A bit on 3d printing alternative materials

I mentioned in the last post that some folk are experimenting with various alternative printing materials. The phrase I used was mixed materials microfilaments. I’m beginning to think that it’s the feedstock and handling thereof that’s going to be the ‘killer app’ for 3d printing, so I’d like to take a moment to meander about them.

See, the thing is right now you are pretty much stuck to rigid plastic for the lower level printers. Plastic and hard resin if you want to get a little technical. As you move upward you can get some specials – metals and ceramics in particular. Oh, that ceramic isn’t ‘ready to use’. It’s ‘ready to kiln’. But the point is it’s one material.

And one material might be fine if it weren’t that all of 3d printing is (at this time) slow. It may speed up – anyone else remember when a fast laser printer was 5 pages per minute and the norm was 1-2 ppm? But even with the speed up most jobs are going to be individual. And most people aren’t going to pay a few hundred dollars to make two dollar parts that take a couple hours to print.

Well, except. Except if the material is the right stuff or the parts are special then it might make a bit of difference. Let me give you an example. First, the material.

Laywoo-D3 is the creation of Kai Parthy. It’s a plastic-sawdust resin. Well, that’s not really fair. It’s mostly wood with enough plastic to hold it in plastic shape for a filament. When run through a 3d filament deposit machine (the lower styles of production), however, you gets something that looks quite a bit like wood. If you program the system’s heat properly you get grain as the hotter temps lightly burn the wood and make it darker. If you look close you can see it’s a little plastic in appearance, and sensitive touches can also tell, but for the most part it looks like wood. If you cut or sand it you get the behavior of high-quality particle board. (Yes, there are quality differences. Neither is long-fiber wood from a tree, but one turns to dust in pressure while the other can be cut and nailed and planed and sanded.)

So we’ve got this material, this almost-wood, that’ll run through a filament deposit 3d printer. So … ?

Now we come to fun. I’ve bragged a bit on my daughter and I’m going to do it again. This past year she made a clock. She got the plans from elsewhere, but the manufacture was all hers. (If I ask nice maybe she’ll post a picture somewhere – watch this space.) With the exception of the electromagnet pendulum and maybe a couple of axles it’s wood. It gets admired.

And every piece of it would fit in the print area of almost every 3d printer out there today. Which means that if someone wanted they could take the plans, convert them to 3d images, and ‘print’ the clock for assembly in a humidity/temperature stable near-wood.

For that matter you could do the same with wooden cuckoo clocks.

Now let’s face it, wooden geared clocks are going to wear fairly quickly with use, which means not more than a short handful of years later they are only good for decoration, not time-keeping. Unless, of course, you happen to be able to cut (or print) a replacement gear or two… yeah.

That leads to another fun of 3d printing, one that’s going to deserve another post later, on the subject of intellectual property. For now let me point out that courts have generally ruled that making a replacement part for a device you own (not lease) is not a violation of patent or other intellectual property. Making the piece for someone else can, maybe, depending on what the various patents are actually for (among other things).

For the inevitable digression continued I will remind people that copyright (US and Berne Convention both) say that while an object can be copyrighted a style cannot. On the other hand ‘based on copyrighted work’ (aka derivative works) do give the copyright owner control. IP attorneys are going to become quite wealthy over the upcoming battles over what is and is not allowed for 3d printing. End of that digression, I hope.

Anyway, the thing is that it’s not just plastic that’s being printed. I suspect that the thing that puts printers in every home will turn out to be dependent on material. Maybe it;ll be ceramics that don’t need a kiln. Maybe it’ll be wood, or sandstone (same inventor, and this one doesn’t feel like plastic). Or maybe it’ll be one of the people trying to get cotton or silk or leather to bond as printed. (Which is, without a doubt, my favorite expectation. “I needed new clothes, so I loaded a cotton spool, picked my pattern, and started the printer before I went to bed. Put on fresh this morning and tossed the old things into the recycler for next week’s clothes.”)

Just food for thought.

Have fun.


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