The 3D creation process has now entered a new phase with extrusion pens coming on to the market this year, which you can hold like a normal stylus and design small objects in three dimensions without any need for a printer.

3D Pens Eliminate the Printing Stage

The first 3D pen to make its appearance through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter early this year was the ‘3Doodler’. In addition to the extrusion pen, the kit includes ABS and PLA plastic filaments, which you insert into the pen, as you would fill a writing pen with ink, in order to create three dimensional objects. The plastic material is heated to around 250°C, enabling you to form any shape you like before it solidifies a few moments after extrusion. You can draw designs on a flat surface and then weld the pieces together with more heated plastic, or else draw shapes directly in the air just by moving your hand around, as long as the base of your structure is resting on a solid surface. When it comes to making small objects, this process eliminates the two-step manufacture approach – first designing your object in digital format and then going through the multiple layer printing stage.

Items more fragile than ‘printed’ objects

It takes no more than an hour to master the ‘3D-doodling’ technique and learn to create all sorts of small items quite easily. A 3D pen pack complete with sets of plastic filaments will be on sale for around €90 and it takes between 30 seconds and an hour and a half to create an object. At the moment however the 3D pen system only works with certain types of plastic. The main drawback though is the lack of robustness of a design sketched out with an extrusion pen in comparison with objects built up through the additive layer manufacturing (ALM) process, aka ‘3D printing’. At the moment, in contrast to what can be done with a 3D printer, the extrusion pen cannot repair or recreate a missing part of the structure, except for purely decorative additions.  The pen is much more suited to quickly creating fun objects with less practical/functional use, such as decorative figures, or very simple things like the arms of spectacle frames.

Mass market potential

From their early beginnings in July 2013, the 3Doodler founders have been seeking to interest professional artists and designers, as well as fun users, in their pen. Of course, as with any new invention, the 3D pen is likely to evolve further both in form and use. In fact another startup team, UK-based Lix Pen Ltd, has just launched a rival project on Kickstarter, with a 3D pen designed for much easier, more streamlined use. The Lix 3D Pen is much slimmer than the 3Doodler, looks just like a normal pen, with a sleek, modern design, works silently and is powered through a USB port rather than a standard cable as with the 3Doodler. The first deliveries to Kickstarter backers are scheduled from October. The speed with which the Lix team has come up with these improvements illustrates the high expectations of potential users and it may well be that over time the performance of 3D pens will come closer to the more practical capabilities of the current generation of 3D printers. This would definitely suit the mass market as a 3D pen is easier to handle from a technical viewpoint and also more affordable.

By Lucie Frontière