We’ve all heard about the wonders brought by 3D printing. This simple technology has found its way in a variety of applications in different fields, ranging from education and prototyping to medicine and even construction. 3D printing has even made its way into the art and jewelry industry. However, for many of us, this technology is still a mystery. For this reason, we decided to create this definitive 3D printing guide for the average Joe and Jane. In it, we’ll answer the basic questions. What is 3D Printing? How does 3D printing work? Who uses this technology? We’ll also tackle other topics such as its various applications and even how 3D printing will change the world.
What is 3D Printing?
The name of this technology speaks for itself. If we were to answer the question “what is 3D printing” in the fewest words possible, it would be “printing a three-dimensional object.” It’s that simple. Let us explain it a bit more in detail for those in the back.
Most of us are familiar with 2-dimensional printing – when we use our home printer to transfer a digital file on our computer onto a piece of paper. 3D printing has a similar basic concept. You create a three-dimensional object using a printer based on a digital model.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
How is it possible to print a three-dimensional object? How does 3D printing work anyway? Ok, so this technology is known as an additive manufacturing process. Generally, the traditional manufacturing method is a subtractive process – when you take a material like plastic or wood and then shape it into the object you want by cutting out what’s not necessary.
With 3D printing, you don’t cut out parts of the material when you’re building your object. Instead, you add layer upon layer of the material until you get the object you want. These layers are like thin cross-sections of the object placed on top of each other.
- The process of 3D printing starts with a digital model which you can create using software such as CAD – Computer-Aided Design.
- Once you have a digital model designed, you need to import it to a 3D printing software. The software will slice the 3D model into thin, two-dimensional layers and then convert them into a series of instructions (G-code) that a 3D printer can read and follow.
- This next step will vary depending on the type of 3D printer and material used. In general, the printer will read the G-code file and start melting plastic or metal before laying out the material on the printer platform through a high-precision nozzle.
How Long Does 3D Printing Take?
There are a number of factors that will affect the length of time it takes to print a 3D object. These include the size of the object, the sophistication of the software, and the type of printer. Generally, it can take you between 4 to 18 hours to print an entire object. However, 3D printed objects usually don’t come out perfectly polished and ready to use. They generally need a bit of post-processing (done manually) in order to create a fully finished product.
Types of 3D Printing
There are 7 categories of 3D printing technologies according to the ISO/ASTM 52900 standard.
There are two types of 3D printing processes within this category – Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). In both types, the material is pushed towards the nozzle which melts it and is then deposited into the build plate in layers where it hardens.
This method uses liquid photopolymer resin which is hardened using UV light, to create a solid object. The two types of 3D printing that fall under this category are Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP).
Powder Bed Fusion
This utilizes a high energy source such as a high-powered laser to fuse powder particles together to create the shape of an object. The types include Selective laser sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS).
Small droplets of the material are applied to the build platform layer by layer by a small diameter nozzle. The material is then hardened by UV light.
In this method, two materials are used – a powder-based material and a liquid binder. The powder is spread equally within the build chamber while the liquid binder is used to fuse or glue the particles together to create the desired shape.
Direct Energy Deposition
You’ll find that this process is usually used in the metal industry. It uses metal powder which is deposited onto a surface. Then, a high energy source such as a laser or electron beam is used to melt it in order to produce a solid object.
As the name suggests, the material is in sheet form. The sheets are bound together using ultrasonic welding (if metal) or adhesive glue (if paper). The object is then CNC milled in order to form its proper shape.
What is 3D Printing Used For?
We’ve already mentioned several industries that have begun utilizing this revolutionary technology. 3D printing has a wide variety of applications, especially in the manufacturing industry. But before we get into the specifics, let’s talk about the three main uses of this technology – rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing, and explaining complex concepts.
Rapid prototyping is when companies are able to produce a prototype of their product within days instead of weeks and at a much lower cost. This makes it easier for companies to develop products because it allows them to go through various iterations without using too much capital.
Another use for 3D printing is rapid manufacturing. This is when manufacturers utilize the technology to run small batches of customized products. This allows companies to be more reactive to their customers, providing them personalized 3D printed products on demand.
One more use for this technology is to help others visualize complicated designs, ensuring that various members of the project gain a complete understanding of the design.
Who Uses 3D Printing?
Below are some examples of how 3D printing is used in various fields.
The aerospace industry has been utilizing 3D printing for a long time and not just for creating prototypes. Companies use this technology to create lightweight parts such as air ducts and wall panels as well as tooling. This industry often requires highly complex parts that are produced in low volume. With 3D printing, the industry is able to produce small batches of customized parts in a cost-effective manner.
People might not know that car companies have been using 3D printers for quite a while now. They use it to create spare parts, fixtures, tools, etc. Because of 3D printing, these companies can also produce end-use parts on-demand which leads to lower levels of stock and shorter production cycles. And it’s not only companies who do this. Car enthusiasts who love restoring old automobiles use 3D printing to manufacture custom wheels or parts that are no longer being produced by the car company.
It might seem like science fiction but there are some companies that are now offering 3D printed houses. They either produce prefab parts or create the parts on-site.
Need a new hip? You can get a 3D hip replacement! Hearing aids are also now being 3D printed. This technology has also benefited prosthetic design and production, making it more affordable to people who need them. Moreover, scientists are looking for a way to utilize this technology to develop tissues that can be transplanted in humans. While it is still considered fringe technology, there’s no doubt that the outcome will benefit us all.
Yes, 3D printing has invaded the food industry. In fact, there are restaurants that use this as their main attraction such as Food Ink. But the adoption of this technology hasn’t spread far yet. You will need to search far and wide at culinary events or 3D printing conferences to test the meals.
Schools are making use of 3D printing to help their students turn their ideas into real life in an affordable way. Students of engineering, architecture, and even fashion use this technology to create their prototypes. Some universities even offer courses on 3D printing and related topics such as CAD which is a great way to get ideas and 3D printing tips for beginners.
Why is 3D Printing Important?
Just looking at the applications above, it’s easy to see how revolutionary this technology is. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that 3D printing has definitely made an impact in a variety of industries, in the way we live and do business. This technology is not just about enabling companies to make things faster and cheaper. It is also about making products more accessible to people. It can also empower people to make their own products, fuel innovation, and promote customization. Can you imagine how easy it would be to create stuff you need for your home? Or creating custom-fit clothes and shoes? What about being able to materialize your ideas more quickly? Even more important, with 3D printing, small villages will be able to receive medical equipment on-demand at low costs. The waiting list for transplant organs will become shorter. Then, there’s disaster relief. Being able to print houses, spare parts, essential equipment and tools can help communities rebuild their infrastructures faster and at lower costs. 3D printing can even help save the environment. In short, our future is much brighter with 3D printing technology.