3D Printing is a process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of a material. It brings a digital object (its CAD representation) into its physical form by adding layer by layer of materials.
3D printing is the process of layering or printing material bit by bit to create an item. When I explain 3D printing to people who are new to the concept, I ask them to imagine using a glue gun to pile layer upon layer until an object is formed.
3D printing, while now a fairly mainstream term, is still a new and evolving technology that is changing the way we prototype and manufacture. Additive manufacturing, another term for 3D printing, has a surprisingly long history dating as far back as the 1980s.
In the 1980s the first ever 3D printer was patented by Chuck Hull. It used a technique which he called stereolithography (SLA) which is still in use today. The printer functioned by curing, or hardening, successive layers of photosensitive resin one on top of another to gradually build up an object. Hull’s printer was defined in his 1986 patent as an “Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography.”
A similar patent application had been submitted a few weeks ahead of Hull’s by a team of French inventors led by Alain Le Mehaute. Surprisingly, their patent application was ultimately abandoned because a long-term viable use for the technology could not be identified. Between 2002 and 2014 over 200 early 3D printing patents expired. The expiration of the patent on the FDM printing process opened the field for significantly more affordable consumer and hobbyist focused 3D printers to be developed.
The RepRap was one of these early low-cost 3D printers. It was made primarily from plastic parts and its creators envisaged that it could be used to print the parts for other printers. This would make it self-replicating and it would evolve as users made improvements to the design. The RepRap project is open source and as such designers are free to make changes as long as they allow their designs to be freely used by others
Other methods of additive manufacturing being explored and developed in the 1980s included Selective Laster Sintering (SLS) invented by Carl Deckard, Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) from German Company EOS GmbH, and Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) by S. Scott Crump. Stratasys, the company which Crump later co-founded with his wife Lisa, has remained a leading producer of FDM printers.
Early 3D printers were far beyond the price point of every day consumers and were primarily used by large manufacturing corporations as part of their prototyping process. A number of other FDM and SLA consumer-level printers quickly entered the market allowing the technology to grow, change and improve as makers learn more and share resources about the technology
3D printing allows for the design and print of more complex designs than traditional manufacturing processes. More traditional processes have design restrictions which no longer apply with the use of 3D printing.
3D printing can manufacture parts within hours, which speeds up the prototyping process. This allows for each stage to complete faster. When compared to machining prototypes, 3D printing is inexpensive and quicker at creating parts as the part can be finished in hours, allowing for each design modification to be completed at a much more efficient rate.
Print on demand is another advantage as it doesn’t need a lot of space to stock inventory, unlike traditional manufacturing processes. This saves space and costs as there is no need to print in bulk unless required.
The 3D design files are all stored in a virtual library as they are printed using a 3D model as either a CAD or STL file, this means they can be located and printed when needed. Edits to designs can be made at very low costs by editing individual files without wastage of out of date inventory and investing in tools.
The main 3D printing material used is plastic, although some metals can also be used for 3D printing. However, plastics offer advantages as they are lighter than their metal equivalents. This is particularly important in industries such as automotive and aerospace where light-weighting is an issue and can deliver greater fuel efficiency.
Also, parts can be created from tailored materials to provide specific properties such as heat resistance, higher strength or water repellency.
Depending on a part’s design and complexity, 3D printing can print objects within hours, which is much faster than moulded or machined parts. It is not only the manufacture of the part that can offer time savings through 3D printing but also the design process can be very quick by creating STL or CAD files ready to be printed
The production of parts only requires the materials needed for the part itself, with little or no wastage as compared to alternative methods which are cut from large chunks of non-recyclable materials. Not only does the process save on resources but it also reduces the cost of the materials being used.
As a single step manufacturing process, 3D printing saves time and therefore costs associated with using different machines for manufacture. 3D printers can also be set up and left to get on with the job, meaning that there is no need for operators to be present the entire time. As mentioned above, this manufacturing process can also reduce costs on materials as it only uses the amount of material required for the part itself, with little or no wastage. While 3D printing equipment can be expensive to buy, you can even avoid this cost by outsourcing your project to a 3D printing service company
3D printers are becoming more and more accessible with more local service providers offering outsourcing services for manufacturing work. This saves time and doesn’t require expensive transport costs compared to more traditional manufacturing processes produced abroad in countries such as China
As this technology reduces the amount of material wastage used this process is inherently environmentally friendly. However, the environmental benefits are extended when you consider factors such as improved fuel efficiency from using lightweight 3D printed parts
3D printing is being used in the medical sector to help save lives by printing organs for the human body such as livers, kidneys and hearts. Further advances and uses are being developed in the healthcare sector providing some of the biggest advances from using the technology.
While 3D Printing can create items in a selection of plastics and metals the available selection of raw materials is not exhaustive. This is due to the fact that not all metals or plastics can be temperature controlled enough to allow 3D printing. In addition, many of these printable materials cannot be recycled and very few are food safe.
3D printers currently have small print chambers which restrict the size of parts that can be printed. Anything bigger will need to be printed in separate parts and joined together after production. This can increase costs and time for larger parts due to the printer needing to print more parts before manual labour is used to join the parts together
Although large parts require post-processing, as mentioned above, most 3D printed parts need some form of cleaning up to remove support material from the build and to smooth the surface to achieve the required finish. Post processing methods used include waterjetting, sanding, a chemical soak and rinse, air or heat drying, assembly and others. The amount of post processing required depends on factors including the size of the part being produced, the intended application and the type of 3D printing technology used for production. So, while 3D printing allows for the fast production of parts, the speed of manufacture can be slowed by post processing
3D printing is a static cost unlike more conventional techniques like injection moulding, where large volumes may be more cost effective to produce. While the initial investment for 3D printing may be lower than other manufacturing methods, once scaled up to produce large volumes for mass production, the cost per unit does not reduce as it would with injection moulding
With 3D printing (also known as Additive Manufacturing) parts are produced layer-by-layer. Although these layers adhere together it also means that they can delaminate under certain stresses or orientations. This problem is more significant when producing items using fused deposition modelling (FDM), while polyjet and multijet parts also tend to be more brittle. In certain cases it may be better to use injection moulding as it creates homogenous parts that will not separate
Another of the disadvantages of 3D technology is the potential reduction in human labour, since most of the production is automated and done by printers. However, many third world countries rely on low skill jobs to keep their economies running, and this technology could put these manufacturing jobs at risk by cutting out the need for production abroad
Another potential problem with 3D printing is directly related to the type of machine or process used, with some printers having lower tolerances, meaning that final parts may differ from the original design. This can be fixed in post processing, but it must be considered that this will further increase the time and cost of production.
As 3D printing is becoming more popular and accessible there is a greater possibility for people to create fake and counterfeit products and it will almost be impossible to tell the difference. This has evident issues around copyright as well as for quality control.
3D printing, like modeling or three dimensional scanning, is a creation tool among other things, but what most distinguishes it is its potential to create an almost unlimited number of shapes. As with every tool, you need to master it, to take advantage of its abilities, but also know its limits. Prototyping is not the ultimate solution for every manufacturing need. Techniques that are hundreds, or even thousands, of years old such as casting, machining, and blowing, will still stay in our industrial landscape for a long time. The real revolution that these digital manufacturing and design tools provide is that of overall control of.
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