Last week, I wangled a press pass to the 3D printing show in London. I'm interested in the subject and the event was well worth a visit.
On display were cutting edge print machines churning out both little and big models. From printers you could buy to bureau services, there was a heck of a lot on show. If you don't fancy learning CAD then there were even scanners for things from tabletop ornaments to full sized people.
The big surprise for me was that colour printing is happening. The material has a stone texture finish but in many cases this doesn't matter and the repro is superb.
My take on the technology?
Well, it's good. For prototypes and VERY short production runs, it's brilliant.
BUT. It isn't as good as many people would have you believe, at least for our sort of small scale model making. Look at the surfaces and the texture is sandpaper. Curves display facets from the layers of plastic used to build them up. With these normally being 0.15 to 0.2mm thick, they are visible. And this is the cutting edge technology.
Another aspect often ignored is the time taken for a print. Something the size of a OO loco is going to take 5 hours or more to produce. Better hope the computer doesn't go to sleep in that time too as the results look like a plastic spaghetti explosion. Most printers can accept USB keyfobs and SD cards with the design on to get around this.
Price is an issue too. A very nice 4mm scale market hall would come in at a bit under £400. I'd probably build you one for that money. The firm concerned are working on clever design to bring this down. By printing it as a kit rather than a finished building they can reduce print time and therefore (apparently) cost.
Having said this, I'm still fascinated by the technology. I am sure that it has a place in the modellers toolkit and that place is going to grow as print layers become thinner or different technology is used, resin printing looks very interesting for example.
When someone tells me there is no need to learn any modelling skills as they can do it all on a computer and print the results, I still think they are wrong. Even where they are right, you've got to climb the steep learning curve with a CAD package and gain experience in making 3D print items as it's not as easy as it looks.
More to the point, I like making things with my hands. If you can print everything, and there was one printer that would tackle a micro-layout sized job, then it's going to be time to find another hobby. But not for a good few years yet I think.
My photos from the 3D print show on Flickr