‘What are 3D printers’? That is the question to which I am hoping to give you an answer today.
The world is moving forward at a rapid pace. In the past decade or so, there have been so many revolutionary changes that the world is barely recognizable from what it used to be back then. We owe much of it to technological advancements, from the advent of the internet to artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.
One such technology is 3D printing and it has taken the world by storm. In this article, we are going to go over everything that you need to know about 3D printing and the magic that happens when we 3D print an object.
But first, what are 3D printers?
3D printing refers to the process of creating physical objects from three-dimensional digital models by laying down countless successive thin layers of the printing material being used. This layering brings the CAD representation of this digital object into its physical form layer by layer.
At present, there is a multitude of techniques that are being applied in order to 3D print objects.
However, all of these techniques make the use of two fundamental innovations, the first one being the creation and manipulation of objects in a digital format and the second one is the manufacturing of new objects by continuous addition of material. That is one of the main reasons why 3D printing is sometimes also referred to as additive manufacturing.
When did humans start to use 3D printing?
The concept of 3D printing was introduced in 1980 when Dr. Kodama from Japan filed a patent application for rapid-prototyping technology using photopolymers. A few years later in 1984, Charles Hull made another big mark in 3D printing history by inventing stereolithography, the science of creating 3D models using digital data, which can then be changed into tangible objects.
Less than a decade later, a company created by Charles Hull named 3D systems created the world’s first 3D printer. This 3D printer was actually a stereolithographic apparatus (SLA) machine, which was capable of fabricating the most complex of parts using the layer by layer technique and would take only a fraction of the time that it would normally take. During the same year, another startup named DTM produced the world’s first 3D printer based on laser technology called selective laser sintering (SLS) machine.
From then onwards, the 3D printing revolution took off and the technology only gets better with time. There were some problems in the start as the material would warp upon hardening and the machines were prohibitively expensive for most inventors out there, but the technology had an undeniable potential in it.
Fast forward to 1999, scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative medicine printed the first-ever 3D organ to be implanted in humans. It was a human bladder made up of synthetic scaffolds and then coated with the human cells from the patients themselves.
In 2005, a project named RepRap was launched in order to open-source 3D printing technology and develop a printer that could build itself or at least a major portion of it. Only three years later, Darwin, a self-replicating 3D printer was released that was able to do just that. Soon after that, countless other projects were crowdfunded to create a better yet economical 3D printer.
In the present day, you can hardly find an industry where 3D printers have not made their mark. From 3D printing body parts, bone replacements, smart robotic arms to making jewelry, carbon fiber cars, unmanned aircraft, and affordable housing 3D printing is doing it all.
How does 3D printing work?
In this section, we will go over the technology used in modern-day 3D printers as well as the process that is undertaken in order to 3D print an object. The first step in 3D printing any object or a part of an object is by making a 3D digital model of the part or of the object.
There are a number of 3D modeling software available on the market that are compatible with 3D printers. Another option is scanning an object via a 3D scanner, especially if you’re trying to replicate something.
So once the digital image of the object is formed, it is then processed using the help of the same modeling software which divides the digital model into multiple thin layers. This is done in order to make the digital file readable by the 3D printer. After that, the file is fed to the 3D printer, which then using the digital model in the file to start printing the object layer by layer.
As we discussed earlier, there are a number of techniques utilized by modern-day printers in order to 3D print an object. The basis for these techniques is usually the material used in order to print the objects. Following are some of the most commonly used printing materials in practice;
Types of Material Used in 3D printing
- Plastic: Plastic is one of the earliest and most commonly used 3D printing materials. The appeal of plastic as a printing material is very easy to understand given its firmness, smoothness, flexibility, and bright range of color options. The best part is that plastic is light on pocketbooks of both consumers and creators. Some of the commonly used plastics are Polylactic acid (PLA), Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), Polyvinyl Alcohol Plastic (PVA), and Polycarbonate (PC).
- Powders – Most modern 3D printers these days utilize powdered material to print objects. The powder is melted inside the printer and then distributed in layers to form the patterns with the desired thickness and texture. Powders come from various sources such as Polyamide (Nylon) and Alumide.
- Metal – 3D printing with metal is relatively difficult and utilizes the direct metal laser sintering technology, which is a lot more costly. However, 3D printing using metal is used in most industry-standard printers. Common metals used for 3D printing include stainless steel, bronze, gold, nickel, aluminum, and titanium.
- Carbon Fiber – Carbon fiber is another popular 3D printing material and is being considered as a fast and convenient alternative to plastic.
- Other examples of material utilized for 3D printing include resins, graphite, and graphene, nitinol, ceramic, and even paper.
The process of 3D printing.
Now that we have gone over the materials that are utilized in 3D printing, it will be easier to understand the actual process of printing. However, it is important to know that in 3D printing there is no ‘one solution that fits all’. Instead, each printer works differently given the object being printed and the material of application.
In most 3D printers using powdered material such as nylon, plastic, ceramic, or metal, the printer uses a heat or light source in order to sinter, fuse or melt the layer of the powder in the desired pattern. When working with polymer resin materials, the printer also uses a heat or light source but this time to solidify the resin in ultra-thin layers. Another slightly different technique involves the jetting of fine droplets as in the case of 2D inkjet printing. These processes are repeated over and over until the part or the object is completely printed.
Why are we using 3D printers?
In this section, we are going to discuss the why of it all? Why did 3D printing experience such a boom and became so increasingly popular in a matter of years as compared to many other technologies that were launched during a similar period?
I think the number one reason behind that is the versatility of the technology. While the other technologies focus on one particular aspect of life and making it better, 3D printing does it all. 3D printing finds its applications in almost every industry out there from healthcare to architecture, design, and manufacturing.
Let us take a look at some of the most common applications of 3D printing;
- Medicine – Medicine is one of the most crucial applications of 3D printing and perhaps one reason why 3D printing rose to this universal fame. 3D printing has been used to print a multitude of things for the medical field.
- The most advanced one is bioprinting, which utilizes biomaterials such as cells and growth factors and prints tissue-like structures to be implanted in the human body. The same technique has been applied to 3D print human organs from similar biomaterial. Apart from that, 3D printing has been increasingly used to print medical devices like prosthetics.
- Before 3D printing, prosthetics were extremely expensive and patients would have to wait for a certain age to get a prosthetic so that they would not outgrow the prosthetic part in their body. With the advent of 3D printing, it has become so economical and easy to print prosthetics that patients can easily replace the prosthetics they have outgrown with one that fits their size.
- Prototyping & Manufacturing – This particular field has the most widely used applications of 3D printing since the manufacturing and prototyping industry is enormous in size. 3D printing has been used for printing parts for all machinery, aircraft industry, railway, marine, and most importantly automotive industry.
- At the moment, only the most complex parts are being printed using 3D printing but as the technology gets more economical, it is expected that it is going to replace the conventional manufacturing industry altogether. 3D printing is also extremely useful in printing bespoke parts whether it is in planes, machines, or extremely expensive automobiles, etc.
The same part using the forging process would take a lot more time and resources, but using 3D printing, it could be done in a matter of a few hours.
- Construction – Affordable housing has been a problem almost everywhere around the world due to the extreme level of effort and sophistication that goes into building a house. However, 3D printers are quickly changing that. Many companies around the world are printing small, single, or two-bedroom houses in a day or two, all while keeping it economical. Some advanced printers have also printed larger buildings and other structures, which speaks about the potential that 3D printing has in the construction industry.
- Jewelry – Jewelry is another popular example of the use of 3D printing technology, especially because it used to take a lot of effort and time for jewelers to design even the simplest pieces of jewelry, which explains the high price tags on most jewelry pieces. However, with 3D printing, the process has been made extremely easy and less time-consuming.
- And finally: Miniatures – Another interesting use case for 3D printing technology is creating tiny artistic pieces of collectibles. For a long time, such objects have cost a lot since the artist spends a great amount of time and effort creating one. With 3D printing, creators can print similar pieces in a matter of hours and there are no bounds to the amount of creativity that can be put into those pieces which was previously impossible given the size limitations that the artists usually had to work with. These miniatures come in different shapes and sizes from miniature dollhouses to small toys and souvenirs.
Have a look at the next video about 3D printing miniatures, mostly applied in the board-game world.
I hope that I could explain to you some more about 3D printing. In the near future, I will put reviews on my website about suitable 3D printers to make miniatures and/or artists on Etsy that make the use of 3D printing technology to create the most amazing pieces of art. Thanks to the revolutionary 3D printing technology, it has now become much more affordable and accessible.
Do you have any questions about this article, then please leave a comment below or join my Facebook group.
I wish you happy 3Dprinting/crafting!