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Where are all the 3D printers we were promised?

3D printing paradox: “more complex software, but easier to use”

Annalisa Plaitano, science communicator
On March 31st, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
3D printing paradox: “more complex software, but easier to use”
Albane Imbert
Albane Imbert
Head of Making Lab at the Francis Crick Institute
Key takeaways
  • To print an object in 3D the user must first make a digital model, which requires technical expertise that beginners do not have.
  • The complexity and subsequent capabilities of 3D modelling software vary depending on the sector (industry, design, research, architecture, etc.). Yet more accessible software programs are being developed for private individuals interested in 3D printing.
  • According to Albane Imbert, head of the Making Lab of the Francis Crick Institute, modelling software programs are likely to become increasingly complex and specialised with simpler, more intuitive, interfaces.
  • As the popularity of 3D printing increases, so does the potential risk of counterfeit digital models, as well as an increase in generalised production and exchange of 3D models.

Before objects can be print­ed by a 3D print­er, they must first be mod­elled using CAD (Com­put­er-Aid­ed Design) soft­ware. This fun­da­men­tal phase allows for a cer­tain lev­el of cre­ativ­i­ty and prod­uct cus­tomi­sa­tion, but also lets the user dig­i­tal­ly analyse an object before it is pro­to­typed. This process, how­ev­er, involves a great deal of steps to set up pre­cise para­me­ters and requires the user to have a high lev­el of tech­ni­cal ability.

Albane Imbert is head of sci­ence tech­nol­o­gy plat­form, the Mak­ing Lab, at the Fran­cis Crick Bio­med­ical Research Insti­tute in Lon­don. It pro­vides tech­ni­cal exper­tise to the research lab­o­ra­to­ries at the Crick and oth­er part­ner insti­tu­tions. With her team, Albane Imbert designs new tools for researchers in order to answer com­plex research ques­tions and speed up bio­med­ical discoveries.

Can you pro­vide a brief expla­na­tion of your work?

Albane Imbert. Our exper­tise ranges from micro­fab­ri­ca­tion (at the cel­lu­lar scale) as a way to reg­u­late bio­log­i­cal sys­tems, to oth­er fields like elec­tron­ics and mechan­ics. We also use optics to mea­sure bio­log­i­cal activ­i­ty and design devices to assist in bio­med­ical imagery. In my lab, we use 3D print­ing tech­nol­o­gy on a dai­ly basis to quick­ly man­u­fac­ture func­tion­al pro­to­types. This col­lab­o­ra­tive work between researchers and our team is part of a world­wide trend which aims to adapt rapid pro­to­typ­ing tech­nolo­gies to research, and more specif­i­cal­ly to the field of biology.

Are there major dif­fer­ences between mod­el­ling soft­ware pro­grams used for addi­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing in indus­try, research, or domes­tic settings?

A wide range of 3D mod­el­ling soft­ware is avail­able on the mar­ket. Each area (indus­try, design, archi­tec­ture, ani­ma­tion, research…) has spe­cif­ic needs which require pre­cise, and more or less com­plex, func­tion­al­i­ties. The choice depends both on the appli­ca­tion and the expe­ri­ence lev­el of the user.

In addi­tion to addi­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing, 3D mod­el­ling has become wide­ly acces­si­ble. Today, many excel­lent soft­ware solu­tions exist for peo­ple who wish to bet­ter under­stand this process that are free and easy to use. But beware, even though using a 3D print­er is rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple, it nev­er­the­less requires a cer­tain amount of time to mas­ter – it is not easy to get the hang of!

Except in par­tic­u­lar cas­es, such as indus­try, 3D mod­el­ling and pro­grammes run­ning the man­u­fac­tur­ing process are two very dis­tinct steps, which rely on two dif­fer­ent soft­ware pro­grams. First, the mod­el­ling soft­ware. Sec­ond, the soft­ware that breaks it up into the seg­ments. The lat­ter, in par­tic­u­lar, depends on the 3D print­er used and sets the para­me­ters for the print­ing process.

3D mod­el­ling must take into account the man­u­fac­tur­ing method and the mate­r­i­al used to make the object. For exam­ple, you will design objects dif­fer­ent­ly that are made out of met­al or plas­tic. Not only is the mate­r­i­al dif­fer­ent, but the cho­sen man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­o­gy comes with its own chal­lenges, too. And in research it all depends on the needs of the laboratory!

In our field, we main­ly focus on print­ing pho­to­sen­si­tive resin on a small scale. It requires great pre­ci­sion, using mate­ri­als which are bio­com­pat­i­ble or resis­tant to chem­i­cal treat­ments. We also study the incom­ing and out­go­ing flow of liq­uids in parts and opti­mise our print­able mod­els so as to respect all these conditions.

For you, what is the future of mod­el­ling soft­ware? Will they become increas­ing­ly sim­ple to use (espe­cial­ly for the gen­er­al pub­lic) or are there still too many tech­ni­cal limitations?

The 3D print­ing sec­tor has a bright future ahead of it, and the accom­pa­ny­ing soft­ware as well. Faced with ever more spe­cif­ic demands, it will con­tin­ue to spe­cialise. In oth­er words, they will grow more com­plex in terms of pow­er and avail­able options, while becom­ing eas­i­er to use. Today, inter­faces are already much more prac­ti­cal than they were 10 years ago.

Tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions are due to machines. But here, again, pri­vate users ben­e­fit from a grow­ing open­ness of addi­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nolo­gies, whose cost have con­sid­er­ably low­ered these past few years. We now find high-qual­i­ty 3D print­ers that cost as lit­tle as 500€. They are reli­able, easy to use and can even com­pete with pro­fes­sion­al machines.

What risks does 3D print­ing rep­re­sent in terms of coun­ter­feit­ing or pirating?

Coun­ter­feit­ing is a real issue that needs thor­ough reflec­tion because 3D print­ing has the poten­tial to dis­rupt the bal­ance between indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion and end users. But does that nec­es­sar­i­ly make it a bad thing? No, I don’t think so.

Last March, at the begin­ning of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, the Ital­ian start-up com­pa­ny Ison­no­va made a name for itself with the gen­er­al pub­lic by copy­ing then dis­trib­ut­ing ven­ti­la­tor valves to hos­pi­tals because the com­pa­ny mak­ing them could not keep up with pro­duc­tion. Their actions saved lives yet exposed them to pos­si­ble law­suits. Can we talk about coun­ter­feit­ing in such a case? I think, on the con­trary, that this tool improves a more equal bal­ance between pro­duc­tion lines and con­sumers. It gives end-users greater pow­er over their envi­ron­ment by allow­ing them to pro­duce what they need by themselves.

You can eas­i­ly find the 3D mod­el of an object that has already been cre­at­ed by anoth­er user using an open-access data­base on the Inter­net. Some com­pa­nies have under­stood this and are play­ing along. They offer 3D mod­els of their spare parts, mak­ing them avail­able to repair age­ing devices, and thus help in the fight against planned obsolescence.