3D Printing is indeed a revolutionary concept. It is literally makes something out of nothing. To define the technology in short, 3D printing is a process where material is joined together under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, with material being added together layer-after-layer. This is done by the joining of liquid molecules or by powder grains being glued together. These processes are also known as “additive manufacturing”. Technology behind 3D-printing is extremely flexible since the objects being joined can be of different shapes.
Who discovered the first 3D printer? I would imagine one should name Charles W. Hull since he used the stereolithography technique in mid-1980. However, this was not meant for regular or frequent use since stereolithography is an extremely expensive technique with the machines often costing $100,000 or more. Prices of these machines have come down substantially since then.
The 3D Printing Process: The Basic ABCs in a Nutshell
The very first step in 3D printing is to create a 3D Model on a PC. This digital aspect can be done by creating a file in a computer aided design (CAD) program and utilizing the vital role of the 3D modelling software to create a 3D model. This model is now ‘cut’ or ‘sliced’ in different layers using a ‘slicing software’. The 3D sliced model is sent now to the 3D printer using various connectivity methods – e.g. wi-fi or US depending on the nature of the 3D printer. Now the file is slowly and gradually ‘3D printed’ layer after layer.
Different 3D Printing Technologies
There are various 3D printing technologies mainly depending on the types of printers. Some of these processes are listed below:
- Digital Light Processing
- Fused Deposition Modelling
- Selective Laser Sintering
- Selective Laser Melting
- Electronic Beam Melting
- Laminated Object Manufacturing
3D Printing Material
3D printers can use a wide variety of materials. Some of them include – ABS plastic, PLA, nylon, epoxy resins, silver, titanium, steel, ceramic and gypsum, just to name a few.
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are numerous advantages to 3D printing. One can manufacture various customized products, create fast prototyping of designs, incur relatively low cost of manufacturing, provide employment for expert designers, enhance accuracy and reduce errors substantially.
As with any new technology there are indeed some associated grey areas. Some of the possible problem areas can lie in the fears of fabricating fake items, manufacturing hazardous items like weapons or guns (someone even reported 3D-printing a rifle using a model downloaded over the Internet), restrictions on material sizes, inability of using a combination of different raw materials, expensive 3D print software and less channel partners with expertise in the field.
The 3D Printing Ecosystem
Many major associations play a vital role in propagating growth and knowledge concerning 3D printing in various countries across the globe. Some are The 3D Printing Association, Association of 3D Printing, Additive Manufacturing Society of India (AMSI), Hong Kong 3D Printing Association, Australian 3D Manufacturing Association (A3DMA), World 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance, Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
3D Printing – Various Applications
3D printing can be utilized in numerous field such as say Aerospace, Architecture, Automotive, Consumer Goods, Defense Industry, Education and Medicine. Some illustrative examples include:
- Making attractive and lasting models for architectural/construction industry.
- Building medical devices and prosthetics.
- Prototyping parts for cars.
- Printing molecular structures in the chemistry industry that can also be shown to students when teaching chemistry.
- Customizing products for the retail industry. Just to name a few
At present, various companies are exploring the many applications of 3D printing to see how they can be commercially useful. Estimates show that global 3D printing spending is likely to enjoy a bright future in the long-term. The future growth rate of as high as 20% per annum over the next 3 years. This would equate to an estimated rise from $12B in 2018 to $20B by 2021 (Source: Statista). In the next decade, 3D printing may cause a paradigm shift in the manufacturing arena for different industries worldwide and its future applications may be massive.
In conclusion one must mention that an unlikely albeit interesting example of 3D-printing application is in the field of medicine specifically in replacement of human organs where a major hurdle is the lack of availability of donor organs. The day is not very far off when successful bioprinting can combine cells and tissues. These biomaterials would be able to create bio-medical parts such as complex human organs. Say the human heart or pancreas. This would certainly be a godsend for organ donation and could possible save many lives. At some point in the future, we might all become the “Bicentennial Man”.
~Dev Chakrabarty, Senior Manager – Research