Formlabs Form 1 3D printer

We look at which 3D home printers are available to buy today and what you can print with them. We also look at the cost of online 3D printing services, how to create your own 3D models and the exciting future of 3D printing.

During the era of the PC, printers have evolved from noisy contraptions that could do little more than place a single size of black text on fan-folded paper into today’s inkjets that are able to rival conventional photographic printing. With the technology now well established, though, new developments are few and far between.

While it’s some time since we last saw any substantial improvements in print quality from desktop printers, a quite different type of printer is coming our way: 3D. Printing in two dimensions is so 2012 - what you need in 2013 to wow your friends is a 3D printer. That may be a slight exaggeration since only the wealthy can yet afford such devices, but they exist and they're going to become much more prevalent over the next few years.  

First a word of explanation, though. With the recent explosion in the sale of 3D TVs and, to a lesser extent 3D displays for our PCs, we might reasonably expect the availability of printers that could reproduce on the page what we are able to see on screen. In fact, while not widely available, this technology does exist. But while we could call such devices 3D printers, they’d still output a two-dimensional sheet of paper, even though they’d fool your eyes into seeing a three-dimensional object or scene.

By way of contrast, the 3D printers that are starting to take the world by storm produce genuinely three-dimensional objects that you can pick up and hold in your hands. It may surprise you to learn that the technology has been around for a while, too. See also: Print a case for your iPhone 5 using your iPhone 5.

Today's 3D printers are still fairly expensive - many times the cost of even the best A4 inkjet printers. Even so, you can still upload 3D designs to several websites and have your 3D object returned in the post without breaking the bank.

Here we’ll take a look at what you can do with 3D printing, investigate some of the lower cost models that are starting to appear, provide some practical advice on how to get your own 3D objects printed, and present a tantalising glimpse of what the future holds. The Star Trek replicator might be a lot closer than you’d thought.

3D Printing: how it works

3D printing is sometimes called additive manufacturing to contrast it with normal methods of manufacturing. If you think about single parts, as opposed to cars and washing machines which are assembled from lots of parts, manufacturing processes have generally involved either moulding or machining.

Machining processes can be though of as subtractive manufacturing because they start with a block, sheet or cylinder of material and take portions away using machine tools to leave the desired shape. Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, starts with absolutely nothing and adds material until the final shape has been created. Let’s see how this works for 3D printing.

3D printed object

The operation of a 3D printer has a lot in common with that of an inkjet or laser printer. Common desktop printers build up an image by printing lines of dots; 3D printers build up solid objects a layer at a time.

Imagine cutting lots of circles out a sheet of cardboard, making each circle slightly smaller than the previous one, and gluing them together, one on top of another, to make a cone. 3D printers don’t work by cutting up cardboard, of course, but this illustrates the basic principle of creating solid objects a layer at a time. It also highlights the fact that the vertical resolution of the printer, and by that we mean the thickness of the layers, affects the smoothness of the output and how close it comes to the object defined by the data. Had you used paper instead of cardboard, for example, you’d have needed many more layers but the end product would have been less jagged and been a better representation of a cone.

Next page: three different 3D printing methods