You wouldn’t download a car… or would you?

I recently came across an interesting blog post which states that the Pirate Bay (by the way, if you support the kind of thinking behind SOPA you shouldn’t click on that link, it takes you to a site that encourages copyright infringement) has created a new download category — ‘Physibles’.

According to the Pirate Bay, physibles are digital objects that can be converted into tangible physical objects. Huh? It took me a few seconds to work out what the hell these guys were talking about, but it’s not that complicated. You see, most of the design work that people do in CAD software is ultimately destined to be constructed in the form of tangible products. With 3D Printers and Scanners suddenly coming of age, the Pirate Bay has decided that in the very near future everyone will be buying everything they need in digital format. The blog post boldly says, “We believe that in the nearby future you will print spare parts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years.”

Getting a 3D printer

This isn’t actually as far-fetched as it might sound at first hearing. 3D printing has been in existence on an industrial scale since the early 1980s, so in 30 odd years you would expect that it would have matured to a point where it was making headway into the home-user market.

In fact, you can build your own 3D printer for around $300-$450, following a completely open-source design from RepRap. Or you can buy a complete kit version for a couple of $100 on top of that from one of the sites linked off of the RepRap wiki. The RepRap designers actually have the goal of creating a device that is fully self-replicating in the sense that it should be able to print off functional copies of itself, so that ultimately manufacturing RepRap printers will be handled by the printers themselves. The downside to RepRap printers is that they require some assembly time and you probably need to have a fair understanding behind what you are doing.

If you’re willing to get into the commercial market, things are obviously going to cost a bit more, but it’s probably going to be a lot easier for the average home-user to get started. MakerBot sells two commercial 3D printers. Its first printer is the Thing-O-Matic and its going to set you back around $1 100. You might still have to assemble it all yourself, but all the parts and instructions are provided and it doesn’t look like brain science to get the thing running. Alternatively, you could opt for the Replicator for $1 750. It comes pre-assembled and includes dual-extruders (which means that you can print objects in two colours at once). The Replicator is only due to ship within the next six-weeks. So if you’re thinking of getting one, you should get your pre-order in now.

At the beginning of the year, Cubify launched its competitive alternative to the MakerBot’s Thing-O-Matic, the Cube. The Cube is priced at a fair $1 299, and its biggest selling hook is that unlike most other 3D Printers it comes completely pre-assembled so that you can start 3D printing as soon as you take it out of the box. Cubify is up for some competition from MakerBot, with its imminent launch of the Replicator, but its product does look smarter and more oriented to the home or office user. That said, the Cube only has a single extruder and its print area is much smaller than the Replicator. Furthermore, Cubify needs to get into the game marketing its cartridge refills on its site if it really wants to hold its own in this arena.

Later in the year, we can look forward to yet another competitor in the amateur 3D printer market, the Origo. I wrote an article on this little printer toward the end of last year. If it makes it to market, its designers are hoping to come in at the $800 mark, which will bring the 3D printer within even closer reach of the average home user.

What about refills?

Most 3D printers on the market print using of a variety of plastics, which are heated up to melting point and then layered to create the object that you’re after. That means that you have to buy yourself printer cartridges occassionally. Oh joy! Actually, you don’t really buy cartridges, so much as “filament”. And when you buy your filament, you need to choose the type of plastic that you are going to be using. Most common is to print in ABS (which is similar to the stuff they make Lego out of). That’s going to cost you about $20 per pound… or around $80 for nearly 2.5 kilograms of the stuff. While that may sound expensive, one 5lb roll of filament should last for over 75 hours of non-stop extrusion, which is a LOT of printing.

If you’re a bit more eco-friendly you might choose to print in PLA, which is a plastic that is actually made from corn-starch. That makes it 100% bio-degradable. It’s also naturally clear in colour and is very solid. It costs much the same as ABS and most 3D printers are quite happy to use it. Believe it or not, you can also print in PVA (which is poly-vinyl alcohol), which is also water-soluble. This is a bit more expensive and you generally have to swap out the heating filament in your printer in order to do this, since it melts at a much lower temperature than ABS.

If you’re looking to buy filament, you can order directly from MakerBot’s store, which is quite handy but I’ve found their pricing to be a little bit above average. If you’re looking to go cheap, hunt around on the net a bit for ‘3D printer filament’. Shops like this, come in with some pretty good prices.

The CandyFab is an open-sourced design for a 3D Printer that prints objects using sugar instead of the usual plastics. Well, that’s not to say that it can’t print in plastic or in metals, just that its primary design is to use sugar instead. Why? Sugar is a LOT cheaper than using plastic. Its also bio-degradable. That makes it perfect for building simple prototypes of your 3D designs and it also means that your creations are edible. Something like this might look like it belongs in Willy-Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and certainly its makers are aware of its potential for food-safe 3D fabrication. Its makers say that the final products taste like praline. Now that’s a printer that your kids are going to want in the kitchen immediately!

Outsource your printing

While 2012 definitely seems to be the year of the 3D Printer, prices are just a little above what the average consumer can afford. Realistically, most of us are entranced by the idea of a ‘thing-maker’ but we know that we would much rather just leave the making up to someone else. That’s actually been quite possible for a long time now. Sites like Shapeways and iMaterialise have built a business model around allowing you to upload your own 3D designs and then sending you the final 3D rendered item.

The cool thing about using a 3rd party to handle your 3D printing is that not only can you avoid having to buy all of this equipment, you can print in a variety of mediums beyond your standard plastics. Shapeways allows you to print items in substances like aluminium, stainless steel, sterling silver, ceramic and glass. Prices are quoted by the centimeter cubed and are actually pretty reasonable. For instance, printing in ceramic will cost you $0.18 per cm3, while printing in sterling silver will cost around $20 per cm3. If Shapeways doesn’t have the material you want, iMaterialise includes 18-carat gold and titanium as options.

The point is that 3D printing is here and I think Pirate Bay has a point. The technology is not quite at a level where everybody is going to be printing off everything they need from an online catalogue, but its certainly getting there. Online catalogues of designs are already sneaking into existence, and it won’t be long before they are fully commercial. When that happens, you might just find that you’ll download a car.

If you need any more convincing that 3D printing is the way of the future, take 15 minutes out of your day to watch Lisa Harouni talk about 3D Printing at TED.



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.