Trade Resources Industry Knowledge What is 3D printing

What is 3D printing

Imagine that you have to build a diorama of a famous Civil War battle for a project at school, but instead of hand-made, you just go to a print shop, enter the measurements you want the model components to be, and print all the soldiers, cannons and trees in perfect detail. This technology may be closer than you think thanks to 3D printing. 3D printing is making it easier and faster to produce complex objects with multiple moving parts and intricate design, and soon it will be affordable enough to have at home.

But then again, what is 3D printing?

The concept of 3D printing really began to be taken seriously in the 1980s. The man most often credited with inventing the language of 'modern' 3D printer is Charles W. Hull, who used the term stereolithography—defined as a "system for generating three-dimensional objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed"—in a 1984 patent.

3D printing is mainly based on the idea of building up a product in infinitesimal layers rather than starting with a block or sheet of material and then removing the material that you don't want. Therefore, 3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing which refers to technologies that create objects through sequential layering  and it is inherently less wasteful. With 3D printers, you can create objects in a variety of materials including plastics, ceramics, and metals.
Some high-end, decorative fixture manufacturers have used 3D printing for the past 10 to 15 years for rapid prototyping and occasionally time-sensitive replacement parts for trade shows. In recent years, as the cost of 3D printers goes down enough, many individuals and small businesses not associated with traditional manufacturers can now access the technology.

So why all the hype about 3D printing? In a new book titled, Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman outline 10 advantages of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing:

  • Manufacturing complexity is free. Printing a complex design is no more expensive than printing a simple design.
  • Variety is free. A 3D printer only requires a new digital blueprint and raw materials to create an infinite variety of forms.
  • No assembly required. Traditional manufacturing requires assembling many parts, however, 3D printing can print fully assembled final products, reducing labor, global supply chains, and freight costs.
  • Zero lead time. Products can be printed on demand, eliminating inventory.
  • Unlimited design space. 3D printers can print shapes never before possible with traditional manufacturing methods.
  • Zero skill manufacturing. A 3D printer requires less operator skill than traditional manufacturing methods.
  • Compact, portable manufacturing. 3D printers have recently become small enough for home or office use, even as small as microwave ovens.
  • Less waste by-product. Depending on the materials involved, 3D printing can significantly reduce waste from traditional machining methods.
  • Infinite shades of materials. Blending and mixing different kinds of raw materials into a product will become possible in new ways with 3D printing.
  • Precise physical replication. Digital 3D modeling allows unlimited copying of designs without loss of fidelity. Similarly, the 3D model/file is not degraded, regardless of how many times the object is printed.

Now, 3D printing continues to grow. Technology that started out as a way to build fast prototypes is now a means of creating products for the medical, dental, aerospace and automotive industries. 3-D printing is also crossing over into toy and furniture manufacturing, art and fashion.

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