3D Printing

3D printing is a relatively new technology, that we think is going to be hugely significant in all areas of manufacturing and that means it is going to have a huge impact on modern Smart Home design. This is our on-going feature on 3D printin, where we will capture interesting news and developments, and to explain why we think it will be such a big deal in the future.

In October 2012, we attended the 3D PrintShow. Although primarily aimed at the consumer markets, this was a real eye-opener for us as to just how far this technology had moved on in a relatively short period of time.

Impossibly complex shape
3D printing allows the creation of shapes that are simply impossible to create via other methods. They can be hugely complex with interlocking or inter-weaved parts. It is also possible to create parts within parts, such as bearings or gears.

3D printing in many colours
The days of only being able to print simple black or white plastic toys is over. Current 3D printing techniques make it possible to print in multiple colours, in transparent materials and even metals. 3D printed chocolate is a growing market too. It is the ability to 3D print in metals and other materials that moves the technology on from being just s hobby interest, to now being a credible manufacturing technique in its own right.

Mass produced objects are still substantially cheaper to manufacture than their 3D-printed equivalents, due to the costs of the raw materials. Although you could print household objects at home, they would cost many times more than simply buying them from a shop. There is a close analogy to the ubuitous printing to paper process. Many people already have the capability to print books at home but, they find it cheaper and more convenient to buy books online or at a local book shop.

3D printing is also not yet a quick process. It can take many hours to build up a component layer by layer.

The key strength of 3D printing is in the creation of prototypes, highly customised or personalised items, small production runs and one-off creations. The process does not really scale well beyond single digit volumes but, it can also play a valuable role when stock management is a big issue. It can also be used to produce the tools or moulds that enable mass production.

3D Printing Technologies

Conventional manufacturing usually involves a removal process that produces more waste than product. This may include techniques such as milling, machining, drilling, etc. These processes start with a lump of material and remove materials, to form the required object.

Additive manufacturing methods like those applied by 3D printing are much more resource-efficient. They involve starting will a reel or container filled with raw material and deposit or fix it at the required positions, to build up the required component as a series of layers. These layers are now often so fine that they cannot be seen by the naked eye, producing smooth and complex shapes.

Thermoplastic Extrusion

At the cheapest, consumer end of the market is the process of thermoplastic extrusion. This method uses a print head to deposit small amounts of melted ABS (or other plastic) in a manner similar to an inkjet printer. There are limitations with this method that limit resolution, size of objects produced and the physical designs possible of being printed. The most significantly limitation is the high cost of raw plastics and these are unlikely to drop much in the forseeable future.

Filabot is a desktop extruding system, capable of grinding various types of plastics, to make spools of plastic filament for 3D printers. It basically recycles plastics and processes them for 3D printing.


Stereolithography (SL) uses a laser to draw on liquid resin, harden, and cure it one layer at a time. Because of complex optical technology, 3D printers that use this technology are relatively expensive. The SL method of production results in very high resolution. Successive layers may measure only 25 microns (0.001 inches) and can achieve detail down to 300 microns (0.012). Typicallt a printer lays these layers down at a rate of approximately 15mm per hour.

3D Scanning

3D scanning is a related technology to 3D printing and enables a 3D design to be captured, so that it can then be replicated on a 3D printer. The two technologies combined have the ability to remove the phrase 'obsolete part' from our vocabularly.

Taken to it's logical conclusion, we can see a time where an iconic design, such as a WWII Spitfire is scanned into a complete set of constituent parts such that they can be 'printed' and assembled by anyone in there garage. You could also imagine an 'open source' Spitfire project where each part is collectively analysed and improved (either in shape, structural design or material) to create an affordable Spitfire 2.0. We look forward to this day!

LeapFrog Creatr

3D Drawing

The 3Doodler is a Kickstarter project for a pen that can draw in the air, in 3 dimensions.


Most 3D printing is currently done using an extruded plastic fibre but, 3D printing is far from being limited to this one material.


See the building applications below.


3D printing in chocholate seems to be one of the huge growth areas. See the food applications below.


It is now possible to undertake direct laser sintering of Titanium metal in 0.2mm layers and the end result has 99.7% same density as machined from solid, with almost zero porosity. These have the equivalent mechanical properties of machined parts.

3D printed titanium part

3D Printers


Leapfrog is a Dutch company that makes and sells 3D printers. As of December 2012, thay have sold over 1000 printers.

LeapFrog Creatr
Leapfrog Creatr starts at €1250.

LeapFrog Xeed
Leapfrog Xeed starts at €5460.

Formlabs Form 1

Formlabs Form 1


Makerbot have recently announced their Replicator 2 3D printer.

Mcor Technologies

Mcor Technologie

Objet 1000

Objet 1000 3D printer
The Objet 1000 combines high accuracy (16 micron/0.0006 inch layer thickness) and the ability to create models with 14 materials in one print job. The new Objet 1000 is named for its 1000 × 800 × 500mm print area.


PandaBot 3D printer
PandaBot is a good looking, cheap 3D printer that was being funded via KickStarter but they have recently cancelled this funding.




Launched in June 2012, the Solidoodle provides a Now with a large 6" × 6" × 6" print area and features a low ($499) start in price.

TypeA Machines

TypeA Machines



3D Design Tools

3D Design Libraries

3D Printing Services

These are becoming much more mainstream, with companies like Staples announcing its in-store 3D printing service in November 2012.



The number of new applications we are seeing in the motor industry is just staggering. This is no longer technology used by just Formula 1 teams.

Mainstream manufacturers like Ford are using selective laser sintering, stereolithography and 3D sand casting techniques.

Jay Lenos 3D Printer Replaces Rusty Old Parts.


At some point, it will be possible to 3D print buildings. You would simply set the 3D printer up on the piece of land, and 'print' a concrete frame. This would use much less material and very little labour. Buildings would no longer be restricted in shape. As you can imagine, we are very interested in this application of the technology!

D-Shape enables full-size sandstone buildings to be made using a stereolithography 3D printing process that requires only sand and a special inorganic binder to operate.

Endless house
A dutch architect plans to 3D print an 'endless' house using the above D-Shape printer in 2014.


This video shows people 3D printing chocolate:

There are also some people researching the 3D printing of food.


The University of Warwick researchers have created a simple and inexpensive conductive plastic composite that can be used to produce electronic devices using the latest generation of low-cost 3D printers designed for use by hobbyists and even in the home.


There is a huge number of people designing and making jewelry and here are some great examples.

Medicine & Health

An example of medical applications of 3D printing (sometimes called bioprinting):


3D printers could use Moon rocks (BBC News) - Future Moon colonists should be able to use lunar rocks to create tools or spare parts, according to a study.

Nasa 3D printed rocket part

The Future

We think that 3D printing will develop many new niche applications but, it will not replace large-scale manufacturing of commodity items. Much like the photography and photo printing markets, the tools will evaolve and enable many more people to use them. There will be more 3D printing in the home but it will not be as common. Intially, 3D print services will enable consumers to create what they have designed with much more quality than a home 3D printer will enable. Think of early do-matrix printers used to print digital photographs at home and you have a decent analogy.

3D print services will provide consumers ready access to commercial grade, high resolution 3D printing capability and it will be expensive to start with. Over time, the quality of home 3D printing machines will improve (think colour laser printers) but, you still won't want to print the 3D equivalent of a book at home.

The real progress will be made in the design arena though. Anyone with the design skills will be free to design, test and 'print' new objects that were simply impossible or unrealistic to fabricate in any other way. This new creative freedom is going open up the world to so many more products, options and configurations. Designers have been liberated and many will have to rethink their approach. As an example, automotive designers have now been provided with a manufacturing process that blows many traditional techniques into the weeds. Every aspect of a modern motor car from springs, to suspension arms, to the instrument panel is capable of improvement, strengthening, weigh reduction and possibly also material and cost reductions.

Manufacturing at scale will still be important. You only have so much space and power coming into your home. A single 3D printer is a bottleneck, and so will a thousand 3D printers too, when compared to a factory that employs hundreds of thousand of individuals, who work in shifts. There will always be a place for cheap labour. We like the analogy that people used to have sewing machines but, how many bother with one now, when it is so cheap to get clothes that have been made in China, Thailand and other countries?

These are interesting times and that's why we are interested in 3D printing technology and where it is heading. In a Smart Home, you want things to be stylish, unique and optimised to their environment. 3D printing provides the means to deliver bespoke, beautiful and intelligent designs into you home, regardless of whether you design or print them yourself.

The collective Smart Home community can now consider itself liberated to design attractive and beautiful sensors, controllers, actuators and other things that enable our vision of a stylish, environmental and smart home.

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Further Reading & Interesting Links

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