What Is 3D Printing And How Does It Work?

Invented by a man named Chuck Hull back in 1986, 3D printing is a process of taking a digital 3d model and turning the digital file into a physical object.  His invention concentrated solely on a fabrication process called Stereolithography (SLA).  Since that time numerous other 3D printing technologies have been developed.  We live in an age that is witness to what many are calling the Third Industrial Revolution.

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What is 3D printing?

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing (AM), refers to various processes used to synthesize a three-dimensional object.  In 3D printing, successive layers of material are formed under computer control to create an object.  These objects can be of almost any shape of geometry and are produced from a 3D model or other electronic data source.

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If you need a part for your washing machine, you would order from your a repairman who gets it from a distributor, who got it shipped from China, where they’re probably mass produced from a very expensive mold.  In the future you will simply 3D print the part right in your home from a CAD file you downloaded.

How do 3D printers work?

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3D printers use a variety of very different types of additive manufacturing technologies, but they all share one thing in common: they create a three dimensional object by building it layer by successive layer, until the entire object is complete.  The majority of 3D printers one will find within a home or an office setting are based on the FDM/FFF or SLA processes, as these technologies are currently cheaper and easier to implement.  The 3D printing process turns a whole object into thousands of tiny little slices, then makes it from the bottom-up, slice by slice.  Those tiny layers stick together to form a solid object.  3D printers can create moving parts like hinges and wheels as part of the same object.

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In the 3D world, a 3D printer needs to have instructions for what to print, it needs a file as well.  The file – A Computer Aided Design (CAD) file – is created with the use of a 3D modeling program, either from scratch or beginning with a 3D model created by a 3D scanner.  The software slices the design into hundreds, or more likely thousands, or horizontal layers.  These layers will be printed on atop the other until the 3D object is done.

3D Printing Methods

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A Stereolithography 3D printer works by concentrating a beam of ultraviolet light focused onto the surface of a vat filed with liquid photocurable resin.  The UV laser beam draws out the 3D model one thin layer at a time, hardening that “slice” of the eventual 3D model as the light hits the resin.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Also invented in the late 1980’s, by Scott Crump, was Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology. Crump and his wife later founded Stratasys in 1988.  With FDM, the object is produced by extruding a stream of melted thermoplastic material to form layers.  Each layer stacks on top of and fuses with the previous layer as the material hardens almost immediately after leaving the extrusion nozzle.  It is one of the less expensive 3D printing methods.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS is an additive manufacturing (AM) technique that uses a laser as the power source to sinter powered material, aiming the laser automatically at points in space defined by a 3D model, binding the material together to create a solid structure.

The Future is 3D Printing

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3D printing will affect almost every aspect of industry and our personal lives in the future.  Medicine will forever be changed as new bioprinters actually print human tissue for both pharmaceutical testing and eventually entire organs and bones.  Architecture and construction are changing as well.  3D models of complex architectural drawings are created quickly and inexpensively, rather than the expensive and time-consuming process of handcrafting models of cardboard.  Huge experimental 3D printers are printing concrete structures with the goal of someday creating entire buildings with a 3D printer.  Art is also benefiting from 3D printing.  Digital artists are creating magnificent pieces that seem almost impossible to be made using traditional methods.  Development in this field are limitless.  Before you know it, the world as we know it will change forever.

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Over the next several years we will see an incredible expansion of the number of elementary, middle and high schools incorporating 3D printing into their curriculum.  This will in effect set these students up for careers which will almost certainly require 3D printing in one way, shape or form over the next decade or two.  With a technology such as this one, most people will be skeptical about needing one until everyone has one and then we’ll all wonder he we ever managed without them.

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