Online Software and 3D Printing Future

If you type the phrase “Online 3D printing software” into an online search engine such as Google® or Yahoo®, a myriad of responses will come up. Without a doubt, 3D printing has become very popular within the CAD-driven community as well as in the non-technical community.

Previously, the market for 3D printers belonged to 3D Systems® and Stratasys®, who are the undisputed leaders in 3D printing technology. Although these leaders still control high-end 3D printing, a new market has arisen in which hobbyists, tinkerers, and small business owners have no difficulty in printing objects such as toys, cups, shoes and many other shapes at home.

The two key reasons why 3D printing has become commonplace are not difficult to determine. They are:

  1. Many good quality 3D printers cost less than $2000 and are within the affordable price range of small businesses. There are also low-cost 3D printers, between $150 and $300, which are well within the affordable price range of hobbyists and tinkerers.
  2. The cost of 3D printing software has been declining rapidly, and much free online 3D printing software has become available.

This article focuses on three topics:

  • Why has 3D printing become popular?
  • Which types of objects are being printed with 3D technology?
  • How accessible is 3D printing software to the average user?

Why Has 3D Printing Become Popular?

Since the advent of 3D printing or additive manufacturing, there has been an explosion in different types of products for these reasons:

  • There is less reliance on tooling to produce manufactured parts. This benefit of 3D printing translates directly into savings in time, cost, labour, and assembly.
  • Material is used more efficiently, less waste is produced, and energy usage is significantly improved.
  • Products can be produced on demand (including products based on custom designs), and the need for inventory and shipping is reduced.
  •  Less time is required to produce parts because 3D printers and software are readily accessible.
  • Different materials can be combined optimally to achieve tailored strength and endurance capabilities in a product.

Which Types of Objects are Being Printed with 3D Technology?

Believe it or not, it is possible to print just about any object with a 3D printer, provided that a template exists for the object or a CAD file created for 3D printing. Here is a list of objects that even hobbyists and tinkerers have printed (or could print), and the list is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • A 3D acoustic guitar was printed in plastic, complete with the metal sound, whole cover, and heel joint.
  • A template for printing a working firearm is available, and functional firearms have actually been printed.
  • A Shakuhachi Japanese flute has been printed out of stainless steel.
  • Various types of figurines have been printed as decorative furniture pieces.
  • IPhone cases, iPad stands, coffee cups, shoes, bikinis, and bras are also available.

At a more serious and higher commercial level, here is a partial list of objects being printed with 3D technology:

  • Medical models of human body parts are becoming an integral part of the tools required for medical instruction.
  • Local Motors® demonstrated at the 2014 SEMA Show in Las Vegas that it can print an electric car named Strati.
  • BAE Systems® announced that certain components of British fighter jets were made with 3D printers.
  • Prosthetic limbs for amputees are being made with 3D printers.
  • Dental restorations are being made with 3D printers, using software provided by Stratasys®.
  • Chocolate, pizza, ravioli, and other types of food are made with 3D printers.

As mentioned earlier, a 3D printer can make just about any object, provided that a template exists for the object. With CAD technology, the creation of templates will become easier with time.

How Accessible Is 3D Printing Software To The Average User?

Most high-end 3D printing software is expensive and available only to large manufacturing companies. Almost all 3D printing software saves objects in the STL (STereoLithography) format, which is naïve for 3D printing. For high-end printing, Stratasys® and 3D Systems® are the leaders in providing 3D printing software.

The following list is a small sample of low-cost or free 3D printing software for the average user, such as a hobbyist or tinkerer.

  • Ultimaker Cura® is an open-source 3D printing software that Ultimaker® provides.
  • Cubify Invent® is a low-cost 3D printing software provided by 3D Systems.
  • 3DPrintTech® can print objects of reasonable size. This software works as a plugin to Autodesk Inventor 2014. 3DPrintTech is provided by CCTech®.
  • ReplicatorG® is an open-source 3D printer front end for driving printers such as MakerBot®, Thing-O-Matic®, CupCake®, RepRap®, and others.
  • Simpliy3D® has been available for about 2 years.
  • MakerBot® provides free 3D printing from an iPad®.
  • Formide® makes 3D printing accessible from the cloud environment.
  • Voxelizer® supports printing from medical scans, and it supports DICOM imaging and MRI formats.
  • CubeTeam® is free browser-based software for 3D printing provided by Otherlab®.

The list of 3D printing software will continue to grow, and many powerful but free 3D printing software applications will become available to the average user, especially as open-source applications. It is just a matter of time before many household products will be printed at home, robotic systems will be printed to perform many useful functions, and before many human parts and prostheses are printed for medical applications. Some years ago, the popular TV series showed the crew of the space ship ordering and printing their meals. What seemed to be a far-fetched fantasy is now a reality. The future for 3D printing looks bright and virtually limitless.