You may have heard the term “3D printing” mentioned by enthusiastic technology lovers or newscasters reporting the marvels of the modern age. Stories of a machine similar to the Star Trek replicator circulate among online communities, but if you haven’t heard how the process works, you may be wondering: What is 3D printing?
In short, 3D printing is the process by which a digital file is used to create a solid object. Creating the file can be done in one of two ways; either you design an object from scratch by creating a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file, or you scan an existing object with a 3D scanner, which then sends a digital copy of the object into a 3D modeling program. Once the file has been created, the modeling software prepares it for printing by digitally slicing the object into thousands of super-thin, horizontal layers – layers that, when stacked vertically upon one another, become the physical object. The file is then uploaded to the printer, a machine which is able to extrude physical material in the same way that a traditional printer uses ink. The 3D printer reads every slice the modeling program made from the object, and creates those layers by extruding material onto a flat surface. Over the duration of the printing process, the collective stacked layers become the printed object.
Unlike a typical desktop printer, which primarily uses ink and paper, 3D printers can use a variety of materials. The more common ones include PLA and ABS plastics. However, innovative companies are developing printers that work with materials like wax, glass, precious metals, and sandstone. 3D printers are no longer confined to printing solely white objects. They have an impressive range of colors, which enables them to add interest and life to their creations
Though 3D printing appears to be a recent innovation, the three techniques used today were developed in the mid 1980s. The first method, selective laser sintering (SLS) enables a printer to build an object by combining particles of ceramic, plastic, metal, or glass powders using a high-powered laser. Shortly after SLS was pioneered, the fused deposition modeling (FDM) technique was developed. Following the FDM process, a printer creates an object by sending the printing material through a heated nozzle. The nozzle melts the material and then deposits it onto a surface to form layers. As soon as the material leaves the nozzle, it hardens, creating a base for the next layer. The last printing method, stereolithography (SLA), has the printer build an object by using an ultraviolet laser and a vat of liquid ultraviolet curable photopolymer resin to create layers one at a time.
What is 3D printing used for in manufacturing? Its two common applications are rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing, which have enabled manufacturers to exercise more control over their inventory. In rapid prototyping, companies use the printers in the early stages of product design. They create the prototype using modeling software and upload it to the printer instead of sending the file to an off-site manufacturer and waiting weeks to receive the finished product. With 3D printing, companies can create a prototype and have it printed on the same day, saving time and money. The second benefit of 3D printing, rapid manufacturing, enables businesses to forgo mass production when they only need to create a few custom products. In this case, the object the printer builds is the end product, not a prototype.
One of the beauties of 3D printers is they’re not confined to printing one type of object. Typical desktop printers are only capable of printing papers; they have no other use. 3D printers, on the other hand, have the potential to fill a variety of roles. Innovators of startup companies can use the printers to help them develop and test their products, enabling them to work out any kinks in design at an early stage. Creative DIY types can design custom solutions for around the house, like an edgy vase for flowers or a personalized wine rack. 3D printers can also cross into the educational world. Tinkering with a 3D printer is a great way for kids to learn basic engineering and design principles. Kids have the ability to create a digital design, print it, and play with it, exploring how the object’s design affected factors like stability and sturdiness. There are few things more exciting for kids than to watch an object they designed on the computer become a reality.
A common use for 3D printers is creating models. Architects employ the printers to help them better visualize their designs. They can print a variety of different buildings, place them in a particular setting, and rearrange them as they see fit. Allowing kids to create a model of various atomic structures teaches them some of the fundamentals of chemistry, and it helps them understand how the different parts fit together. Lines and letters that represent the structure on paper are fine, but they can’t compare to actually holding the structure and rotating it to get a new view. Artists also use 3D printers to create models and sculptures, combining the ancient art of sculpting with the cutting-edge process of digital design and 3D printing.
Available 3D Printers
The variety of 3D printers available for personal use is quite impressive. Companies offer the printers in a range of sizes, speeds, and prices. Most of the printers use FDM technology to print, and they generally use either PLA or ABS plastic. Cubify offers one of the largest product lines of sleek personal printers, scanners, and software. Makerbot’s printers are more refined and connectivity-friendly than their peers; the newer ones come with cloud storage and are Wi-Fi enabled. Enthusiastic tinkerers will enjoy the open face printers that Solidoodle offers, but those who want a more DIY approach should investigate the Ultimaker Original, one of the few printers that come as a kit. Unlike the previous companies, Form1 uses SLA technology with its printer, Form1+. Instead of using plastic, customers have the option of creating objects with a variety of resin types.
The Future of 3D Printing
Imagine printing a toy for your child, perhaps one she designed for herself. Imagine the end of wait lists for organ transplants; hospitals now print the necessary organs, saving thousands of lives every year. Space exploration will be forever changed. Astronauts will be able to manufacture parts on demand; vital medical and technical equipment will be right at their fingertips, and it won’t require more space than a desktop printer. Consumers using 3D printers will revolutionize how they access and customize products. Instead of calling the manufacturer to order a new part for a car or a dishwasher, people can simply find the appropriate design file on the company’s website and download it, printing it within the day. The long, strenuous wait for parts and products will be over. Customers will be able to print a product they see online, saving on shipping fees while enjoying the product the same day.
3D printers have revolutionized the way people manufacture products. They have enabled companies to create a prototype on the day of its inception, and they are great tools for interesting kids in computer design. As the technology surrounding 3D printers becomes more popular and more streamlined, their uses will multiply, enabling people to create anything from a new pair of shoes to a new part for the dishwasher.