3D Printers and 3D Printing: Everything You Need to Know
There is a sense of enigma and an air of uncertainty around the concept of 3D printing because while almost everyone has heard about this cutting-edge technology that lets you print objects in 3-dimension, not many have seen 3D printers up close.
From news of 3D printing finding its way into auto manufacturing and medical research to the promise that someday 3D printers fitted in every home will allow users to create anything from gadgets to food right from scratch, a lot has been written and said about this technique. If you have been struggling to make sense of that barrage of information, here is everything you need to know about 3D printers and 3D printing:
What is 3D Printing?
Also known as desktop fabrication or additive manufacturing, 3D printing refers to the process of creating an object layer by layer. The end result is an actual, physical, usable object that has been built from a three-dimensional blueprint. This is in a sharp contrast to the traditional methods of manufacturing, where raw materials are put through a different mechanical process in order to create the desired object.
The concept of 3D printing took the form back in 1986 and started attracting some serious attention of tech enthusiasts and experts from around the world by 1990. The technology is already being used on a macro scale in the manufacturing industry.
How it All Began
The foundation for 3D printers and 3D printing as we know it today was laid down back in 1984 when Charles Hull invented the process of stereolithography (SLA). Hull later took this invention forward by co-founding the company, 3D Systems. It was this printing process that led to the conception of the idea of 3D printing, as it facilitated the creation of three-dimensional objects using digital designs. And that’s how the world got its first 3D model created from a picture.
It was Hull’s 3D Systems that created the first machine capable of transforming computer designs into 3D objects. It was called the Stereolithographic Apparatus, in a direct reference to the process used for 3D printing. Ever since Hull’s machine arrived on the scene, there was no looking back.
Throughout the 1990s, a lot of technical experts were experimenting with what could be done with the still-evolving 3D printers. It was, however, the production of fully-functional organs using 3D printers that put this technology in the mainstream and drove home the message of its true potential.
The first 3D printed organ created using synthetic scaffold coated cells from the patients’ body were successfully transplanted in several young patients being treated for urinary bladder augmentation. This was a milestone that proved that raw materials used for 3D printing were not just limited to plastic, but could also human cells and more.
In 2006, a whole new process – apart from the now popular SLA process – known as selective laser sintering (SLS) was introduced to this technology, and it paved the way for on-demand and mass production of parts to meet industrial requirements. The same year, a company called Objet came out with a 3D printer that was capable of processing numerous raw materials to print desired objects.
In 2008, the world saw what was by far the most befitting rendition of 3D printers in form of a self-replicating 3D printer – basically, a 3D printer that could produce its own replica by printing its own components and parts. Later that year, 3D printing achieved its first breakthrough in the field of prosthetics when a person was capable of walking again successfully with help of a 3D printer prosthetic. In 2009, an open source company by the name MakerBot Industries started selling DIY kits, which enabled people to make their own 3D printers.
These developments in different fields had a cascading effect in making 3D printing more popular among the masses as well as triggering a monumental expansion in fields to which this technology could be applied.
Different 3D Printing Processes
The invention of Stereolithography (SLA) may have marked the beginning of 3D printing, but several printing processes have evolved over the years. The three most commonly used printing technologies today are:
- Stereolithography (SLA),
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and
- Selective Laser Sintering or Melting (SLS/SLM).
Each of these comes with its own share of pluses, flaws, and suitability. Despite the differences in the finer nuances of their functioning, these have been developed on the underlying theme of creating smaller parts through additive manufacturing and then piecing them together to build a finished product. The key difference lies in the nature of materials used for printing and the manner in which they are cured to get that finished product. Here is some insight on the way different 3D printing technologies function:
Stereolithography involves successively arranging a photoreactive, curable resin material layer by layer, and then hardening or curing it through exposure to an ultraviolet laser. To achieve this, an SLA 3D printer uses interpretations from a Computer Aided Design (CAD) software file in an STL file format.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
The FDM 3D printing technique typically entails building prototype parts through sequential deposition of the raw materials such as liquid plastic in small thermoplastic pools. These small portions of raw material rapidly combine with surrounding materials, leading to the creation of a single prototype part. The process runs on a CAD software file and can be used to build novel, complex, and scalable parts within hours.
Selective Laser Sintering or Melting (SLS/SLM)
SLS and SLM technologies run on a laser power source and direct that energy to sinter raw materials used in powdered forms, such as metal powder, into solid structures. The key in the case of SLS is to regulate the amount of heat to prevent the materials from liquefying.
In contrast, in the SLM technique, a raw material is liquefied using heat before being cured. The final product created through the use of these 3D printing technologies may differ in terms on stress tolerance, hardness, crystalline structure, and ductility, depending on whether the materials were sintered or melted before being cured. The emergent Electron Beam Melting (EBM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) are both off-shoots of these printing techniques.
The Future Promise of 3D Printing
There has been a lot of talk about 3D printing revolutionizing the world as we know it today, and impacting our existence more than the internet has. How exactly will 3D Printing make that huge impact is what needs to be understood. The answer to that lies in the belief that 3D printers could mark the beginning of a new industrial revolution or the end of the last one.
As 3D printers continue to become more sophisticated and technologically advanced, the spectrum of materials that can be used to print object is growing rapidly. This holds the promise that at some point in the future, 3D printers will allow you to create just about any conceivable object at home – some akin to the fabled Star Trek replicators.
When the last industrial revolution came about, with the advent of steam and later electric power, it changed the face transportation and manufacturing sectors. This allowed raw materials to be sourced and transported in bulk, then processed at humungous manufacturing units – again in bulk – to create desired finished products, which could then be transported to the end user.
The growth of 3D printing techniques, coupled with wide internet outreach, could begin a complete overhaul of this world order. In the future, advanced versions of 3D printers accessible to the masses could eliminate the need for manufacturing units, delivery units, and shops. All you’ll need is a supply of the right kind of raw materials to print whatever it is that you need, from food to medicines, clothes, gadgets, equipment, and more.
The Present Application
While all that sounds immensely promising and oddly stimulating, 3D printers of today still have a long way to go to be able to bring about that revolution. Even so, the 3D printing technology is being employed in various fields of work to make manufacturing, creating and inventions more streamlined, efficient and cost-effective. Here are some key sectors where 3D printing is being used extensively to improve the quality of end products and services:
In the realm of manufacturing, 3D printing is used in two ways – rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing. Rapid prototyping is a key area where 3D printing is being extensively used by manufacturers across the board. As the name suggests, rapid prototyping is used for preparing prototypes of an upcoming product. As opposed to the traditional methods of prototyping that entailed an investment of thousands of dollars and weeks of waiting, 3D printing allows such prototypes to be created within a day and at a fraction of the cost. Any changes to the prototype can be made directly on the computer.
On the other hand, rapid manufacturing is a new-age manufacturing method centered on the concept of 3D printing. Manufacturers rely on this method to 3D print goods in small batches and/or for a short run. The objects, thus, printed are not prototypes but end products designed for user consumption.
In case of product design too, prototyping remains one of the primary uses of 3D printers. However, the concept of creating end-user products using 3D printing technologies is fast catching up in sectors such as furniture, lighting, décor items, jewelry, and accessories.
Automobile manufacturers, repairers, and restorers have been using 3D printing techniques for quite some time now, not just for building parts but also interior elements and tools. This has given a big thrust to the on-site development and decreased reliance on foreign manufacturing units to a large extent.
A strong case in point is Audi using 3D printing to produce metal spare parts. This has helped the auto giant disrupt the long supply chain by being able to build parts using a metal printer, as per demand.
Aviation is another industry that relies heavily on 3D printing in different forms. Boeing, one of the leading names in the realm of aviation manufacturing, has been continuously exploring newer ways to include 3D printed parts in its crafts. According to reported estimates, Boeing used over 20,000 3D printed parts on its airplanes in 2015 alone.
The Boeing 787, for instance, uses several 3D printed titanium parts, which saves the manufacturer 2-3 million dollars per plane. Similarly, Airbus has been using 3D printing to develop frames and shapes closer to the ones found in nature. The aim is to create light-weight aircrafts, which would ultimately contribute to improved aerodynamics. Using 3D printing for building airplane parts also allows designers more time to focus on rethinking the basics of airplane engineering, and bring about innovation in terms functionality and design.
The aerospace industry used the concept of 3D printing in the wildest ways possible. The ultimate focus is to experiment with different concept printers and materials for the sake of making interstellar explorations more habitable. The key space agencies, including NASA, have been working on 3D printing the perfect shields for shuttles. In addition to this, different kinds of researchers are being carried out with an aim to use 3D printing for exponentially bringing down the cost of construction materials and equipment needed for space missions.
Is it possible to print buildings to live in? Well, of course! There are a handful of companies, such as Apis Cor, that are doing some cutting-edge work with 3D printing in the field of construction. Apis Cor, for instance, claims it can 3D print a house in less than 24 hours. Shanghai-based WinSun prints houses for $4,800 a unit using recyclable materials. In this case, the houses are printed in parts, which are put together to create a full-blown, habitable building. Of course, these concepts still have a long way to go before arriving in the mainstream, but these are definitely evolving rapidly.
The outlook toward 3D printing in the field of medicine is also changing swiftly, with medical specialists continually looking at newer ways to tap into the potential of this technology to improve quality of care. 3D printed prosthetics and implants, as well as the use of 3D printing pens in orthopedic surgeries, is fast becoming commonplace. Another area of keen interest in bio-printing, which entails the use of live cell layers deposited on a gel-based medium to build three-dimensional structures. The use of 3D printing techniques for tissue engineering applications and building body parts from inkjet technology is also constantly being explored.
It has been a long run since the food industry has its first tryst with 3D printing. There are restaurants such as Melisse and Food Ink that rely on this technology to create unique food items, which have proven to be a big draw for customers from around the globe. Reports suggest that even NASA is toying with the idea of printing pizzas in space. Additive manufacturing is surely adding some odd twists to foods as we know it. Soon, trends like transparent, shape-changing pasta or candies popping out a 3D printer instead of a vending machine may become the new normal.
Fashion is one of the industries that can leverage the potential of 3D printing to the maximum. Of course, designers have long been using this technology to shake things up in the areas of streamlining production and retail systems. Fashion designers are now going the extra mile and giving people the option of literally downloading and printing their creations. Designer Danit Peleg, for instance, institutionalized a 3D printing model on her website that lets users design their own jackets and then have them printed at any 3D printing facility.
Iris van Herpen, who is considered a pioneer in the field of 3D printed haute couture, is known to print entire clothing lines in collaboration with i.Materialize. Adidas has been mass producing end-user sneakers using 3D printing for some time now.
How Can You Get in On the Trend?
Having heard so many promising things about 3D printers and the seamless scope of things you can do with them, it is natural to feel the urge to hop on the bandwagon. Yes, these wonderful machines can be a dream come true for anyone who loves to create stuff. The good news is that these devices are becoming more and more affordable by the day.
Check, for instance, this Creality3D CR-10 3D Desktop DIY Printer that is available for just $359.99. Set inside a special aluminum frame, this DIY desktop printer features a super large build volume of 300x300x400mm, and a standard 0.4mm nozzle diameter designed to generate temperatures in the range of 250 degrees Celsius in the normal state, going up to a maximum of 270 degree Celsius.
The CR-10 3D printer also doubles as a build-it-yourself kit that offers a great learning experience in getting familiarized with the device. It also sports a keypad and LCD screen for convenient offline use, supports SD card installation for offline printing, can be linked directly to a USB adapter to start printing, and supports several 3D printing filaments, including PLA, ABS, and TPU.
But before you take the plunge, here are a few factors that you must take into consideration:
- 3D printing comes with a definitive learning curve. These are not plug-and-play devices like your ordinary printers.
- You are better off getting some experience and practice at a local 3D printing facility near you before investing in a personal 3D printer. It’ll not only help you learn alongside other like-minded enthusiasts but will also serve well in assessing whether you are in this for the long haul.
- You don’t need a personal 3D printer if you are going to print something once every couple of months. You can always pay to have such stuff printed at a professional facility for a fee.
- If you are looking forward to making a purchase, choose a printing technology best suited for your usage requirements. An FDM, for instance, is most suitable for education sectors and small businesses. Similarly, SLA works well for those associated with product design industries such as jewelry or furniture businesses, as well as cosmetic dentistry.
- There is a host of places you can buy your first 3D printer from. You could order one from Amazon or buy a second-hand device and save yourself a good amount of money. You can even look out for new, more technologically devices coming up via Kickstarter campaigns and get in on early bird offers.
Well, that’s that. Now, that you know almost everything there is to know about 3D printers and 3D printing technique, it is time to explore what you can do with them.