold them), a build tray size of 300mm x 200mm x 150mm and quiet operation, it represents a further step towards making 3D printing a realistic, office-based technology. Existing as the top-of-the-line model in Objet's desktop stable, the Objet30 Pro is clearly targeted at designers and engineers in industries from consumer goods and consumer electronics to medical devices and design consultancies. Designed to offer the accuracy and versatility of a high-end rapid prototyping machine in a small footprint, the machine offers 28 micron print quality and seven different materials. These materials include – for the first time on a desktop system – clear transparent material (Objet VeroClear) and high temperature-resistant material. It also includes a polypropylene-like material for simulating snap-fit parts (Objet DurusWhite), as well as four rigid, opaque materials for standard plastic simulation in black, white, grey and blue. The company with which Objet recently merged, Stratasys, took one step further towards genuinely office-friendly 3D printing with the launch of the Mojo 3D Print Pack, which it showed at RAPID 2012. At just £6,400 ($9,900), it represents a huge step forward in terms of affordability when one considers that the Objet desktop range begins at $19,900. The Mojo is designed to be as simple to use as an inkjet printer, while being powerful enough to meet the highest 3D printing standards. Rather than being a network printer, it connects to a host computer via USB and files can be processed on other computers using Stratasys' Print Wizard software, and then sent to the Mojo-connected computer for printing. Mojo also takes its lead from inkjet printers in its use of what Stratasys calls a 'QuickPack Print Engine'. In this, the print engine and material are all in one package and the user simply drops the model material and support material packs in and snaps in the print heads as they would on an inkjet printer. Emphasising the fact that it is very much a professional machine, however, Mojo produces models in ABS production-grade thermoplastic and is powered by the same FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) technology that is used in Stratasys' uPrint and Dimension 3D printers, as well as its Fortus 3D production systems. That said, it only prints in one colour and its build tray is just 5 x 5 x 5 inches, although the company claims 80% of 3D printed models fall within this envelope. As well as software and start-up materials, the Mojo 3D Print Pack also includes the WaveWash 55 Support Cleaning System, which is designed for soluble support material removal. Even more affordable than the Mojo, however, are the products available from recently-launched Dutch company Leapfrog. Its Creatr and Xeed printers (500 x 600 x 500 mm and 800 x 600 x 500mm) sell for $1570 and $6178 respectively and, while they are some distance from being desktop machines, they do offer an interesting entry-level option when it comes to 3D printing. The Creatr is the cheaper, 'consumer' model designated for "personal and semi-professional" use by the company. It is designed to be an easy-to-use, fully-assembled, 'plug and play' machine that operates via a USB port and a 220V power plug. The linear slides and sliding ball bearings are pre-tensioned to make sure the construction is rigid and, most importantly, that there is no difference in theoretical and actual positioning accuracy. For professional users, however, the Xeed is a stand-alone printer offering a tablet interface to which users can email their models and it will automatically convert and print the object. There is also no need to install software or hook up a computer, and with the quick-load drawer system, cartridge changes are simple and easy. The material that can be used is 1.75mm ABS, PLA or PVA. Incorporating the FDM 3D printing technique, the Xeed is available with dual extrusion heads, which, when used with water-soluble plastic allow the user to print overhanging items.