A short history of plastics.


Although Ebonite, a hard thermoplastic material based on natural rubber, had been around since the middle of the 19th century, it was not until Bakelite, the first thermosetting synthetic polymer was created at the beginning of the twentieth century, that plastics began to enter our lives. This new material was enthusiastically received by both industry and consumers, resulting in a revolution in product design (both functional and aesthetic) and widely embraced by the Art Deco movement, that was striving to shake off the ornate styles of the Victorian/Edwardian eras. It also emerged at just about the right time for the rapid expansion of the electrical supply industry where suitable natural insulating materials were expensive, unreliable, and in short supply. It is likely that without Bakelite the widespread availability of electricity could have been set back for decades. The same is probably true of the telephone system.


By the second world war, these polymers had advanced considerably, and were now available in many colours (rather than the customary brown), and were able to resemble natural materials like tortoiseshell, opaque gemstones, amber, and ivory - all of which could now be easily mass-produced by unskilled labour. This could have been the point at which the term ‘plastic’ gradually became synonymous with ‘cheap’.


Nonetheless, Bakelite, together with other developments such as the incorporation of paper and textiles produced materials like Tufnol and Paxolin, that were vital to the war effort. Like them or not, early examples of Bakelite products are eagerly sought by collectors today, and rare examples often command substantial prices either for their aesthetic appeal or historical significance. Even today, modern versions of this type of material are often used in products that are required to be tough and resistant to heat, such as handles for cookware and kitchen appliances, and still finds applications in the electrical installation and automotive industries.


These polymers were thermosetting plastics which, after heating and forming into shape under pressure on formers or in moulds and then cooled, became set and could no longer be modified. A much larger family of polymers, classed as thermoplastic, can however be melted and formed into objects as often as required. One of the first was Celluloid, which pre-dated Bakelite, but it was not until synthetic thermoplastics emerged around the time of the first world war that they became widely used, and are in prolific use today in many different forms.


This brief introduction only scratches the surface of the history, development, and application of plastics. There are a wealth of fascinating facts about every aspect of this subject to be found on the Web, and if you find it interesting I suggest you start by searching for ‘plastics’ in Wikipedia.


As wonderful as these materials are, historically there has been one serious drawback - it has been difficult to make anything substantial with it at the amateur/hobbyist level; unlike when using wood or metals. Even for manufacturers, prototyping new products could be very expensive because of the cost of tooling involved. Since around 2010 this has changed dramatically with the introduction of low cost 3D printers.


Enter The 3D Printer…


3D printing is fast becoming a must-have in many professional development environments, and is providing a fascinating means for amateur inventors,developers, and hobbyists to prototype their ideas at low cost. It is also finding a revolutionary place in schools where, from a very early age, it provides interactive practical experience of the physical world that will help their appreciation of difficult (and formerly boring) subjects like geometry, trigonometry, and mathematics, which they will encounter in later academic years.


It is a rapidly developing technology that is finding new applications and improving, in terms of machines and materials, at an alarming rate. It is even being used to create spare body parts that reduce the problem of rejection - who knows how beneficial this will be to the human race in the future.


This kind of revolution is not new - think about how, many centuries ago, the invention of the lathe, potter’s wheel, printing press, and loom for example,  made so many things possible for so many people - from artisans and cottage industries to large corporations.


How 3D printers work


There are two ways to create something by machine; the first is classed as ‘subtractive’, where a solid block of material is gradually cut away until all that remains is the required object. Typically, this would be done with a lathe, or milling machine, but equally applies to hand-crafting such as whittling, carving, and sculpting.


The second is by using an ‘additive’ process, whereby the object is gradually formed into shape - starting from nothing, then carefully adding material. This is the method that 3D printers use.


In essence, it is delightfully simple. The object is visualised as being comprised of many thin horizontal layers by a computer, in a process known as ‘slicing’. Thermoplastic material is heated to a molten state, then extruded out through a tiny nozzle whilst drawing a silhouette of each layer; each one being drawn on top of the previous one. In this way, the object is gradually built from the bottom up. It is a relatively slow process, but is one that can achieve high accuracy, with a good attention to fine detail. It is also possible to create objects (referred to as ‘things’) in one piece, that cannot be made by any other process without fabricating it from a number of separate parts. There are variations on this using lasers to fuse the plastic, with polymers in powder and liquid form, but the most popular method at the moment for us amateurs is the FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling), described above, based on cost and simplicity.


Why Do You Need a 3D Printer? What Would You Do With It?


These are questions often asked, and with good reason. A couple of decades ago, the same question was asked of Personal Computers - but look what happened with them!


Strangely, there is no instant convincing answer to this, other than to say that millions of people around the world, from all ages, genders, and walks of life, have taken to this new technology and never looked back, so there must be something to it. But what? - What can you make with it, and why would you want to?


The answer to this is in the limits of your imagination. There may be something you have which is broken, and for which spares are no longer available - just copy the design and make one. Also, you may want something that you can’t buy like an item of personal jewellery, something for the home, garden, or car - well, just design and make one. The design process really isn’t that difficult, can be mastered fairly quickly, and costs nothing using free on-line software.


As an example, my wife wanted something that would hold two bottles of her favourite nail varnish (one round, and the other square). She wanted them held at an angle so that, even when they were getting empty, she could easily dispense the varnish without having to hold and tilt the bottles. In less than a day I came up with an idea, designed it on-line, and printed it overnight. It resulted in a pretty little pink heart-shaped block with square and round holes at 45 degrees, and topped with her monogram. She was delighted with it, and I got double brownie points that day - better still, I gained her full approval for having originally spent so much money on the printer !  


Even if you have little imagination, or practical skills, there are several on-line sites on the Internet that host tens-of-thousands of files of things you can freely download and print on your machine; ranging from useful household items and toys and puzzles, to spares for your home appliances - the list is almost endless, covering a diverse range of products.


My guess is that it won’t be long before files of things to print will be as common as photos, sent by email. They are already appearing on social media sites. Imagine the thrill of printing a small model of your new grandchild from a file sent from the other side of the world.  Small hand-held 3D scanners are already available today for people to do this, and I wouldn’t take bets that they will be incorporated in mobile phones at some time in the future.


Does this go a little way to answering the question?


Why I Decided I needed a 3D Printer


Three years ago (2012) I had ideas for making a solar tracker, to improve the energy output of my relatively small (100 watt) solar panels that provide power to the system I designed to illuminate the garden and run its water features, and a GPS controlled robot to water the flower and vegetable garden at the optimum time of day, and with minimum waste. As an electronics engineer, prototyping the system aspects did not present a problem; but the necessary mechanics was a different story. It transpired that it would take at least 20 hours of labour, at £80/Hr (minimum) to produce all the parts by an engineering company which, when tooling and materials were added, stopped me dead in my tracks. But not for long…


I had heard about machines that could build parts in plastics, but knew very little about them, least of all ever seen one. So began several months of research, finding out how various methods worked, their capabilities, types of materials they could use, how strong the produced parts could be, and their tolerance to environmental conditions.


The result was very encouraging, but several questions remained unanswered, as most of the things being produced at that time seemed to be toys, ornaments, or mechanical novelties.

 

However, I could see that the technology had the potential to be of use to me, both at the time and in the future, so I decided to invest in one of these machines to experiment with myself, as they appeared to be gradually becoming affordable.


Choosing a Machine


It was not however until the Spring of 2014 that I made the bold step of actually buying one. This was after months of price/performance/capability comparisons of all the models currently available. I finally settled on the Ultimaker 2, which was slightly outside the price limit that I had set myself, but it seemed a false economy to choose a machine that I could soon outgrow and, if the technology worked as well as I hoped, I anticipated that my demands on it would quickly escalate.


It is nearly 2 years since I made this choice, and its usefulness has exceeded all my expectations. There have been significant improvements in the diversity/performance/quality/price of  machines available today, but nothing I have seen to date has surpassed that available on my Ultimaker 2, although I think the gap is closing. I say this from experience gained visiting exhibitions, seminars, and user’s reviews and videos on YouTube. Gone, it seems, are the days of knobbly lumps of plastic churned out by the early printers

 

When buying a printer, there are several aspects to consider - the major ones I list below. They are not in any particular order as this will vary according to each individual’s preference. But think carefully, and consider how your needs may vary in the future. If any of these aspects need explanation, Google them - there is a limit to how much detail can be included in these pages, and would probably be better described elsewhere.



FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions.

3D Printing - A Revolution In Realising Ideas.