In an unlikely location in South East London stands a small unit in the middle of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre. The objects on display through the windows are small plastic items in a range of colours, and just beyond the shelves is what appears to be a 3D printing machine. This is a 3D printing walk-in shop for the general public.
As far as we are aware, this is possibly the first such shop in the UK and its appearance on the high street could be a sign of things to come.
The shopping experience could change forever. Rather than hunting around a number of shops, looking for something specific, you could just visit a 3D printing shop and have it printed. It would also mean that you get exactly what you want, because it’s made to your specifications.
Could we all be popping into a shop on our lunch break, asking for something to be printed, and picking it up on our way home from work? It’s certainly a possibility, says Paul Widelski, shop assistant of Replicator Warehouse.
“At the moment, 3D printing is still in the hands of the hobbyist, or those who want to create prototypes. The designs that people create can be printed relatively quickly, within an hour in some instances.”
“I think we’re a couple of years away from it being mainstream yet, though.”
Paul is right, of course. One shop doesn’t constitute for a 3D printed future; but it is a start.
Nokia understands this, too. When Nokia released the 3DK (3D-printing Development Kit) for the Nokia Lumia 820 shells, it was about trying to help kick-start the 3D printing community into being creative with its products.
For example, you can download the template, rework it, and print a unique shell, for around £10 in about an hour. If you want to, you can then share that design with the rest of the 3D-printing community, and the cycle continues. One such community is thingiverse.com.
As 3D printers and techniques mature, printed products will get more and more refined and complex. Currently, machines can print at layers of about 0.1mm thick, and some thicker, depending on the equipment used.
One important thing to mention abut 3D printing is that there’s very little waste. You use the exact amount of material needed for the product you’re making. The support braces for the item are printed at the same time and can be recycled and put back into the machine.
As I was talking to Paul, I saw another 3D printer on another desk printing parts for another 3D printer. That’s machine building machines! Paul assured me that it couldn’t create a complete 3D printer, but certainly most of the plastic parts. Things like circuit boards and wires still need to be added by a human which means we’re not quite at the hostile takeover that the fictitious Skynet envisages.
This prompted a discussion about what materials can be used in 3D printing. Spools of plastic were stacked up ready to be used, which was no real surprise, but then I noticed one that looked like wood – and that’s because it was wood.
It wasn’t solid wood, of course, but a pulped wood and polymer composite. When an object is created using this material, it looks a lot like MDF (Medium-Density Fibreboard), but feels and smells like wood.
And what of other materials? Food material, or human tissue, for example? Both are possible.
While these aren’t yet available on the high street, it feels like there’s no reason why this can’t one day be the case. All that’s needed is a 3D printer and the material to print with. Although, it’d be highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to pick up a spare kidney from the local corner shop.
Imagine a one-stop shop where you can not only print household items, but also your clothes, and your dinner – to very specific requirements based on your preferences.
As we mentioned earlier, that reality is still in the future. But the creative push to use 3D printing as a method of mass production is just beginning. Be a part of it.
image credit: A. Buser