What is 3D Printing ?
3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printers are generally faster, more affordable and easier to use than other additive manufacturing technologies. 3D printers offer product developers the ability to print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process. Advanced 3D printing technologies yield models that can serve as product prototypes.
Since 2003 there has been large growth in the sale of 3D printers. Additionally, the cost of 3D printers has declined. The technology also finds use in the jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, GIS, civil engineers, etc.
How does it work ?
A large number of competing technologies are available to do 3D printing. Their main differences are found in the way layers are built to create parts. Some methods use melting or softening material to produce the layers, e.g. selective laser sintering (SLS) and fused deposition modeling (FDM), while others lay liquid materials that are cured with different technologies. In the case of lamination systems, thin layers are cut to shape and joined together.
Each method has its advantages and drawbacks, and consequently some companies offer a choice between powder and polymer as the material from which the object emerges. Generally, the main considerations are speed, cost of the printed prototype, cost of the 3D printer, choice and cost of materials and colour capabilities.
One method of 3D printing consists of an inkjet printing system. The printer creates the model one layer at a time by spreading a layer of powder (plaster, or resins) and inkjet printing a binder in the cross-section of the part. The process is repeated until every layer is printed. This technology is the only one that allows for the printing of full colour prototypes. This method also allows overhangs. It is also recognized as the fastest method.
In digital light processing (DLP), a vat of liquid polymer is exposed to light from a DLP projector under safelight conditions. The exposed liquid polymer hardens. The build plate then moves down in small increments and the liquid polymer is again exposed to light. The process repeats until the model is built. The liquid polymer is then drained from the vat, leaving the solid model. The ZBuilder Ultra is an example of a DLP rapid prototyping system.
Fused deposition modeling, a technology developed by Stratasys that is used in traditional rapid prototyping, uses a nozzle to deposit molten polymer onto a support structure, layer by layer.
Another approach is selective fusing of print media in a granular bed. In this variation, the unfused media serves to support overhangs and thin walls in the part being produced, reducing the need for auxiliary temporary supports for the workpiece. Typically a laser is used to sinter the media and form the solid. Examples of this are selective laser sintering and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) using metals.
Finally, ultra-small features may be made by the 3D microfabrication technique of 2-photon photopolymerization. In this approach, the desired 3D object is traced out in a block of gel by a focused laser. The gel is cured to a solid only in the places where the laser was focused, due to the nonlinear nature of photoexcitation, and then the remaining gel is washed away. Feature sizes of under 100 nm are easily produced, as well as complex structures such as moving and interlocked parts.
Unlike stereolithography, inkjet 3D printing is optimized for speed, low cost, and ease-of-use, making it suitable for visualizing during the conceptual stages of engineering design through to early-stage functional testing. No toxic chemicals like those used in stereolithography are required, and minimal post printing finish work is needed; one need only to use the printer itself to blow off surrounding powder after the printing process. Bonded powder prints can be further strengthened by wax or thermoset polymer impregnation. FDM parts can be strengthened by wicking another metal into the part.
How fine do they print ?
Resolution is given in layer thickness and X-Y resolution in dpi. Typical layer thickness is around 100 micrometres (0.1 mm), although some machines such as the Objet Connex can print layers as thin as 16 micrometres. X-Y resolution is comparable to that of laser printers. The particles (3D dots) are around 50 to 100 micrometres (0.05-0.1 mm) in diameter.
Where can they be used ?
Standard applications include design visualization, prototyping/CAD, metal casting, architecture, education, geospatial, healthcare and entertainment/retail. Other applications would include reconstructing fossils in paleontology, replicating ancient and priceless artifacts in archaeology, reconstructing bones and body parts in forensic pathology and reconstructing heavily damaged evidence acquired from crime scene investigations.
More recently, the use of 3D printing technology for artistic expression has been suggested. Artists have been using 3D printers in various ways.
3D printing technology is currently being studied by biotechnology firms and academia for possible use in tissue engineering applications where organs and body parts are built using inkjet techniques. Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures. Several terms have been used to refer to this field of research: Organ printing, bio-printing, and computer-aided tissue engineering among others. 3D printing can produce a personalized hip replacement in one pass, with the ball permanently inside the socket, and even at current printing resolutions the unit will not require polishing.
The use of 3D scanning technologies allow the replication of real objects without the use of molding techniques, that in many cases can be more expensive, more difficult, or too invasive to be performed; particularly with precious or delicate cultural heritage artifacts where the direct contact of the molding substances could harm the surface of the original object.
Industrial 3D printers
Industrial 3D printers are made by companies such as Objet Geometries, Stratasys, 3DSystems and Z-corp. The average price of such a printer is €10,000 or more.
Home 3D printers
RepRap version 2.0 (Mendel)
There have been several, often related efforts to develop 3D printers suitable for desktop use, and to make this technology available at price points affordable to many individual end-users. Much of this work was driven by and targeted on DIY/enthusiast/early adopter communities, with links to both the academic and hacker communities.
RepRap is a project that aims to produce a FOSS 3D printer, whose full specifications are released under the GNU General Public License, but it can not print a copy of itself, as advertised on the website. As of November 2010, the RepRap can only print plastic parts. Research is under way to enable the device to print circuit boards too, as well as metal parts. An average price of a RepRap printer is about 500 euro.3D printer kits can also be obtained. Kits exist for Thing-O-Matic, Ultimaker, and Shapercube 3D printers. Prices of these printers are about 1500 euro.
The MakerBot is an open source 3D printer from MakerBot Industries. Fab@Home is a an open source personal injection printer developed at Cornell University, designed for printing food and many other materials.
Online 3D printing
Some companies such as Sculpteo offer an on-line 3D printing service which is open to consumer and industry. People upload their own 3D designs on the company website, designs are printed via industrial 3D printers and then shipped directly.
Some 3D Printer Videos
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