Thursday, October 9, 2014

What to 3D Print at Home

3D Printed Shoes by Recreus at Thingiverse
3D Printed Shoes by Recreus at Thingiverse
I have been looking for an excuse to buy a 3D printer to play with at home. But I am struggling to figure out something useful to print with it. While some of the large industrial 3D printers can form beautiful metals and ceramics, the inexpensive home printers are limited to several varieties of plastics.

Here are some of the types of filaments that are currently available for a typical desktop fused filament fabrication 3D printer:

  • PLA - Polylactic acid is a biodegradable polyester derived from renewable sources, often cornstarch or sugarcane.  It is the most popular material for desktop 3D printing because it has a low melting temperature, can be used without a heated bed, and can produce finer feature detail than ABS.
  • ABS - Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is a strong thermoplastic that requires a higher temperature on the printer and a heated bed. While it is less brittle than PLA, it is harder to work with and creates toxic fumes during the printing process.
  • PET - Polyethylene terephthalate is a transparent thermoplastic that can be used for food and beverage containers. Perhaps I could print some uniquely shaped Tupperware replacements.
  • Nylon - Nylon is a silky, flexible thermoplastic that requires much higher temperatures to print than PLA or ABS. Being strong and flexible makes it a good candidate for printing a personalized iPhone case.
  • Rubber - Not really rubber, but a rubber like thermoplastic elastomer that looks and feels like rubber. It also requires higher temperatures than PLA and ABS so not every desktop printer can use it. Perhaps my wife would like a unusually shaped pair of new shoes.
  • Wood - Actually a composite of polymers blended with 40% wood fiber. It has thermal characteristics similar to PLA, but it looks and feels like wood.
After learning more about these materials, I visited the Makerbot Thingiverse to browse through the downloadable digital designs. While there are many interesting pieces of art and fashion on the site, it is hard to get enthusiastic about printing plastic sculpture or jewelry.

My search for a real use for a home 3D printer continues.

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