The first 3D printer was created in the 1980s, to help manufacturers build intricate, difficult parts for production. Now, almost 30 years later, it continues to improve mass production and industrial processes, and it’s revolutionizing other industries like medical, environmental and even home repair.
What is 3D printing and why is it so great?
Just as a normal printer is used to turn digital word documents into printed out sheets of paper, a 3D printer is used to turn 3-dimensional digital creations into printed out, tangible 3D items. You just create a design in a 3D file, select your materials and print.
The beauty of 3D printing comes from its universality. It solves a vast range of everyday problems. For example, if you break the handle off your favorite coffee mug, you can salvage that mug by printing out a new handle – or even a whole new mug. Small problem solved. But it’s solving big problems too. Doctors are 3D printing bones for reconstructive surgeries and working on ways to print organs for transplant candidates in the near future. Environmentalists can now print out perfect replicas of deteriorating coral reef structures to help preserve crucial oceanic ecosystems.
3D printers are also forging new paths across the globe. Instead of having a large factory in one centralized location, 3D printers can produce from any location worldwide to reduce shipping needs and increase convenience.
Customization potential in 3D printing
One of the biggest benefits of 3D printing is the ability to customize with little to no ramifications. With mass production, companies need factories with vast inventories to crank out as many uniform products as possible at the lowest cost.
With 3D printers, products can be made quickly, out of nearly any material, to any specification. Producing a totally one-of-a-kind item is as simple as adjusting the 3D file on your computer, then sending it to the printer. There are no unattainable parts or radically different processes involved.
How does it work?
3D printing is an additive process. After reading a 3D file on your computer, the printer digitally slices the shape it contains into hundreds or thousands of super thin horizontal cross-sections to print out one-by-one and lay on top of each other.
As for materials, 3D printers often use metals or plastic compounds, like acrylic. Materials can be customized to reduce costs or achieve a specific fabrication of the product.
There are seven main ways to successfully print in 3 dimensions. These methods vary in how they prepare the materials for printing, lay the materials on top of each other and harden the materials at the end:
- Powder Bed Fusion – A laser fuses tiny particles of the materials together.
- Material Extrusion – A mobile nozzle, which can move in any direction, distributes heated material to the final product.
- Sheet Lamination – Materials are printed in thin sheets that are then welded together into the desired 3D shape.
- Vat Photopolymerisation –Materials are printed into a vat filled with a special resin that hardens the product. This process is the most common.
- Material Jetting – Material drips out in small increments before hardening in UV light.
- Binder Jetting – Powdered materials mix with a liquid binder to solidify the final product.
- Directed Energy Deposition – A mobile, mechanical arm distributes powdered materials that are melted and hardened into the final product.
Interested in 3D printing?
If you would like to start printing objects for yourself, you have a couple of options. If you’re a seasoned pro, you can buy your own 3D printer and materials to print whenever you want and have your productions ready for you faster. For those newer to the world of 3D printing, there are printing service sites that can help you design a product, upload your design, and order it for delivery. Plus, you can check out other people’s designs for inspiration and help getting started.