By D Zimmermann

“Excuse me, dear, I’m just going down to the High Street to print some castings and patterns for the loco.”

Don’t believe it? Read on.

“Will you print me some of my favourite chocolates?”


Don’t believe it? Read on.

“Will you print me a new ear?”

“Of, course!”

Don’t believe it? Read on.

3D printing has moved on significantly since first reported on MEWS a few years ago. Tens of thousands of machines are now in use around the world.

Model engineering casting patterns are being widely produced by the process which takes a 3D CAD drawing and converts into instructions to the machine to print shapes in 3D. Most systems follow the design of moving the print head  in the X-Y plane, while lowering the table on which the part is being printed along the Z-axis, building from the bottom-up.

Some of the most notable advances have been in the availability of a wide range of machines for the home workshop. Some are in kit form, some ready to run. For the kit builder they are no more difficult to build than a CNC router.

In recent months, there has been something of a paradigm shift with the latest machines able to deposit much thinner layers to produce smoother shapes than the striated production of earlier machines.

The latest offerings from companies like Makerbot, 3D Systems, Formlabs etc deposit a 100 micron layer. In comparison, RepRap layers are 0.012" thick or 1,067 microns. There' is even a home workshop system which produces a 10 micron layer using the laser from a Blu-Ray player to harden extruded epoxy.

Other companies are producing an extrudable material which is flexible and conducts electricity, making it possible to include control buttons and connections to them into your design. However, it all comes back to RepRap and the same open-source slicing of a standard 3D model description language into 2D paths which the move X-Y servos, just like CNC G-codes.

Now you can also find 3D scanners which will copy an item for exporting to your 3D printer.

Easily found providers of machines or kits, starting from a few hundred pounds include:

3D Systems




Delta Micro Up!












Robo 3D




The Future Is 3-D

Type A Machines


As you would expect there are now numerous people offering 3D printing services, as an internet search will soon show. Meanwhile, 3D printing is also coming to the High Street! Called Staples Easy 3D, the new offering will allow customers to upload STL, OBJ, or VRML files to the Staples Office Centre for 3D printing, then either pick up the finished items at their nearest Staples store or have them shipped.

Staples will be the first major retailer to step into the field.

"Given our market leadership in commercial print, why would we ever stop at two dimensions?" Wouter Van Dijk, president of the Staples' European Printing Systems Division, said: "Customised parts, prototypes, art objects, architectural models, medical models and 3D maps are items customers need today, in a more affordable and more accessible manner."

Initially Staples is introducing this into Holland and Belgium.