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Why you need a 3D printer



With 3D printers selling for as little as £300, now is the time for people to recognise the whole host of opportunities available from investing in one. Whether it's for you or your (grand)child, it's easy to expand your skills and knowledge via this increasingly popular and accessible technology. And if you don't want to buy (or would like to try before you do), it's equally simple to access 3D printers through maker spaces such as FabLab Cardiff at Cardiff Metropolitan University's School of Art and  Design.

As kids we're encouraged to make models, whether that's from Lego or from glue and cereal boxes. This teaches us creative thinking, problem solving and how to work with what's available. We make houses, spaceships and so much more fired up by our imaginations. Our creativity is all too often stunted as we grow up - usually because we need something a little more sophisticated than a cereal box and some glue to overcome the problems faced in day-to-day life. This is where 3D printing comes into its own - it's perfect for creating simple solutions - such as replacing the lost building block, recreating the vital plastic widget that has just snapped off the vacuum cleaner or designing your perfect coat hook.

For professional designers, using 3D printing and Computer Aided Design (CAD) in the development process is now well established. Prototypes can be tweaked, printed and tested to ensure perfect sizing and design - for example to guarantee that a ring or bangle is the perfect fit. The ergonomics of the perfect mug handle can be improved with each iteration of the design, models made for presentations (think of the impact of architectural designs transformed from 2D to 3D) and small batch products swiftly produced.

To date though, in terms of home use the challenge has not just been with the cost of 3D printers, but with the CAD part of the process. Computer Aided Design software can seem daunting and also expensive. However this too has changed. CAD software is readily available via websites such as 3D Hubs and Shapeways or via FabLabs such as ours here at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

The two main players in desktop 3D printing are www.makerbot.com (now owned by Stratasys) and www.ultimaker.com, which have both built communities around their products, - www.thingiverse.com and www.youmagine.com. Via their websites, people share their ideas and designs, all of which are free to download and use.

So yes, you should buy a 3D printer, learn how to design with computers and transform the way you work, solve problems and enhance your skillset. This technology will change the world, maybe not today, tomorrow or in the next year but very soon. Making best use of the possibilities now will give you that business edge and improve your practice or personal skills. It will also mean that you will never have to replace a broken vacuum cleaner for the sake of a broken bit of plastic again.

Martijn Gommeren is Manager of FabLab Cardiff at Cardiff School of Art & Design, Cardiff Metropolitan University - the UK's top ranked post 1992 University in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework.www.fablabcardiff.com​