It took just three hours to design a replacement dishwasher tray bracket. It cost just $1.60, about 2 per cent of the part’s $45 retail price tag, to print. Photo: Adrian Smith, Thingiverse
As 3D printing struggles to live up to its hype as a technology that can bring objects to life, the key to its commercial success could lie in simply resolving the mundane.
This was the experience for the workers at Townsville-based Delta Office Solutions, an office supplies store that touts 3D printers as devices that can “print anything your mind can think of”.
They had to back up this claim recently when the office’s dishwasher broke after a small bracket, attached to the wheel, snapped, forcing the tray off the rails.
The Westinghouse dishwasher bracket has been downloaded over 60 times from the 3D model marketplace Thingiverse. Photo: Adrian Smith, Thingiverse
Accounts manager Brian Worley decided that instead of spending $45 for two replacement brackets, they would manufacture their own. Over three hours on a hot January night, Worley’s colleague Adrian Smith used Google’s free Sketchup design app to model 3D images of the triangle-shaped bracket.
He said it cost just $1.60 in materials and printing time – or about 2 per cent of the retail price.
“In Townsville it can take two days to get stuff from Brisbane and sometimes up to four days from Sydney but now people can make this part on their own,” Worley said.
Just a gimmick?
While the past few years have seen the price of an entry-level 3D printer fall to less than a $1000, putting the technology within reach of consumers, the relatively steep learning curve, interoperability issues and dearth of available objects, have restricted its application to persevering early adopters and enthusiastic hobbyists.
Mary Hope McQuiston, consumer group director at design software developer Autodesk, said anecdotal evidence points to 3D printer failure rates, in some cases, being as high as 75 per cent.
“There is a lot of interest and hype, frankly, out there today but the reality is that we think the opposite is true,” McQuiston said. “We believe in the opportunity but the reality is there are high failure rates and the hardware itself has not reached maturity.”
David Brim, chief executive of Australian off-road vehicle manufacturer Tomcar, has saved countless hours and thousands of dollars by using a 3D printer to prototype and test certain car parts in real-life conditions.
However, in the case of consumers, he said 3D printing was a gimmick. The problem, he said, was the huge disparity between industrial units – extremely detailed, smooth, and high-quality objects – and affordable home printers – “funny little toys” in “garish pink and yellow plastic”.
Mark Allen, who organises the 3D Printing expo, said the technology wouldn’t gain mainstream acceptance until it could shake its image as a “pie-in-the-sky” technology.
“The thing about 3D printing is that everyone talks about what it can be, not what it does now,” Allen said. “The applications are so broad that it can’t be filed in a pigeonhole.”
Beyond these issues, McQuiston said the major bottleneck to mainstream adoption was discovering designs that were compatible with your printer, and ensuring that the final object came out like it looked on screen.
“The first thing is discovering models that can actually be 3D-printed, but how do you know this piece of content is printable on your device?” she said. “Second is preparing the model itself. It needs to be ‘sliced’ to make sure you have the right materials and structure to support the model being printed.”
To remove this complexity, cost and inefficiency, Autodesk recently launched the Spark open source software application, which digitally renders files so they’re compatible with any printer, and also provides a “print preview” feature to demonstrate how the object will appear in real life.
Microsoft also launched a 3D Builder app for devices running Windows 8 in an effort to make the technology more accessible.
Allen welcomed Autodesk’s efforts but doesn’t believe any single organisation or individual will transform the industry’s fortunes.
“I don’t think it’s going to be this ground-breaking innovation that’s going to be showered on us. I think it’s going to come in degrees of changes so slowly over time that we won’t even recognise it,” Allen said.
Tomcar’s Brin said it will take at least five to 10 years before 3D printing lives up to its promise.
“The technology is good enough and it will change the world but if you look at the first internet boom, when dial-up speeds were so slow, everyone saw the potential and everything crashed and we came back, but that’s when we started to realise the dream.”