What can a 3D printer make?

The real limit isn't the technology - it's your imagination

So you’ve built or bought your first 3D printer, connected it to the computer and loaded a spool of material. It’s all ready to go. The big question now is what are you going to print with it?  With a commercial 3D printer the possibilities are almost endless. Working guitars can be printed, or custom bike frames. When the Skyfall screenplay called for Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 to be destroyed three five-foot-long replicas were printed, sparing the priceless original. Home printers are on a smaller scale, though. For example the popular RepRap Mendel has a build volume of 8 by 8 by 5.5 inches (200x200x140mm), so it can print anything that will fit into that space.

Decoration

Lots of people try out their new printer by creating desk ornaments. There’s a whole range of templates for these – Android robots are popular – but it’s more of a challenge to design your own. That’s also a good way to start learning the capabilities and limits of your printers. Try making a few small objects in different shapes. What sort of shapes are difficult? Are there solutions? (Hint: Yes there are).

Moving on to more practical designs, phone cases are very popular projects. You can design one from scratch but it’s easy to find templates for most phone models. That will give you the vital dimensions you need for your phone to work properly, then you can let your imagination loose on the rest of it. Designs can be added to the case, or you can experiment with belt loops and clips. Depending on your printer you might be able to print a multi-coloured one. Don’t stop at phones either. You can also make cases for media players or small tablets.

Hobbies

Model and drone enthusiasts will soon find plenty uses for their printer. Some basic design skills will let you create templates for a whole array of parts, including some that would be very tricky to make at home – and once you have the template you can print as many as you need. You’ll find a lot of drone designs online or you can develop your own. It’s possible to print the airframe, cases for the electronics and if you’re really good even the props. So far motors are beyond the reach of a home printer but that could change in the next few years.

Medicine

A home 3D printer can be a useful medical device. Several people have now created designs for prosthetic hands that can be made on a typical home printer, and they’re already helping people to live better lives. As the technology develops more and more parts will be replicated this way. Specialist printers can produce replacement heart valves. For now this is out of reach of devices like a MakerBot, but every generation of hardware adds new capabilities. Of course even if you could print a heart valve at home you’d need help to install it.

Self-replication

One of the most exciting things about 3D printers is that they can help to make more 3D printers. The RepRap series were specifically designed to be able to print as many of their own parts as possible, and they can also do some if the necessary work on the control electronics. So far parts like the threaded drive rods can’t be printed, but developers are looking at upgrades that would use alternative – printable – components.

Already a typical home 3D printer lets you create, customise or repair a whole range of objects. In the future their capabilities are only going to expand, with new materials becoming available and the printers themselves working faster and at higher resolutions. This technology could be to common household objects what Kindle is to books – but with even more flexibility.

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