Saturday, 10 June 2017

Increasing productivity or part of the problem?

A couple of things happened recently that made me think differently about public perception of 3D printing. 

Firstly my mum recently visited our workshop with one of my nephews. My mum repeatedly referred to our 3D printers as robots, mainly because my nephew is at an age where he is fascinated by robots and all things mechanical.

The other occasion was in a throwaway conversation with our neighbour. I was banging on about driverless cars and AI imminently taking everyone's jobs. He turned to me and called me a hypocrite, I run 3D printers which are taking away other people's jobs right?

Then during a third conversation with a surveyor who had asked us to print a hole in the ground, yes he really wanted a print of a hole in the ground! Why did he want a colour 3D print of a hole in the ground? He was trying to persuade older contractors of the value of capturing 3D data. Often they just will not wait even to take a series of photographs from which a virtual model can be created to record complex underground servicing. 

From the mess of servicing underground you would think it would be a good idea to record and share this information. It is not a difficult idea to grasp but I can see how it could be a difficult idea to implement.

Putting all of that together, 3D printing of architectural design models is the staple of our business. The thing is that until 10 years ago it was really not possible to 3D print design models. 3D printers were around before that but price and speed where not right for making what are essentially concept models. 

So for most architects they became design professionals without needing 3D printing to make design models. And the truth is that like recording that underground servicing it has not been easy to introduce 3D printing into most architect's design workflow. 

This is not to say that architects have never used models and with the rise of 3D printing some have tried to apply 3D printing to their existing requirement for physical models - which is often for high quality presentation models. But that is not what 3D printing is good at unless a modelmaker is involved in transforming the 3D print into a convincing model.

A presentation model does not serve the same purpose as a design model. A design model helps stakeholders make decisions during the design process and presentation models sell the final design. 

In this sense, 3D printing design models is an attempt to add value to the design process. If we are replacing anything, it is the time consuming card and foam models which were traditionally made by architectural assistants. Often made over the course of a night, fueled by pizza and coffee. Architectural assistants do not become architectural assistants to stay up at night making card mockups, they do so to become architects. So are 3D printers taking jobs in this instance?

There is a real threat to jobs in large established industries from AI and robotics. Capturing 3D data on building sites and in road excavations or helping stakeholders make clear decisions in the design process is not a threat to jobs. Instead these are processes for adding value and increasing productivity of existing jobs.

Public perception of 3D printing is formed not by reality but by manufacturers hype and the imaginations of the media. 

Finally, is a 3D printer a robot? Robots do do boring repetitive tasks when they have time off from taking over the world I guess.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The gig economy - a missed opportunity

The term gig economy is often not what it says it is and this is usually bad for everyone except employers (except of course that they claim not to be employers). 

20 years ago I spent 3 years working in the gig economy as a self employed cycle courier. What this meant was working for a courier company with all of the usual employees, sales people, call assistants, controllers, managers but no couriers. All of the couriers; van drivers, motorcyclists and pushbikers were self employed.

At the time I didn't mind this, in fact I enjoyed the freedom and taking responsibility for looking after my own affairs was a positive experience. However the system was and remains inherently inefficient and the opportunity to make a living was limited.

20 years later I find myself in a position where I use couriers on a daily basis and being a somewhat impatient person I am frankly skeptical about the benefits of the so called gig economy.

What exactly is the gig here? Is it the individual job or is it the days work? Or the weeks work? Or the month or year? The way this work is renumerated is by the job.  The reality is that each courier is in service (employed) to a single courier company. As self employed couriers they should be free to take jobs from any courier company based on location and where they are headed. 

This would effectively widen the pool of couriers available from those in service to a particular company to the entire fleet of self employed couriers working at any one time. In other words creating a real market for self employed couriers to compete in.

Increasing the efficiency of the overall system in this way would mean a better service for customers, increased productivity of the couriers and improved services offered by courier companies.

How can a proper market for the services of self employed couriers come about? Can a GPS network based technology be applied to create such a market where courier companies hire riders and drivers based on their location, direction and availability? 

A system like this could increase productivity for everyone concerned including the businesses who need to use these services.

While writing this I came across a company called Brisqq who are supplying retail customers with deliveries. They say that "Brisqq's algorithm selects the best freelance courier (closest, highest rated, most appropriate vehicle etc.)"

Brisqq's reference to freelance couriers suggests they really are plugging into a pool of freelance couriers. I wonder if this is what they mean or is this their freelance couriers who are not allowed to work for anyone else? I hope its the former.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Cyberbond for 3D printing

I am a loyal Cyberbond customer. I have used their cyanoacrylate to finish 3D printed parts for more than 10 years now. The only reason I would change is if I found a product that would produce a better finish.

The fact is Cyberbond make a high quality product. Here is what I mean.

The test parts shown below were made in 2009 and 2010 respectively. They have been kept out of sunlight since that time and discolouration is minimal.

Sample parts in 2009 and 2010 
shown along side a part made in 2017

This ability to keep colour is not the same with some other products. If you leave Cyberbond to go off in the bottle it remains completely clear. No discolouration as it ages. I have had samples of inferior product go yellow in weeks.

When I visit customers I want to see design models crowding their offices that look good. Models need to stay good for the life of a project which could easily be 5 or 10 years.

This is not a promise that our parts will never discolour. Direct sunlight, moisture and dust will all discolour 3D printed parts made on ZCorp or Projet x60 machines. 

In addition to not discolouring, when choosing cyanoacrylate for this purpose you need to look at other physical characteristics of the glue. If the glue is too thin it will leave a white powdery look to the model. Too thick it will produce an uneven finish with matt and shiny streaks. 

All in all, sales people are not going to fare well armed with their "very competitive price" and claiming to "supply all the major users in the UK and Europe". Well, I am sorry but you are not supplying this one. 

Monday, 8 May 2017

Why I voted for 3DPRINTUK

3D Printing Industry "The Authority on 3D Printing" are organising their industry awards and entreating readers to vote...

In the 3D Printing Bureau section there are two manufacturers, a portal and Shapeways offered as service bureaus that you might choose from.

I am not impressed.

I could list a whole bunch of bureaus that I consider our direct competition and all of them are better bureaus than anything this list offers.

My hastily compiled list would consist mostly of small bureaus providing professional services. The most important word there is service and this is the one attribute I would not ascribe to 3D Printing Industry's nominated bureaus.

Stratasys and 3D Systems both offer lumbering bureaus that can only compete with bureaus offering a decent service because they don't have to pay exorbitant costs of machines and consumables. If you are not a sizeable corporate they really are not going to be interested.

3D Hubs is not a bureau. 

While Shapeways has done much to offer a diverse range of 3D printing technologies at low cost,it is entirely consumer focused and offers little in the way of professional services. 

Good service bureaus create relationships with customers. They help them to prepare data, they advise on the best technologies and materials, they usually advise on how to produce parts at lower costs and they print and finish high quality parts and they do all this quickly and efficiently. 

I voted for 3DPRINTUK because they are a better 3D printing bureau than any of the other options on offer.

If you want to find out more about 3D Print UK go to -

Yet another 3D printing App!

Oh gosh another app to connect engineers and designers with 3D printing bureaus. Still peddling the 3D printing hype, now with a rambling message conflating additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping and all projected into a dreamy future.
Allegedly engineers do not know if their parts are printable. They need an app to check their parts, to fix them and then to tell them what material to use and who should print it.
In these days, before AI finally saves us from our own innate idiocy, it is usually best not to expect help from an app. If engineers really need help then it is best to speak to real people with real experience. Automated file fixing procedures are very unreliable and can lead to all manner of unfortunates being printed.
Not only can people advise on printability and appropriateness of materials they can also advise on how to optimise files for cost. An app will not turn around and suggest you hollow the part, make it in parts, nest parts or simply reorient the part to reduce costs. It would be very easy to pay over the odds through an app.
Phone around some bureaus, ask the usual questions. Will this work? Is there a better way to do it? Is there a way to do this for less? Bureaus are in business to build trusting relationships with their customers and to build their reputation generally. Apps have nothing at stake on each job they process except the percentage they take.
Apps are seductive. They give the impression that everything is going to be easy, everything has been thought through. Its pure snake oil.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Time well spent

In today's business world there often seems little time to think, let alone read a book. Over the years, we have built a successful business based on solving a problem for architects. The problem we have been addressing is how architects can present designs using physical models almost without breaking stride in the design process.

The essence of 3D printing is a combination of slavish accuracy of the machine-made and astounding speed of delivery. Often the process of printing models is squeezed into just a few days and sometimes just a few hectic hours. 

We began to realise that this process of time compression can lead to short-cuts in decision making which in turn can lead to a certain sameness of outcome. Often, the potential of the process was not quite met in the cut and thrust of meeting deadlines. So we decided to commission a full study of 3D printing as used in the architectural design process. The result was Digital Craft - 3D Printing for Architectural Design.

A book, in many ways, opposes the pull of 3D printing towards quick fire decisions. In the discussions that lay behind the writing of the book many insights were uncovered. It became clear that in many people's minds 3D printing fell somewhere between printing and modelmaking. The book, as the title suggests became in part a reasoned argument for placing 3D printing firmly into the realm of modelmaking. 

The traditional relationship between architect and the modelmaker was being disrupted and needed to be examined in the new light of 3D printing. Digital Craft became the product of this exploration. 

Why read the book? We believe that the perspective given in Digital Craft will help architects to make more effective 3D printed design models. That is, the kind of model used to communicate the design to clients, planning authorities, the public and indeed to the wider design team itself. 

Digital Craft - 3D Printing for Architectural Design. Time well spent.

For more about Lee 3D printing please visit

Monday, 4 April 2016

Colour 3D Printing

Colour matching in 3D printing is not quite the same as colour matching in traditional reprographics. Different materials reflect light differently and three dimensional forms create shadows producing variations in tone of colour that are not seen on flat images.

There are many factors that affect 3D printing in colour: reflectivity, translucency, surface texture, tonality and saturation are just some of them. 

As is often the case, it really depends what you are trying to achieve. The ability to produce skin tones or very light and washed out colours are often more desirable over fully saturated bright colours. 

At Lee 3D, we print using the ProJet 660 printer, made by 3D Systems, which prints CMYK coloured binder onto a white substrate powder. This offers a wide range of colour and tonal qualities. 

Sample parts made on ProJet 660
Gloss finish can intensify brighter colour

Parts made on ProJet 660
Light and subtle tones

While we have never claimed to match Pantone or RAL colours, we can get quite close as shown in the image below. 

The reality of these machines is that the whiteness of the powder varies slightly between machines and if printheads are not properly aligned and parts are not finished meticulously then they can produce inconsistent part quality. But by attending to details, it is possible to make high quality colour 3D prints using this system.

Matching colour to the RAL paint system
It is possible to get something pretty close with most colours

There are two main alternatives to the ProJet for colour printing. These are the MCor and Stratasys machines. The MCor machine has limitations on the geometry that can be produced, while the Stratasys offerings are significantly more expensive machines to buy and to run. In particular, it is usually not possible to print hollow parts on these machines as they need a solid platform of material supporting all parts of the model as it prints. A third colour printer looms in the background in the form of the HP offering, but this appears to print on a black substrate precluding pale and pastel shades. 

Of these, the newly released Stratasys J750 printer may prove to be the most accurate colour printer ever made. The parts are likely to be highly accurate and can have multiple material characteristics as well as colours. But lower cost and the achievable quality on a well made ProJet part may continue to make this the machine of choice for much colour work for years to come.

Colour 3D prints made on ProJet 660

For more information about Lee 3D colour printing visit