The initial excitement when 3D printers sprang into mainstream consciousness was soon followed by a bit of a lull when it became clear that most of the things they could make weren't entirely, well, useful.
But at the 3D Printshow in London on Thursday, a few items on display showed that 3D printers are now capable of going further than building flimsy models and one-off prototypes to actually printing finished products beyond toys and trinkets.
I set out to find how 3D printed parts are being incorporated in end-use objects in the sprawling convention at the Old Billingsgate Market, which perhaps counterintuitively meant seeking out the stuff that looked less fun. I was after functionality, not gimmickry.
That said, the first thing I came across rather stole the show. This beauty is the Strakka DOME S103 LMP2 race car, which will debut at the World Endurance Championship in Brazil later this year and includes several 3D-printed parts. Strakka Racing's team principal Dan Walmsley explained that the company partnered with 3D printing heavyweights Stratasys to develop certain components.
"Quite a high proportion of those development components are actually now the finished product on the car, which for us certainly is a very new way of building a racing car," he said. 3D printing means shorter development times, which he's hoping will give them an edge over competitors.
The snorkel-shaped air intake on the finished car is 3D-printed in AB plastic resin, as are parts of the panelling and the dashboard. A video released today also shows the company printing a brake duct. For endurance racing, the components have to be particularly robust and reliable, given the number of miles the car will race.
"You can now get strength and light weight and stiffness and vibration-resistance, which is very important in race cars, without any compromise," Walmsley said.
Another race car part was on show at the stand of 3TRPD, a UK-based provider of laser-sintered plastic and metal parts: a titanium "roll hoop"—the safety feature on Formula 1 cars that sits behind the driver's helmet.
Sales manager Stuart Offer explained that 3TRPD makes a lot of industrial parts for the medical, aerospace, and defence industries among others, all of which we've seen take the lead in using 3D printing in the design process, and now in manufacturing too. They tend to create complex but low-volume parts—the kind of thing 3D printing is ideal for, as it avoids the time and cost of creating a complex mould that will only be used a few times.
Offer explained that the parts they made were of the same quality as what you'd get in metal casting, and could be treated to increase the desired properties.
"These are proper, fully dense pieces of metal. They really shouldn't be seen in the prototyping industry any more; they should be seen in the manufacturing industry," he said. Client confidentiality meant he was unable to name the specific companies they work with.
While some of the designs on displayed were models or mere concepts, they represented parts that could actually be used in end products, and included an engine casing for aerospace applications, a heat exchanger with a very complex internal structure, and a rotor blade with internal channels that you wouldn't be able to produce in one piece without 3D printing.
From cars and planes to motorbikes, LaserLines, a company that resells Stratasys printers but also prints parts to show the capabilities of their products, presented an airbox for a racing motorcycle. Printed in two parts out of an aerospace-grade thermoplastic, 3D printing the part again negated the need to make a mould just for a one-off occasion.
The same logic holds for making the tools to make the parts. "Fifty percent of our business within larger machine tools and 3D printing is not to do with prototyping any more," Phil Craxford, LaserLines' technical sales manager, told me. "It's production parts, jigs, fixtures—if you wanted to assemble this part [the motorcycle airbox], you could print a fixture to sit this in to hold it and screw it together,"
And printing thoroughly useful stuff isn't just limited to industrial applications. One display was unmissable simply because of its size, and suggested how 3D-printed objects could make their way into the home in a functional capacity and not just as decorative litter.
Take the BigRep printer. It's taller than me, and is capable of printing objects over a metre long in three dimensions. It's been used to make finished furniture like this baroque-inspired table, as well as sculptures, architectural pieces, and moulds for industry.
Hobbyist printers might not be up to scratch yet, but in industry 3D printing just might be starting to visibly live up to its hype as a manufacturing revolution. Looking at the most functional applications of the technology, it struck me that perhaps the most genuinely useful 3D-printed products are those you can barely tell have been 3D printed at all.