What is 3D Printing
3D printing is a process of constructing three-dimensional objects from a digital file. At this point, this process is no longer restricted to a single technology as it was the case during its inception. Today, 3D Printing covers a variety of technologies that adhere to layer-by-layer fabrication.
It might come off as a surprise to you, but 3D Printing technology is not a new invention. It gained popularity in recent years, that's true, but in the industry, 3d printing has been known for quite a while.
3D Printers themselves are a very wide topic. Different technologies are used in printing that is using different methods as well as different materials to create models. The most common is the use of plastic, but the more advanced (and more expensive) printers allow usage of different metals. Some printers use bio-ink to print organs.
This variety of technology is what made 3d printing so popular. It started as a prototyping method for large industries, but as time went on, producents started to create printers of lower quality for smaller businesses, as well as for hobbyists.
Additive vs. Subtractive
The term 3D printing has become interchangeable with additive manufacturing. Instead of chopping or milling a shape out of a larger block, or casting molten material in a mold, it creates objects from the bottom up. This method wastes less material in the process of production, and it allows printing custom designs, such as intricate lattice structures, that are otherwise hard, or even impossible, to create. Most printers used by hobbyists use a method called fused deposition modeling (FDM), which uses plastic filaments to built objects layer by layer. But the term 3D printing encompasses a much wider range of techniques that will be explained in the following paragraphs.
Subtractive manufacturing, on the other hand, creates objects by carving them from blocks of material, be it plastic or metal. They are shaped by removing excess material from the block to suit the prepared form. This process is most commonly driven by Computer numerical control (CNC). As you can see, Subtractive manufacturing doesn't offer the benefits that Additive manufacturing does, and that’s why CNC serves a completely different purpose. While additive manufacturing allows you to create any shape you want, Subtractive manufacturing is ideal for creating models that require minute attention to the detail.
Process of 3D Printing
The process of 3d printing depends heavily on the used technology that you want to use. Fused deposition modeling (FDM), which is the most popular technology, creates parts by heating the material and pressing it through a muzzle to create layers of the object, while curing machines, use lasers, or projectors, to solidify resin layer by layer into solid parts. Laser sintering machines use lasers to fuse metal or plastic powder while binder-jetting machines adhere to similar powders with polymer binders instead.
The 3D Printing process begins with creating a three-dimensional model. There are dozens of software that are used by the community, with most of them filling a specific niche. But the result is always the same.
There are, of course, other ways of getting 3d models other than just creating them yourself. With the growing popularity of 3d printing, came the abundance of forums and websites, where one can go and purchase prepared models and print them themselves.
Another viable option is to hire a freelancer to do the work for you. Just like with the number of websites where you can purchase pre-made objects, you can hire a specialist to create a shape you need according to your specific instructions. The general file format for 3d objects is called STL, so you won't have problems with exporting it either.
Once the model is ready, it's time to slice it. As the name suggests, slicing is a process of splitting the object into layers that the printer will have to create to print the object. The purpose of slicing software is to convert the model into a GCode, which is a file format used by 3d printers.
Once all of this is done, it's time to sit down and wait for the printer to finish its job. This is the moment where the technology used by the 3d printer comes into play. Depending on the complexity and the size of the model, printing might take hours or even days to finish.
3D Printing Technologies
As the industry was developing, so did the number of technologies used for printing. Some of them dominated the industry, while others stayed at the sidelines. Here's a list of a few of them, that are still in use:
SLA is a form of additive manufacturing that uses liquid plastic to create the model. The liquid resin is placed in a vat, and an UltraViolet laser traces patterns on the liquid material to solidify a single layer of an object. Afterward, the structure is lifted, while the laser creates the next layers of the 3d model.
Digital Light Processing (DLP)
DLP is almost identical to SLA, with the only difference being in the light source used to solidify the material. This technology uses a more conventional light source, which is controlled by mirrors to move it across the surface of the resin.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
FDM is probably the most widespread technology when it comes to 3d printing. Here, objects are built by heating the material until it melts, and then it’s pushed by a nozzle to create the object, layer by layer. Objects of complex geometry are created by printing support structures that keep the main object in place.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS is another technique that bears similarities to the SLA. The difference between them is that SLS uses powdered material instead of a liquid one. Layers are placed on top of each other by a roller, and then the powder is solidified with the help of a laser.
Selective Laser Melting (SLM)
The SLM technology is almost identical to the SLS, with the only difference between them being the type of material used. While SLS used powdered material that is sintered with the help of the laser, the SLM uses material that has been melted.
Electronic Beam Melting (EBM)
The EBM technology is very similar to the SLM. In EBM, the powdered material is heated with the electron beam instead of a laser, which melts the powdered material and forms the desired shape.
Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM)
In LOM technology, layers of material are coated with the adhesive that is fused with a layer of material. The process uses heat and pressure to fuse materials, and the final shape is then cut with the help of a laser. LOM uses varieties of material that include paper, plastic, as well as metal laminates.
Revolution of 3D Printing
As stated in the beginning, despite its growing popularity in recent years, 3D Printing is not a new technology. Industries knew about it and used it since the idea was patented. But still, how did such a specialized invention become so well-known?
At first, 3d printing was used strictly for prototyping. Even before the term 3d printing was coined, it was described as rapid prototyping. It was something restricted to engineers and scientific experiments, but since then, 3d printing came a long way. Industries liked it because it offered rapid prototyping of industrial products and designs, and it proved to be quick and accurate, as well as cost-effective. But how come, that 3d printing became such a phenomenon it is today?
As technology developed, more and more people started to show interest in it, and as the demand grew, the prices went down. People started to see ways in which 3d printing could be used by more casual users and not just the large industries. They started to print toys, accessories, and even spare parts. The growing market made the industry to rethink their approach to additive manufacturing.
Mass production using 3D printing
3D printing technology allows companies to bypass certain issues of traditional means of production. It's especially the case when it comes to the issues regarding the geometry of the product, as additive manufacturing allows companies to work with shapes that were previously unheard of. The constant growth and development of the technology expanded its use, to the point that there are talks if 3d printing will replace traditional means of production.
But still, no matter how developed this technology becomes, it's hard to imagine that it will replace today’s standards of production on a large scale. Traditional injection-molding presses, for example, can spit out thousands of parts an hour. It stands in sharp contrast to 3d printers, where the printing layer after layer is almost comically slow. Of course, industries can afford much better printers that are both bigger and faster than what an average user can hope for, but it still doesn't change the fact that traditional means of production are simply more effective.
Products come out quickly because companies made heavy investments to set up production lines, outfitted with machines, and equipment required to produce them. The very first units are expensive, but as identical products follow, their cost plummets.
But rapid production is not the main selling point of 3d printing. At least, it isn’t one at this moment. It doesn’t offer anything like that economy of scale, however, it avoids the downside of standard manufacturing, which is the lack of flexibility. When units are built independently, they can be modified to suit the needs of customers or, to meet the changes in fashion. Setting up the production system in the first place is much simpler because it involves far fewer stages. That’s why printing has been so valuable for producing prototypes, customized products, and rare replacement parts.
Economic importance of 3D printing
3D Printing can be of benefit for companies not only because of the reduction of errors, decrease in development cost and time, and the ability to build customized products. With the growth of the 3d printing industry, companies can save money on warehouses, as storing digital files is much cheaper than storing parts that might sit in a warehouse for an extended period of time. It's especially the case with specialized tools or their parts that are not in regular production. Setting up the production of a single part can take days if not weeks, which generates additional costs, but with 3d printing, you can just buy a digital file with the blueprint of a certain part, throw it into a software, and print the object in a matter of hours. We can only expect that when technology develops, such services might become the norm, which even now threatens shipping companies that are at risk of losing a share of the market.
But the companies themselves are not the only ones that can and will benefit from owning and using 3D printers! Additive manufacturing became a viable tool, even for day-to-day use. People from all around the world can share their ideas on how even the smallest prints can improve their lives, be it by printing some small trinket, or recreating a broken part that would be difficult to find in a store. They can print their own toys based on their favorite movies, games, or tv shows. But the possibilities don't just end there! Just take a look at the recent crisis with Coronavirus, where makers from all over the world banded together to help the production of face masks and shields, due to shortages in production.
Uses of 3D Printing
3D Printing has almost unlimited potential. The only limiting factors are the materials available to you, and the size of your printer. The use of 3D Printing can be separated into that of Hobbyists, and that of professionals.
3D for hobbyists
Those who dabble in 3d printing as a hobby will have fewer resources to spend on it, so their uses of printing will be more limited because of it. As mentioned before, 3D printing can be of great use in day-to-day lives. People from all over the world can share their ideas on how even the smallest prints can bring value to our lives, as well as share designs for spare parts that might be difficult to find in stores. They can be used to print toys and accessories for yourself or as gifts for your friends. The possibilities are endless. What’s best is that those things can even become a source of income. There are dozens of websites where one can share their designs and charge money for sharing them.
As mentioned before, industries use 3d printing for multiple purposes, with the main one being prototyping. It offers a great deal of flexibility in terms of speed, as they don't have to assemble a new machine or mold to create the prototype in addition to a vast selection of materials. It allows companies to reduce the costs during the prototyping and testing. And when we look at the improvements in 3d printing over the years, we can expect that this efficiency will only grow. But, despite all of that, different industries see other uses for this technology. Here are a few of them:
3D in Entertainment
The entertainment industry has utilized 3D modeling software and 3d printing to the maximum. With it, artists can create different models for movies, games, and tv shows. They no longer have to spend long hours to manually design a single piece, as the software can do it much faster, with greater attention to the detail. It became a standard, and no big-budget movie has been made without the use of this technology.
3D in Tools and Replacements
Printing tools and replacement parts could be almost counted as the extension of prototyping, as very often, those two uses go hand in hand. Replacement parts are especially obvious. When testing, it's much more convenient to add changes to the model and print the part, instead of creating the part from scratch. The same goes for printing tools. In printing, you can create tools designed for specific tasks, created from materials chosen for the task.
3D in Healthcare
Healthcare is the industry that probably benefited the most thanks to the development of 3d printing. Prosthetics is one of those fields. Additive manufacturing allows for much cheaper production of prosthetics designed specifically for each person's needs. But that's not the most amazing thing 3d printing did for healthcare. Now, it can be used to print organs with the use of patient's cells, which nullifies the risk of transplant rejection. This means that patients will no longer have to wait for donors to be found in the future.
3D in Automotive
Innovation and the reduction of costs are the key drivers in the automotive industry. With 3d printing, concept models can be created in a matter of hours and immediately tested. Additionally, certain parts can be created and delivered on-demand. The same goes for the creation of customized parts for those expecting a more personalized experience.
3D in Architecture
Every architectural project requires a concept model to visualize the idea to the potential customer. It used to be a long and grueling process, where everything had to be created manually. A task that was becoming even more difficult when more intricate designs and patterns were involved. 3D Printing allows architects to bypass such issues by printing concept models exactly, as they were, designed. It is also of great help in interior design, where artists can easily print and share their ideas with their clients.
3D in Education
3D Printing allows future engineers, designers, and scientists to see and test their ideas in real-life. Introducing them to 3d printing while they are still learning allows them to grow familiar with the technology they will later use in their careers, and gain first-hand experience with prototyping and improving on their creations.
Future of 3D Printing
When thinking about the unfolding revolution in 3d printing, it's hard not to draw comparisons between this technology and other technological breakthroughs of the past. Just look at the breakthroughs that enabled web applications in the first place. There is always skepticism, and only a few can foresee the real scope of the change. But it is inevitable.
3D Printing will bring similar surprises to what web apps did in the past. Surprises that will look logical in hindsight, but are almost impossible to imagine and accept today. Think about how additive manufacturing could change structures of entire companies, by replacing human personnel with highly developed printers. In the future, humans might work only to service the printers, and it is a scary thought.
And that future might arrive faster than many would like. Just like with web applications, once companies witness and experience the advantages of additive manufacturing, they will dive in deep. And as more and more printable materials become available, more manufacturers will follow.
Here’s what we can expect. Within the next five years, there will be fully automated, high-speed additive manufacturing systems that will match traditional means of production, even for standardized parts. Adding to it the flexibility of those systems, and the possibility of customizing the product, 3d printing will become a rival to traditional means of production. And with it, a contender to a large portion of the market.
However, many business leaders are not willing to wait for all the details to reveal themselves. They can see the benefits the additive manufacturing can offer, and the change it will bring to not only the production but to the delivery of the product as well, as digital production will offer tremendous freedom to potential clients. They are taking their first steps to redesign the manufacturing systems, and their decisions will only hasten the development of the technology.
The 3D Printing industry is expanding rapidly. With the constant growth and development of technology, more and more industries are willing to invest in it and apply it in their production process. For some, 3d printing is still too inefficient, but as the printers become bigger, faster, and more precise, it's only a matter of time before they will dive into the technology as well.
Additive manufacturing can reach out to further customers by capitalizing on the recycling of the materials. The majority of the materials used in 3d printing are derivatives of plastic, and it turns out that discarded plastic bottles can be used to create filaments. They are turned into granules that can be used for 3d printing. Recycling is a huge trend, which industries have to follow if they want to stay ahead of their competition, so it's no wonder that some companies have already started to capitalize on this.
But the industries themselves are not the only ones that benefit from this technology. With the growing popularity of 3d printing, there's a market for specialized and personalized items, which is something that many makers already took advantage of.
Even logistic companies are wary of the growth of 3D Printing. Some of them are calling it the fourth modality of logistics, which allows the digital transportation of products. Global 3D Printing networks can and will provide products with greater efficiency, by shortening transport routes and decreasing the need for storing products in warehouses for prolonged periods of time.
The 3D Printing industry is expanding rapidly. It already made a huge impact on the market, and it will continue to grow as more and more investors come into play. It will take some time before it takes over the market, which makes it a perfect time to join, and try it out yourself.
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