Jon Bentley tests: 3D printers

Jon Bentley looks into the world of 3D printers, and discovers whether we should all have one in our home.

Jon Bentley

In this week's show I asked whether we should all have 3D printers at home. I was hoping, against all odds, that the answer would be a resounding yes, mainly because I've always found 3D printing a brilliantly absorbing technology to watch. I can vividly remember encountering a 3D printer for the first time at Renault's Formula One HQ in Oxfordshire nearly 15 years ago. To see a prototype racing car part magically emerge from the resin was mesmerising.

Shortly afterwards a friend of mine actually bought a 3D printer. He'd always created lovingly detailed car models in his spare time. He combined his enthusiasm for the art of model making, with adeptness at operating the new-fangled machine, to launch a prototyping business that now employs dozens of people, and multiple 3D printers.

But that's a business. And things that thrive in a business environment aren't necessarily easy to justify in our homes. For example I don't have a vehicle lift in my garage even though it would be useful to look under my car occasionally. I don't have a dry cleaning machine either, or a crane. And it's the same with 3D printers. As yet they're too specialist, and limited in what they can do, for most people to find enough uses for them.

Not that the printers aren't getting better. I recently visited the TCT Show, which specialises in 3D printing and "additive manufacturing", at the NEC in Birmingham. There were plenty of intriguing products on display. Like the new Voxel 8, the world's first 3D electronics printer that can print out conductive electronic circuits. Or the latest Impossible Objects printer that uses a new adhesive technique to print extremely strong parts out of carbon fibre, Kevlar and fibreglass. And the relatively affordable, £2300, desktop-sized Formlabs Form 2. This uses a laser to cure resin into a solid object bit by bit, and achieves high-resolution, professional quality results, while its touchscreen interface, ease of use and neat looks indicate it's also a polished consumer product.

My tech testers' experiences, though, showed how far most printers have to go in the ease of use department. And even once they'd cracked the operation of their printers there still remained the thorny problem of what to print. How many models of yourself or your dog do you really want? And when you do want one aren't you better off going to a specialist with the latest and best equipment?

While the tech testers were eventually pleased with their Halloween masks, plastic clips, toy dinosaurs and the like none of them felt they were sufficiently alluring to warrant spending between £500 and £2000 on a 3D printer of their own. And I'm inclined to agree with them.  3D printers will have to become much more capable for them to earn a place in our homes.  For example, something that can speedily and reliably solve a vast range of domestic emergencies, printing out a vital cooking ingredient you’ve forgotten to buy or an instant replacement for a split pair of trousers perhaps, might well warrant a significant price tag. But for the moment, unless you're an extremely keen model maker, owning a 3D printer just isn't worth it.