3D printing was inspired by ordinary inkjet printers, which lay down ink onto a piece of paper. One layer of color at a time, a coherent image is formed from a file on your computer. 3D printers build 3-dimensional, solid objects from a digital design file (using plastic polymers and other materials), one layer at a time.
Also called additive manufacturing, the process adds materials in order to make a final product, as opposed to other manufacturing methods, such as machining, which cut away pieces of raw material to make a particular shape and size.
The Many Possibilities of 3D Printing
A basic, personal desktop 3D printer can make tools and other simple objects - from a screwdriver (and as many screws as you need), to a case for your iPhone, to a set of Legos for your kids. It can also be used to create sculptures and other art, or intricately detailed jewelry.
Creativity. Speed. Efficiency.
Professional grade 3D printers can be used for established products and prototyping. Have a new design for a product you’d like to produce and sell? A 3D printer can make one immediately, allowing you to test it, adjust the design, and work out the bugs much more quickly. You can also use it to print replacement parts, like a new brake disc out of titanium. From vehicles to machines, 3D printers can keep your company running smoothly.
Industrial 3D printers can manufacture much bigger, more complex objects from scratch, and produce them en masse. Fill any size order on demand, without having to warehouse any parts.
3D Printing - Environmentally Friendly
3D printing saves energy and creates less waste, significantly reducing the manufacturer’s environmental impact. It promotes manufacturing locally, which eliminates the need for shipping things all over the country and the extra pollution that causes. And producing items on an as-needed basis, helps eliminate costly warehousing and inventory management fees.
Whether you’re a small, local company or a large, multi-location corporation, 3D printing can save time and money, as well as lessen your carbon footprint.
The Benefits of 3D Printing
When it comes to manufacturing products, there have been two options: mass produce a generic item quickly, or customise it to meet individual needs, and produce only a few at a time at a much higher cost.
Say you manufacture shoes. You can sell a particular model of shoe in a range of specific, pre-defined sizes. Or you can customise each pair of shoes, one customer at a time, which takes much longer and increases the cost.
Faster, better, simpler …
3D printing delivers the ability for mass customisation of any product. Produce as many widgets, gizmos or spare parts as you want, as easily and cheaply as a standard, generic version of the same product.
With a 3D printer, creating a custom-made product is as easy as changing a few values and altering some features in a virtual design on your computer, then pressing, “Print.”
Each personalised design can be saved and reprinted anytime the need arises..
Print Almost Anything
Can you really print a shoe or other piece of clothing that’s comfortable enough to wear? Yes, you can. Modern 3D printing uses a variety of different materials that can be soft or hard, rigid or flexible, as needed.
The possibilities are almost limitless, no matter what industry you’re in. Reproduce a broken component for a machine, that would otherwise need to be special ordered. Create perfect replicas of parts that are no longer being mass produced, or are otherwise difficult to find.
Design New Products, Reduce Labor & Production Costs
3D printing opens the door to producing new items that would be impossible using traditional methods of manufacturing, due to their exceedingly complex nature. With the polymers used in 3D printing, items can be produced that are much lighter than before, but also much stronger and sturdier.
Experiment instantly with different materials, features, and more. This kind of immediate feedback expedites the testing process and drastically decreases time to market.
Another obvious perk to 3D printing - it can reduce or eliminate the need for complicated tools and larger work crews to assemble items piece by piece. Advanced 3D printers can produce fully assembled parts, and streamline the time it takes to fit together various parts. Reduced time, materials and production costs also lowers the list price for these items, allowing you to sell these items more cheaply, while increasing your profits.
The History of 3D Printing
The field of 3D printing – which began in the late 1980’s – has gone from a novelty where hobbyists and techies could produce a few rudimentary trinkets, to an advanced technology that’s changing the face of manufacturing, engineering, medicine, aerospace, and a variety of other fields.
Starting as a form of Rapid Prototyping, a product was designed in a CAD program, then a machine created the prototype for testing, directly from that file.
Rapid Prototyping Machines Evolve
The term 3D printing was coined (and trademarked) in the early 1990s, by engineers at MIT. They created Rapid Prototyping machines based on observations of an inkjet printer, which lays down ink in one primary color, then layers a different color on top of that, and then the third, in order to create the desired colors of a picture. Engineers reasoned that if the same principle could be applied in three dimensions instead of two, and an entire object could be created, rather than just a 2D picture.
The inkjet printer model is only one 3D printing method in a larger field called additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing refers to a process of creating objects by adding materials to one another. It’s contrasted with subtractive manufacturing, which starts with a larger piece of material and cuts away to make the desired object, such as carving a sculpture out of wood, or creating a metal chess piece with a lathe.
Other methods of additive manufacturing that have been developed over the years include:
• stereo lithography, which creates objects from a liquid resin exposed to UV rays
• fused deposition modeling, which sends plastic polymers through a heated nozzle to form them
into the desired object’s shape
• direct and selective laser sintering, which melt metal powder into the form of the object by
heating it with a laser.
Though these methods are all very different, the term “3D printing” is the one that’s caught on, and is generally used colloquially to refer to any form of additive manufacturing.
All Types of Polymers
Initially 3D printing was limited in scope by the polymers they used: they could create only basic plastic objects. As time went on, a variety of polymers were introduced into the printing process, creating more complex objects with different properties, including:
- strong, dense polymers for objects like hammers and other durable tools
- lightweight, flexible polymers for things like circuit boards
- biodegradable polymers can create disposable objects
- multiple polymers with different properties can produce more complex object
Aluminum and Titanium Based Products Too
While polymers may be versatile and durable, melting makes them too pliable for making engine parts that must withstand high temperatures. However, within the last few years, laser sintering – which uses powdered metal instead of plastic polymers – has been developed. This allowed 3D printers to create objects out of aluminum or titanium, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities for additive manufacturing.
Today, 3D printing has grown sophisticated enough that it can create intricately detailed objects that are impossible to produce via other forms of manufacturing – from moveable prosthetics to new and improved components for airplanes, space stations, and more.
The Future of 3D Printing
How will 3D printing technology change our lives going forward? The future holds many exciting possibilities, including being one of the technologies that may help us get to Mars. A 3D printer aboard the Mars shuttle would allow astronauts to replace broken components on the long journey, or develop new tools to deal with unforeseen situations.
In the medical field, 3D printing has amazing applications, from instantly providing lifesaving tools, medical devices, and more to underequipped facilities in remote locations, or to mobile army hospitals on the battlefield, to creating new organs for transplant patients.
Until a few years ago, 3D printing was the stuff of dreams and science fiction. Today, it’s a rapidly growing industry creating a range of practical, innovative products and solutions. Hold on tight, because the 3D printing ride promises to be exhilarating!