23/12/2013 09:10 GMT | Updated 22/02/2014 05:59 GMT

3D Printers: How Will They Change the Way We Conceptualise and Design Products?

Inexpensive 3D printers can be used to create small plastic figures and parts, either as final products, or as models, prototypes and test pieces to help you with your designs. As of the end of 2013, entry-level 3D printers cost around $1000 and industrial models that can print large products made of various materials can cost up to $600,000. Most commercial applications use the output from 3D printers to help with the design and testing process, taking advantage of the low cost and fast turn-around compared to conventional procedures. When you can quickly generate a low-cost 3D version of your drawings, the path from concept through design to finished product becomes much more certain and lets you control the final design more effectively.

How 3D Printers Work

Conventional production techniques use machines to remove material from a solid block to create a product, or they inject liquid material into a mold. 3D printers use a different process to add material to a work platform in layers. They employ various technologies, such as depositing layers of hot plastic from a spray nozzle, using a laser to melt thin layers of material, or curing layers of light-sensitive plastic with UV light. In each case, the layers can be so thin that, when built up into a solid figure, you can hardly see the separate layers.

To let the printer know where to put the material, a computer program slices the image of an object into layers. The software can calculate layers from design drawings or from scans of solid objects. For example, if you want to print a plastic pyramid, the first layer would be a square for the base and subsequent layers would each be a little bit smaller, until you reach the tip of the pyramid. The layers in high-performance 3D printers can be as thin as 0.001 inches (0.03 mm), so a 1-inch pyramid might have 1000 layers. In conventional printing terms, the resolution is 1000 dots per inch, which means you can hardly see the layers without a magnifying glass.

Creating Prototypes

One of the ways 3D printing has revolutionized the design process is through the ready availability of prototypes. In a traditional process, designers create detailed drawings and then make expensive prototypes to see if their design performs as expected. These traditional prototypes are often just like the finished product and require a complete production process to manufacture them. Changes in the prototype are very costly. Designers avoid risky and complex structures and stay with safe designs they know work well.

With 3D printing, designers can produce prototypes for many products quickly and at low cost. They can print out complex prototypes and determine where there are functional deficiencies. Instead of trying to visualize problems and avoid them, designers have a much broader capability to try out designs to see how they work.

Designing With Models

Often the look of a product is of prime importance. Designers make models of items such as cars, toys and jewelry to make sure the designs are attractive. Even entry-level 3D printers, such as those offered by Farnell Electronics, are suitable for such modelling. The conventional design process creates models from design drawings using injection molds or numerically programmed machines to chip, drill and chisel the model out of a block of material. Both processes are expensive and time-consuming. 3D printing has allowed designers to create rough models quickly and refine them after they have seen where their original design doesn't look as they intended.

Test Pieces

A key design advantage of methods using 3D printers is the ability to test designs in real-life conditions before proceeding with manufacturing of the final products. Designs for pieces such as air vents, valves and airplane components undergo extensive analysis to ensure that they interact with air or other fluids safely, and perform the required operations as planned. The conventional design process involves extensive computer analysis of the designs and drawings to ensure that the test piece performs according to design criteria. For this process, testing is more validation, and a failed test is a major problem.

With low-cost 3D printed test pieces, designers can use testing to pinpoint problem areas and use test results to find solutions. Typical tests for these components investigate air or liquid flow, turbulence, design pressures, efficiency and deterioration. 3D printing has not only validated innovative design but also suggested the use of new materials that performed well when used in 3D printed test pieces.

Custom Designs

In addition to price reductions due to design cost savings and more innovative designs, consumers will see the impact of 3D printers in custom products, either shipped to their door or delivered as software for printing out on their own unit. For items where a perfect fit adds comfort or functionality, you may be able to submit detailed measurements or a scan and receive back the corresponding software for your printer. 3D print shops may do the printing for you. 3D print technology is the kind of innovation you don't think you need until you use it and wonder how you ever got along without it.