What is 3D printing? You’ve heard about it on the news, while surfing the web, and by talking to your “technologically-with-it” neighbor.
And, everyone who knows about it is talking about how great it is.
People are saying that 3D printing is going to change the world… They say it’s the next industrial revolution…
And, experts are predicting the technology’s many positive benefits, including vast medical uses, significant improvements to manufacturing, and many more.
But what is 3D printing? How is it used? How does it work? And, most importantly, how can you jump into 3D printing?
In this section of 3D Forged, I will try to give you all the ins-and-outs of 3D printing, so that you have a better understanding of the technology and you’ll be able to make better decisions should you choose to jump into the world of 3D printing.
3D Printing: The Next Revolution-Inducing Technology
What’s something that, if you had it on your desk right now, would improve the quality of your life? It could be anything…
How cool would it be if you could get it right now, without having to leave your house, or order it online and wait for it to be delivered?
That’s what 3D printing could potentially bring to the table.
Of course, as of right now, the technology is not nearly that advanced (and it may never get to that point), but in the most simplest of definitions, 3D printing is a technology that allows for a three-dimensional object to be printed on demand.
Anyone can see the incredible benefits that such a technology could bring to the table. With the ability to create any object in the moment that it is needed (current 3D printed models can take anywhere from 20-minutes to a few hours to finish), many obstacles that are currently holding back manufacturers, medical professionals, educators, scientists, etc. can be easily overcome.
Instead of keeping a large warehouse of a specific product, with 3D printing, a manufacturer could theoretically wait until their customers order an item (which could be customized to their needs) and then they could print it out.
Or–and perhaps even better, yet–the customer could order the design/blueprint of the product and print it out on the 3D printer they have in their home.
In the medical field, 3D printing is already being used to print out bones, prosthetic limbs for amputees, organs, prototypes, and other body parts. The technology is also being used to create models that will allow surgeons to practice difficult surgeries.
For educators, 3D printing opens the door for hands-on learning experiences. With 3D printing, teachers can print out realistic 3D models to help them cover their course material in a more hands-on manner. And, students can use 3D printing to learn about and understand engineering and manufacturing principles by designing their own objects.
And, scientists can have a field day with 3D printing (and they already are), as it allows them to rapidly create prototypes that they can use to help them better understand complex laws, theories, experiments, environments, and other scientific worthy material.
Ultimately, as of right now, 3D printing is only in its infancy. Currently, its biggest and most important use is in 3D prototyping.
However, the technology is advancing quickly and we are beginning to see many 3D printing machines capable of producing finished products. Eventually, 3D printing could become the norm among manufacturers and the technology has the potential to change the world forever.
How Does it Work?
The uses of 3D printing are almost limitless. That’s easy to see… The next question you probably have, though, is how does 3D printing work?
While 3D printing definitely needs complex technology to work properly, the concept of how 3D printing works is actually fairly easy to grasp.
In this section, I’ll take you through the 3D printing process, so that you have a good understanding of how a three-dimensional object can be printed.
Designing the Object
3D printing starts with a design. Much like your 2D printer (you know, that thing that you use to print out documents with,) your 3D printer needs a set of instructions before it can print something out.
For instance, if you wanted to print out this article, you would need to send a copy of this page to your printer by right clicking and hitting “Print…” With the copy saved, the printer can then use ink to duplicate what is on your screen on a blank sheet of paper.
A 3D printer also needs a model, or copy, to work off of.
In order to create a design that your 3D printer can make a real copy of, you need the help of computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software.
This kind of software will allow you to design a blueprint of a three-dimensional object.
*If you’re not comfortable using 3D-design software, there’s no need to worry. You can simply download someone else’s design and print that.
And, then, just like on your 2D printer, you send the finished design to your 3D printer and it will get to work on creating the object.
Printing the Object
Alright, so you’ve created your design and you’ve sent it to your printer… Now you’re probably wondering how the 3D printer is going to print out a three dimensional object?
Well, if you consider how a standard two-dimensional printer works, it’s not too hard to grasp how a three-dimensional printer works.
The printing head on a 2D printer replicates a document of text or an image by laying down a layer of ink in the right locations while moving back and forth across a blank sheet of paper. Once the printer head has reached the end of the blank sheet of paper, your document or image has been printed.
A 3D printer works exactly the same way. However, there are two differences between a standard two-dimensional printer and a three-dimensional printer…
- 3D printers not only move side-to-side, but they also move up and down.
- Instead of laying down ink, 3D printers can lay down different materials (as of right now, the most common material is industrial grade plastic).
So, essentially, a 3D printer works by stacking multiple layers on top of each other until the object you designed is created.
This might sound complicated, but it’s not that difficult to understand once you see a 3D printer in action… which is exactly what you’re going to see right now…
As you can see, the printer lays down one layer, then moves up and builds the next layer on top of the previously-laid layer. It does this until the object is fully built.
The cool thing is that, since the layers are only a couple of microns thick (and even less with some 3D printers), you can print out very detailed objects.
Types of 3D Printers
While 3D printers all achieve the same goal, there are many different types of 3D printers and they all have different ways of printing three-dimensional objects.
The following is a list of the different 3D printer types, as well as a brief description of what sets them apart from the rest:
- Stereolithography (SLA): In Stereolithography, or SLA, the printer lays down a layer of fluid resin and then hardens it with a UV laser. This process is completed one layer at a time until the object is complete. SLA printers excel at printing oddly shaped objects (which other printing methods struggle with).
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM, is currently the most widely used form of 3D printing. In FDM, plastic is melted in the printer’s nozzle and is extruded onto the printer’s platform one layer at a time. FDM printing requires that the object has a support material to keep it in place during the printing process. FDM printers are currently the most affordable 3D printing method and are the most readily available for home users.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): In Selective Laser Sintering, or SLS, the printer utilizes a high-powered laser to melt a cross-section of powder (which is just a bunch of tiny particles of plastic) together to form a solid object. SLS printing is typically quicker than other types of 3D printing and can be used to produce finished products. SLS printers are also more expensive than other 3D printing methods, but key patents expiring in 2014 could change that.
These are three of the more popular methods of 3D printing. However, there are quite a few other 3D printing methods as well, including: syringe extrusion, polyjet photopolymer, laser fusing, laminated object manufacturing, etc.
The History of 3D Printing
Even though 3D printing is still relatively new on a consumer-level, many fields and industries are using 3D printing technology to achieve some pretty incredible results.
In this section I’ll cover a few areas where 3D printing is changing everything…
3D Printing in the Medical Industry
Among the average consumer, 3D printing is primarily known as a means to produce small gadgets, toys, products, and figures. However, the various uses of 3D printing are gaining quite a bit of steam in the medical industry.
Not only is 3D printing allowing medical professionals to replace body parts, but the technology could also become important in the manufacturing of prescription drugs.
Lee Cronin, a chemist from the University of Glasgow, has built a prototype of a 3D printer than can, in fact, assemble complex chemical compounds on the molecular level. As THEWEEK.COM speculates, this kind of advancement could lead to prescription drugs being ordered online and printed at home.
Prescription drugs aside, the fact that 3D printing may very well be printing at the molecular level in the near future opens the doors to millions of possibilities inside and outside of the medical industry.
Ultimately, the only real limit to 3D printing in the medical industry is time and research.
The Automotive Industry’s Use of 3D Printing
The auto industry is another big proponent of 3D printing technology.
3D printing has helped automobile manufacturers with prototyping and in coming up with specialized parts for their models.
Some car manufacturers are also using 3D printing to mass produce brackets, hoses, trim, and other small components.
Joe Gibbs Racing is even using 3D printing to help them create much needed parts in a fraction of the time it would take to produce them with traditional manufacturing methods.
While the day of printing fully functional cars is probably a long way off (if ever at all), 3D printing definitely has its uses within the automotive industry and is already helping automakers cut manufacturing costs.
3D Printing in Fashion
3D printing has even made its way into the fashion industry… and some of the things designers are coming up with are something Cinna would concoct for Katniss Everdeen in the events proceeding the Hunger Games.
Everything from dresses, to shoes, to jewelry can and has been 3D printed. But, rather than talk about it, here are some pictures of some of the craziest 3D printed fashion designs…
The Future of 3D Printing
As 3D printing continues to improve, it will move from a manufacturing method that mainly produces prototypes to a manufacturing method that produces finished products. And, when that happens, the 3D printing will have the potential to impact just about every other industry in the world.
According to research, the 3D printing industry is expected to grow into an $8.41 billion industry by 2020. That’s a huge number and it just shows how much people are buying into it.
Given the fact that 3D printing will play a role in just about every area, industry, market, and field, it seems pretty fair to estimate that the technology will be a dominate force in the world’s economy.
In any case, 3D printing offers so much hope for the future. Yes, the technology is still young and it has a long ways to go… However, with the absolute need for reduced manufacturing costs (3D printing could put an end to low-cost overseas outsourcing) and for the sake of limiting our carbon footprint, 3D printing is a technology that is imperative to the longevity of the human race.
And, because of that, there’s a really good chance that 3D printing will change the world.