3D printing - reshaping the world of print

I remember seeing a 3D printer about five years ago in a London studio – it was a huge, sacred bit of kit that had burned a large hole in the pocket of the forward thinking company who had invested in it.    What rare alchemy lay here though – before our very (patient) eyes incredibly detailed, precious netsuke like 3D models came forth!     Just mind-blowing for someone with a 1987 diploma from the London College of Printing.

So, when Erik announced that Imago Hong Kong were installing a machine in their office to help out with Imago’s prototyping, I thought perhaps he had sold his own netsuke collection to fund the purchase.  But no, there is now a 3D printer for every pocket – from high end Rapid Prototyping machines for engineering applications to smaller machines that cost a few thousand dollars and are suitable for most commercial applications. 

The machines are now targeted at the hobby / enthusiast market for home studio use, there are online communities of designers and artists sharing their creations and last year there was press coverage heralding the imminent arrival of a 3D chocolate printer.

So, how do they work?

The starting point is a 3D CAD drawing of the object to be printed which gets fed into the 3d printer.  The machine then “prints” by precisely extruding molten plastic, a layer at a time, from the base upwards to create a 3d model.   Using thermoplastics instead of ink, the printing process can take many hours depending on the complexity and precision of the model required.  

3d_printing_model.jpgThe resulting model then requires polishing by hand to remove imperfections and burrs – this also can be quite time consuming for complex shapes.  

Our 3d printer has been in since Chinese New Year and early tests are showing us just how incredibly useful this bit of kit is going to be.   We all struggle to imagine what objects will look like in 3d – looking at a photo or a sketch gives an idea but nothing beats a prototype that you can touch.    Since there are no expensive moulds to make, just a 3d CAD drawing which we can put together, we can get a 3d printed model to you more quickly and inexpensively than ever before.    Design improvements and changes can also be accommodated before mould making, helping keep schedules and costs under control.

Want to see it in action?

We’ll have the machine on our stand at the London Bookfair, EC2, stand S800 this year – so if you have an hour or two to kill and are the sort who enjoys watching paint dry – come and take a look!


Debbie Knight, Imago UK