Are Smaller, Cheaper 3D Printers Better for Design?

Desktop 3D printing solutions provider Ultimaker makes the case that immediate access and low cost are the keys to getting more iterations into designers’ hands — and ultimately, yielding better designs.

The Ultimaker S5 is a desktop 3D printer intended for professional uses, such as prototyping. Image courtesy of Ultimaker.

We’re hearing a lot these days about the burgeoning use of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) in the design world, for everything from clash detection to client review sessions. But no matter how useful these technologies may be, they cannot provide the same experience that a physical model can (not yet, anyway). There are many factors of a product’s design — including heft, texture, and ergonomics — that are more difficult to evaluate by sight than by touch.

“Talking about a feature in the abstract is different than running your finger over it and saying, ‘This is really too thick,’” said Matthew Griffin, director of community for Ultimaker North America. Based in the Netherlands and the U.S., Ultimaker develops desktop 3D printers, software, and materials.

Even in AEC applications, “it’s still more persuasive to more people” to have a physical model, Griffin believes. “Architectural firms, in particular, have invested in VR/AR, but clients want a model.”

Reducing the Time to Tangibility

If the value to a design firm and its clients is obvious, then the question is not whether designers should incorporate 3D printing into their workflows, but how often. And the answer, as far as Ultimaker is concerned, is as often as possible. When designers can use 3D printing frequently, “they can figure out more ideas, bring in more stakeholders … get more concepts under their belt,” Griffin said.

But many 3D printing scenarios put obstacles in the way of frequent iteration: outsourcing necessitates shipping printed models, slowing down the process; large, elaborately featured machines are expensive, meaning many companies only invest in one “hero machine,” which can result in long waits for access; and when printing costs are high, frequent use can earn disapproval from management. “Designers and engineers won’t print as often if they think it’s going to reflect badly on them,” Griffin explained. “It shouldn’t be $800–900 just to try something.” When prints are inexpensive, designers can also feel free to modify them as desired — scribble on a modification or note with a Sharpie, perhaps, or try out a new contour by slapping on some modeling clay.

As Ultimaker sees it, the key is to have multiple machines in-house, with low costs for both the machines themselves and the prints they create. “Instead of one hero machine … you can have a room full of [Ultimaker desktop machines],” Griffin said. “It’s really changing behaviors.”

Read more: Are Smaller, Cheaper 3D Printers Better for Design?

Image courtesy of Ultimaker