What can I have printed?
This technology allows the use of a variety of plastics with a melting point round about 300 degrees Celsius. While this excludes a number of advanced polymers from the catalogue, there is a growing number of mixtures on the market. Tiny metal shavings produces an object that can be burnished and marked like metal, but it remains a plastic object, albeit with brass, sandstone or fake ivory finish. Mainly we deal with the kind of plastics your domestic objects are made of, from food-safe PLA, to automotive-grade ABS. Most of our work has been done in non-transparent, coloured plastics, but some transparent objects, like a reflector lens for a classic car, has been successfully produced.
What is the cost?
You pay per gram of plastic used, which is why most printed objects have hollow cores. The real cost lies in the “programming”. Every object is fed into the printing machine as a three-dimensional drawing, broken up into a collection of thin slices. This process, while time-consuming, is mostly done by computer. The harder bit is obtaining said three-dimensional drawing.
On the internet, there are millions of pre-designed objects to choose from. Anything from a risqué dress to spaceship parts to that little toy block your kid left on the floor once too often, and when you stepped on it in the middle of the night, it ended up in the rubbish. No matter how hard the kid screams, it would probably be cheaper, faster and prettier to go buy him a whole new box to replace that one part. Robotic printers have more important work to do, and they are just slaves, they must earn their keep… That said, choosing an existing design off the internet, even if not free, is a lot cheaper that designing one from scratch.
If you want to make your own 3d drawings, we wish you well, and will accept it for printing. If you do not have the skills, it may be worth your while learning them, it is a growth industry. Until you are ready to sell your services to us, however, we do advise that we supply this service at rates that may dismay you, depending on the complexity of the object to be drawn. Draughtsmen disappeared when those large green boards went away. Unlike the scrapped drawing boards, though, the craftsmen just quietly moved on to computer screens, but it still is a craft. May we suggest FreeCAD as your first attempt at learning parametric modelling?
The third, optional cost, is the finishing of your printed object. The robots work at a precision of 0,1mm, which is very fine, but not a mirror finish. On most prints, the final shine, if needed, is either a chemical or thermal process. This may still not reproduce the high gloss of a cast plastic object. There are materials and techniques to deposit a glossy layer over the printed object, but in engineering applications, this may alter dimensions and surface hardness, but for objects d’art, it usually serves well.
So, the process is expensive, not always very fast, and not only are my choices of materials limited to weak plastic, it might come out looking not very pretty at all, even at a dimensional precision of 0,1mm? What use is this?
A robot printer comes into its own in many ways: It can print things that no store in the world can supply you with anymore, like parts for old machines, cars and appliances. There are people producing incredible art, or copies of classic pieces. There is also a growing community of people designing toys and characters for group games. Mostly, 3d printing is a tool of innovation and creation, a world of self-sufficient engineering increasingly dominated by international corporations with no interest or time for some crazy guy in his basement workshop. With 3d printing robots, the ‘little guy’ stands a chance again.
The most important part a robotic printer can play in your life, is to lower the development cost of your own inventions. Much innovation in this world is stifled by the high cost of “tooling”. Tooling is the bit where your factory has to build the machine that will build your thing, whatever it may be. You can appreciate that one tiny little mistake at this stage, will ruin the entire production run. A small hole just a bit off-centre, a bracket that somehow got presented upside-down during design, an important part that fails to fit into its allotted spot. Now try sort that mess out over the telephone with a Chinese factory owner. By all accounts, you end up on an airplane to Asia, or bankrupt, or both.
If you build prototypes and mock-ups, silly mistakes can be rectified for little more cost than a few grams of plastic, reprinted correctly, with all drawings and specification sheets duly updated, before they get (mis)translated into Chinese. Also, the drawings used for the printer, are exactly the same drawings needed by the factory, so the correctness of those are automatically verified by a correct plastic printout. Imagine one tiny hole off-kilter on a production run of a million pieces, then compare the cost of building a plastic gear for a mine digger, a plastic gear that can have no actual use INSIDE the machine, but is forever available as factual, precise sample, in hand, as your buyer goes around looking to cut your supply costs.
We can print in almost any plastic available on the market for layer printers, as per the specifications of the robots, up to a melting point of 340 degrees, which may limit your choices somewhat, but most probably not. There is also the Wax option; the print is done using an easily-melted waxy material, strong enough to be used to make a casting form for metals. Like moulding wax, but with 0,1mm precision.
As you research everything you want to know about what you think you need and want, take a look at all the strange and useful materials available. We shall not catalogue them here, as we do not actually sell the plastics itself, and we have rather limited experience, compared to the vast range of options available. We have never tried to print a bronze-look statue or sandstone angel, for example, so we have never bought or tested those materials. On PLA and ABS, though, we are confident of supplying just about every need, within the following limits:
Size of object: The size of the printer limits the size of the print. Our largest robot can produce a cube with sides 250mm long. This is larger than most privately owned printers. Also, large things may be printed in subsections, for assembly afterwards.
Lead times: Drawings are impossible to quote without precise information on your need.
The object or objects to be printed may be done as a batch, but this does not significantly hasten the process, as each cubic millimetre is laid after the previous one, so six identical objects will take almost (saving set-up time, which is minimal) as long as printing six separate objects one after the other.
Exotic materials can be ordered in, please allow six weeks for delivery and testing of such plastics.
Our service is of light-industrial workshop grade. Medical prosthesis, artificial organs and suchlike sensitive things, are printed in sterile rooms, where the cost of filtering the dust costs more than the average worker’s salary. But is it not exciting that this same technology can produce a working heart valve or kidney? After the gurus worked their magic, of course, you don’t really print the kidney, just the “scaffolding” to grow a new kidney on. We don’t do that… but that rear light on your 1913 motorbike? Sure! Just be sure to bring us a sample or drawing. A left lens can easily (and for free) be mirrored by the software, making things like automotive lenses much easier to copy from old, broken pieces. Each part only has to be drawn once, after which the information can be saved, exchanged, sent around the world to another printer… but we need that sample, or suitable engineering sketches, often available on the internet sites of special interest groups, like classic car clubs. Sometimes, the shape of a part may be inferred by the space where it should have been, if it still existed. The result might not look identical to the original, but it will be functional.
So, what are we going to print for you? A clever new tool? Psychedelic artworks? That missing part from your favourite childhood toy? That stupid little bracket that nobody knows how it fell out and now the shelf wiggles dangerously under grandma’s precious Delft teapot and nothing we stick in there stays? A better mouse trap?
The front office is mostly manned by a guy called Charles, but sometimes you’re lucky and you get someone friendlier, depending on work load…