There is a lot of talk in the media these days about three dimensional (3D) printers. For our community there is the Liberator, a 3D printed gun. It is an amazing development but certainly not ready for widespread use. 3D printers also make it possible to print your own magazines, holsters, and just about anything else you can think of that is made from plastic. But how good are these printers? Should they be part of your survival arsenal? If so, which one should you get? You can get used 3D Printers for around $550 without trying very hard but is it a waste of money? I'll answer these questions and much more in this article.
I am a mechanical engineer and I design products every day. I use my own 3D Printer regularly, which is a Thing-O-Matic from Makerbot. I bought it for $1,200 a few years ago and I had to build it myself. I have since made my own customizations to it to make it work a little better than it did originally. I use it to make parts, for projects to help me demonstrate a concept to a client, for prototyping an idea, or for fixing my kids' toys. It costs me pennies to make something on this machine and I can go from idea to finished part in as little as 5 minutes.
I also have access to an Objet 30, a $30,000 machine. I use this machine regularly when my 3D printer isn't be sufficient. It has a bigger build volume (12"x8"x6"), a better surface quality, higher accuracy, and is a dual material printer (I'll explain more below). I only have to pay for the material costs and it typically runs overnight.
When I really need a large item printed or a nearly perfect quality part I use a local 3D print house. They can even make molds of my "Master" part and produce replicas using nearly any plastic material. It usually takes a few days for a master part and a lot more money. They have an array of printers but their printers can easily cost $500,000.
How do 3D Printers work?
3D printers all use the concept of building a part in layers. Most machines build from the bottom up. Typically the "entry level" printers build each layer of plastic by squirting a noodle of hot plastic out a nozzle. The nozzle is connected to 3 servos(motors) that control the left-to-right, front-to-back, and vertical motion. There is also a servo to control whether the hot plastic is being squirted out the nozzle or not. These four motors are controlled by a computer that coordinates their actions.
The build process works as follows: if your part is going to be a tube standing on end the 3d printer would squirt material as it moved around a circle on the outside. Then it would stop squirting plastic and move to the middle and draw the inside circle of the cylinder. Next it would fill in the material between the two circles. Then the nozzle would lift a small amount, usually .005 to .020 inches and repeat the circles and fill. It would repeat this process hundreds of times until your part looks like a tube. On a more complex part the inside and outside profiles could be any shape. During the setup process you decide whether you want the printer to create the part as completely solid or internally use a honeycomb structure (which makes the part lighter and saves material).
3D printers are unique in that they can build parts that you can't build with any other machine. They can create internal features on a part because the nozzle has access to the inside of the part during the build process. 3D printers have created a new market of manufacturing referred to as "Additive Manufacturing".
If a machine has only one nozzle you can't build parts that have any sudden overhangs. If it does the noodle will droop and give you a poor quality part. Another issue with single nozzle machines is that you need parts that have a wide flat base. These are big limitations. You really want a printer with a dual nozzle. On these dual-head machines one nozzle lays down a support structure with a water soluble material and the other dispenses the part material. If your machine is a dual-head printer then when your part is done you need to clean the part in a sink to remove the support material. A high pressure sprayer is helpful.
The best dual head machine on the market is the Replicator 2x from MakerBot (owned by Stratasys). This is the machine that the Liberator pistol was made with. In fact Microsoft says that the next service pack of Windows 8 will natively support the Replicator 2 as another printer. I don't know what this means exactly because there is more to the process that just connecting to it.
The Replicator 2x can dispense different colors and PLA or ABS plastic. ABS is a relatively strong material that isn't brittle and has a relatively high melting point. PLA is also strong and can produce more accurate features but it has a low melting point. Parts can droop in a hot car. The Replicator 2x is $2800 (not including support service).
There are other kinds of 3d printers that use a process called SLA in which a movable platform sits in a pool of liquid. A laser shoots at the top surface of the pool and hardens the liquid where it builds the parts. These machines are extremely accurate but the resulting part is brittle. A new "entry level" printer called the Form 1 is due in November 2013 that has the professional rapid prototyping service companies nervous. It is expected to cost $3300 which is extremely cheap for this kind of machine.
Let's assume that you decide to buy a printer. You also need a computer to run the printer. If you want to create your own parts then you need software to design your parts. Right now you can download Creo Elements for free. Creo Elements is a basic 3D modeling software but it is very functional for many parts. For the price you can't go wrong. Personally I use Solidworks but it starts at $4000. SolidWorks is the most common 3D software among small to mid-size companies. I can design anything with SolidWorks.
If you don't want to design anything you can download 3D parts such as magazines and grips that others have designed. DefCAD.com has a lot "defense" related models. You can also get some at grabcad.com and 3dcontentcentral.com. In my experience they usually aren't designed very accurately or for 3d printing. DefCAD is your best bet. There are also other sites that have zipped up the DefCAD models and made them available to ensure the models never become inaccessible.
So are these 3D printers useful in a TEOTWAWKI scenario?
I think that there may be some very useful applications for a 3D printer. I could see someone developing good quality models of magazines, belt clips, grips, and other "accessories" for your systems. When you need more you print them.
I personally wouldn't make any parts for a weapon that see any kind of high pressure, temperature or need high precision. The Liberator gun suggests replacing the barrel between every shot of a .22. It would take nearly 2 hours to print one barrel. It costs maybe $1 in material. Between time and money it isn't worth it. Even more importantly, the danger is that the barrel is made in layers and under high pressures it could crack and or disintegrate in unpredictable ways. I suppose if things got really bad I might consider it but it would be have to be extreme circumstances.
Is there anything else a 3D printer could be used for?
There is an entire other possibility for 3D printers that I haven't mentioned yet. This is the idea of making molds for parts. There is a resurgence in the DIY market of making your own molds and therefore producing low volume production of parts. The essential company to know is smooth-on.com. They have everything you need to make your own molds and parts. In fact, in some cases you don't even need a 3D printer. You might be able to take some of the existing parts you have, create molds, and duplicate your parts. Smooth-On has an unbelievable array of materials that you can make parts from. You can even make metal parts from some of their mold materials. Now if you combine a 3D printer into the mix you have yourself a versatile, small production manufacturing capability. It does take practice learning how to make a mold well but it isn't rocket science.
Should everyone get a 3D printer?
Personally I think if you operate in a relatively large group and are well prepared a 3D printer and molding supplies might be worth considering. More likely is that I would suggest the tools and knowledge for someone that wants to have a backup profession for when the SHTF. I could see someone being the local manufacturing guy in their area. I have made hundreds of parts in my basement from my 3D printer, mold materials, and some simple tools (drill, knife, screwdrivers, etc).
Right now the 3D printer market is still in its infancy. There are a lot people out there trying to figure out to get the average household to want them in their house. No one has figured it out yet. If you do think that you want get a printer then I recommend the Replicator 2x. It has good customer support, a strong community, and lots of connections to software. I will seriously consider the Form 1 printer once I see that the bugs are worked out. There are less expensive printers out there that you might consider to experiment with but I don't see them as a useful tool. Best wishes in your preps and be safe.