Can 3D printing be applied within the domestic sphere? What requirements are needed? How can this technology revolutionize business? 3D printing natives are already among us.

Last week I attended a prototype 3D printing workshop organized by Natural Robotics. What started with a few questions became a fascinating talk about the present and future of 3D printing.

Natural Robotics is a company based in Barcelona specialized in the manufacture of professional 3D printers. On the day of the workshop I arrived well in advance and I took the opportunity to ask some questions to Héctor Esteller, co-founder.

The company was founded one year and a half ago by Héctor and Norbert Rovira. Héctor’s family comes from the industrial sector and possibly this explains how he was able to build his own 3D printer from pieces of his father’s factory and the help of the RepRap project, an initiative that promotes the development of open source 3D printers.

Although the industry has been using 3D manufacturing for at least 30 years, its application in the field of prototypes design has allowed the expansion of its user base. In addition to the well-known pieces made of polymers or a mixture with other materials such as wood or copper, there are also machines that can work with concrete or clay (construction), resin (jewelry, dentistry) or metals such as platinum (industry) to obtain more accurate products of higher quality. These machines, however, are much more expensive and their use is restricted to a few sectors.

The 3D printers that we all know, in general, are designed to create unique objects of a relatively small size, in which the finishing and quality are not important. Its application for mass production series is not feasible nowadays due to the low speed of manufacture and its cost.

It is obvious that the price of 3D printers will decline over time, but when gurus tell that soon there will be a 3D printer in each home, they are not taking into account some factors that make difficult to apply this technology in the domestic sphere:

  1. First, the cost of printing a piece, such as a spoon, should be much lower. Currently it is a far more practical option buying it in a dollar store, taking into account the effort and time required.
  2. Secondly, the material and the finishing should improve significantly if we want to create objects that are attractive enough for users. Most pieces made with this technology look like low quality products made in China. Cold material, unpleasant texture and sloppy finishing. Surely, this is one of the reasons why its main use is the fast and cheap manufacture of prototypes for architects, engineers and designers.
  3. Finally, the design process previous to the printing needs to be simplified. Although there are free design programs that even 8-year-old children can use, designing a 3D object still intimidates too many people. Design tools should be as easy to use as a Word file.

Modifying these parameters could trigger an explosion in the adoption curve of this technology.

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Héctor explains me that a few years ago the control knob of his oven was broken. He went to the manufacturer’s store to order a replacement part and their answer was that it was not possible to sell him only the piece. He had to buy the whole panel and the price was 200 EUR, when the actual price of the piece was 2 EUR! Héctor decided to make his own piece with a 3D printer.

While listening to this, I thought of the multiple applications for domestic purposes. How many simple plastic objects could we manufacture ourselves? Car parts, pieces of furniture, new parts to modify or improve housewares…

This reminded me an interview I made some time ago to BJ Adaptaciones, a company specializing in designing solutions adapted for people with disabilities, on the occasion of their collaboration with a sports organization for disabled people. Borja Romero, co-founder, told me that the equipment could cost up to 2,000 EUR. Thanks to 3D printing they were able to replace the broken parts at a very low cost.

In explaining this, Héctor gets up and returns with a surprising object: a printed hand.

3D printed hand by Natural Robotics

3D printed hand by Natural Robotics

Natural Robotics collaborates with Enabling The Future, a community that creates free 3D printed hands and arms for children in need of an assistive device. They met in a trade fair in 2014 and since then Héctor’s company manufactures prostheses and sends them to their headquarters in Boston.

In the case of children’s prostheses, 3D technology entails a revolution. A hand prosthesis costs about 6,000 EUR, a price that only few people can afford. However, in the case of children, the situation is much more serious as they are constantly growing and need to adapt the prosthesis every year. How many families can pay that price annually? The cost of printing a piece of a finger is 2 EUR.

Héctor tells me that they have tried to collaborate with prosthesis manufacturers without success. From the perspective of these companies, 3D printing is a low cost competition that could put an end to their lucrative business. However, they should think about the benefit it brings to users and to themselves if they use this technology in their favor.

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Despite all these advantages, I see an important obstacle in the adoption by users of 3D printing. Although the printing process is relatively simple, how do we can design the objects? One thing is designing from scratch a simple object, as it is taught in workshops for children, but reproducing accurately a real object is much more complex.

This task may be done by a professional designer, but the cost is too high. Héctor explains me that there are several solutions that can help us overcome this barrier.

For the more daring, patterns of similar pieces can be found on the Internet to be subsequently modified according to our needs. On the other hand, companies like Ikea allow downloading the design of pieces of their furniture so that users can replace them when they break or suffer damages. This, in fact, has not always been this way. At first, Ikea was opposed to people publishing freely the design of their furniture, but they finally came to the conclusion that this trend could not be stopped and it was better to make life easier for their customers.

But what can we do if the manufacturer is not as considerate as Ikea? In these cases, there is a great solution. With apps suchs as 123D Catch we can scan objects and generate 3D models from the photos taken with the camera of our phone.

The existence of scanning applications and free 3D design programs like Tinkercad or SketchUp highlight two facts. Although watching how a machine makes real our ideas is something fascinating, the added value is in design. That’s where the creativity lies.

3D printed object designed by a child with technology of Natural Robotics

3D printed object designed by a child with technology of Natural Robotics

Many people know how to use PowerPoint, but only a few can design good presentations. Likewise, as children show us, most of us can create a 3D piece, but just a few can design beautiful and functional objects.

Nevertheless, the reaction of children makes me realize that we cannot turn our back on 3D printing. The almost intuitive ease of designing and printing their own objects is a warning: for them it is natural. “Children do not think about buying. They think of manufacturing, ” Héctor tells me. They are 3D printing natives. The future is here.

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