A few years ago, 3D printing was a buzzword. Now, it’s hardly on our minds. There are a few stores in malls that 3D print, but the mainstream excitement is gone. It’s a wonder then why Narra3D, which launched in 2014, is making their own 3D printers and offering 3D modelling and printing as a service.
What happened to 3D printing, and why is Narra3D pursuing this venture? To answer this, we’ll have to understand 3D printing.
How it works
I’m not ashamed to admit that, when I was younger, I thought 3D printers worked like the equipment in factories. Melted plastic (the ink) would be inserted into a mold and ejected. 3D printers would do the exact same thing on a smaller scale. However, that would mean creating a new mold per item which is difficult and time-consuming if you are only going to make one and not several models.
There are several ways to 3D print. But, before you can actually 3D print, you have to provide the 3D model. On a PC, you can click print, and the software submits the document to the printer. A 3D model is analogous to that document. The final 3D product is a result of the 3D model.
3D modelling can be achieved in 2 ways: 3D scanning and 3D modelling software. If 3D scanning technology developed and became cheaper, I could put a jumble of wires in the scanner and easily get an accurate model on the laptop screen. Unfortunately, most 3D modelling is done through modelling software like Blender. However, using this software can be difficult depending on your spatial skills. Thankfully, if you don’t have the time or resources to learn that software, you can always approach Narra3D.
After you have the file, you can now print! There are several ways to print, which you can learn more about in this site. For this article, we’ll discuss two types of 3D printing.
Narra3D has two types of printers: a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printer and a Stereolithography (SLA) printer. They designed and assembled both printers using their own funds. The assembly of the printer was around 2 hours, but the design racked up hours of their time.
To begin printing, the plastic from the spool is melted at a certain temperature at the metal tip. For PLA, a type of plastic, it is melted at 220°C. The metal tip then deposits the melted plastic layer by layer in order to form the 3D model. Different colors of ink can be used; in fact, you can even use plastic with wood granules so that the final 3D model looks like wood.
The SLA printer was not in the office. However, this printer has better quality results. The FDM printer is limited by the size of the metal tip. The smallest tip Narra 3D uses is 0.4 mm, and its output is easily seen in the picture. Unfortunately, the SLA printer is more expensive so, unless you need fine details on your model, you are better off using a FDM printer.
At the moment, Narra3D does not sell their printers because they aren’t user-friendly. Sometimes, the plastic clogs in the nozzle. Narra3D staff have to open up the nozzle and unclog it. As you can see, a considerable amount of skill is needed in operating a 3D printer. Their rate for printing is PHP 10-12 per gram of plastic.
What happened to the 3D printing wave?
Just recently, it was reported that MakerBot, a leading manufacturer of 3D printers, laid off 20% of their staff twice. Does MakerBot’s failure mean the 3D printing industry is dying?
According to Paolo Espiritu from Narra3D, the technology behind 3D printing is good. And, yet, not everyone has a 3D printer at home which was the vision of MakerBot. One of the reasons is that the technology is new and, as a result, expensive. At the moment, it isn’t a necessity for the average household to purchase a 3D printer because they can purchase all their household plastic items at a lower upfront cost.
Aside from the cost, 3D printers aren’t user-friendly as mentioned earlier. One user experienced a MakerBot that needed an outdated file format. She experienced six failed attempts because, once the printer encountered a problem, she had to pause and restart the whole printer. Aside from wasting resources per failed attempt, she also wasted time. 3D printing can take hours depending on the model. Rather than going through that hassle, an average person would just buy the product in a store rather than 3D print it.
Why 3D printing?
In spite of all the bad press, Narra3D is pursuing 3D printing out of their interest. The better question then is “Can they sustain that interest?”.
At present, 3D printing has a huge impact on the life of innovators. 3D printing has allowed iteration of hardware products to be easier for engineers. Engineers can now make several prototypes of their products and improve on each prototype. Tactiles, a Philippine startup, used 3D printers to make the prototypes of their IQube. Aside from prototyping, 3D printing has huge implications on the health sector. Bioprinting allows scientists to build organs needed for patients. Watch this to see how.
Luckily, for Narra3D, the startup community in the Philippines is growing as seen in the several startup-related Facebook groups and events, incubator programs, co-working spaces, and fab labs. Their printers work. The challenge now (aside from improving the printer) is spreading word of their service so that more engineers and architects avail of their service and finding alternative applications for 3D printing.
Another interesting application of 3D printing occurs on a larger scale. 3D printing is now being used for housing. In China, a building was 3D printed! All over the globe, countries are experimenting with 3D printed housing because it is faster and conserves materials. Narra3D attempted to venture into housing during the Impact Hub Fellowship on Sustainable Energy Solutions with WWF and PEF. They wanted to recycle plastic into plastic ink pellets. These would be fed into the printer in order to produce a 15 m2 house that costs PHP 50,000. However, they were not chosen.
The future of 3D printing
Even with MakerBot’s failure, 3D printing will become an everyday sight in the future because it answers the needs of so many scientists. Not only can scientists iterate, but they can also customize. Since businesses would like to produce the best product for each consumer (because that translates to a greater market share), they are likely to invest in 3D printing to cater to a diverse set of customers. Bioprinting also ensures 3D printing will stick around because each person’s unique physical make up would demand a custom solution.
And, the innovation in this industry hasn’t stopped. People are working on making 3D printing faster, more accurate, and cheaper. HP has responded by releasing a Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer which can print faster, more accurately, and cheaper than the usual printers used. Carbon, a 3D printer manufacturer, makes 3D printers that use Continuous Liquid Interphase Production (CLIP). CLIP prints objects from liquid resin using UV light and oxygen. The process looks like they pull out a solid object from the liquid slowly.
With all of that happening, I can’t help but envision a 3D printed future, but it won’t be one led by MakerBot (unless MakerBot innovates!).
 Sher, D. (2016, May 17). HP Reveals Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printer and New Era of Manufacturing. ENGINEERING.com. Retrieved from http://www.engineering.com/3DPrinting/3DPrintingArticles/ArticleID/12146/HP-Reveals-Multi-Jet-Fusion-3D-Printer-and-New-Era-of-Manufacturing.aspx
 Starr, M. (2015, January 19). World’s first 3D-printed apartment building constructed in China. CNET. Retrieved from http://www.cnet.com/news/worlds-first-3d-printed-apartment-building-constructed-in-china/
 Warren, C. (2016, July 24). 3D printers are never going to be a thing. Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2016/07/23/3d-printed-failure/#ADvTowAPfGqN
 Wheeler, A. (2015, March 17). Breakthrough! Layerless 3D printing! 25-100x faster prints!. Retrieved from http://3dprintingindustry.com/news/breakthrough-layerless-3d-printing-25-100x-faster-prints-44646/