May 31, 2013

How exactly does 3D printing work?

This subject seems to be surfacing quite a bit around various news sources. Apparently, a Kickstarter for a 3D printer is already a major success and it was just launched a couple days ago.


I understand the gist of the concept: you physically make a 3 dimensional object with such a printer. How does this process actually work inside of such a unit? Also, what are the benefits?


This answer may not be as “exact” as you might like, but the concept is based on stereolithography, originally developed in the 1980s. Essentially, a 3D printer uses a virtual blueprint, like one devised by a CAD program, to build/print a model.


The printer itself will use raw material which must be loaded into the machine and appropriately configured in order to produce the item created by the imaging program. Certain printers will have limitations (e.g. some may only be able to manipulate plastics while more advanced printers can utilize soft metals) but ultimately use some material to build an object, layer by layer. This is antipodal to how most items are manufactured by today’s lathes which cut away material until the model of an object is complete. In 3D printing, the raw material is broken down then “sprayed” on each subsequent layer until the object is printed.



As material is not systematically removed from a mold of some sort, this process greatly reduces waste compared to traditional manufacturing processes. Objects made from 3D prints can have a variety of application including the production of specific machine parts, models, prosthetics... you name it. A gun was recently printed with this technology which has stirred up some controversy. Check out the 3D printed gun that was successfully printed with plastic materials.


Here's a great primer on 3D printing:


"Additive manufacturing or 3D printing[1] is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.[2] 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).

A materials printer usually performs 3D printing processes using digital technology. Since the start of the twenty-first century there has been a large growth in the sales of these machines, and their price has dropped substantially.[3]

The technology is used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing in jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many other fields."
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