The 3D printer is changing the way we think about manufacturing. As the emerging technology continues to improve, and materials become cheaper and cheaper, what was once the exclusive technology of only the top universities and private companies around the world, is fast becoming available to more and more individuals – from backyard innovators to ambitious students.
History and development
The first ever 3D printer was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1990s by a company called 3D Systems (source). Since then they have continued to improve the technology, and to this day remain the leaders of the field.
However, even before the development of the 3D printer, many companies in the 1980s experimented with an earlier form of additive manufacturing called rapid prototyping (RP). RP allowed manufacturers to produce prototypes much quicker than usual – sometimes in as little as a day – and marked a positive step forward in the eventual evolution of the 3D printer.
These days, significant improvements in the areas of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and accessibility have enabled this technology to flood into the wider arena.
How does 3D printing work?
A 3D printer uses additive manufacturing technology to build 3-dimensional objects from a standard Computer Aided Design (CAD) file. Usually used for prototyping purposes, a 3D printer uses different types of plastic filament (ABS plastic, PLA, Nylon and Polycarbonates) which is melted to create solid objects – layer by layer.
Let’s take a look at the specific steps involved in creating a 3D printed object:
- First, the object is virtually designed in a CAD file using 3D modeling software such as TurboCAD or Trimble. Alternatively, a 3D scanner can be used to scan an existing object and turn it into a digital file that can then be imported into 3D modeling software.
- Once the object exists in a digital format, the 3D modeling software reads this CAD data and then slices the digital object into hundreds, if not thousands, of individual horizontal layers – much like slicing a salami.
- When the object has been sliced into enough layers, it is then sent to the 3D printer for printing. Layer by layer the entire object is created by fusing the plastic filament together. This process can take anywhere from between 10 minutes (e.g., a bottle opener) to up to two days (e.g., an actual, working car!) – depending on the size and complexity of the object.
The current cost of plastic filament hovers between $20-$50 for 1kg – enough filament to make over 100 small solid chess pieces. Recently, a number of 3D printers have entered the market, some weighing as little as 1.5kg and costing a just over $2000.
Uses and applications
There is a ton of excitement building over just what 3D printers can currently do, and what they’ll be capable of in the near future. It has been suggested by some advocates of additive manufacturing that 3D printers will completely revolutionise the nature of the manufacturing industry. Innovators will now be able to manufacture their own products, rather than having to contract with plants and factories all over the world. (source)
It’s already possible for 3D printers to print in different colours and materials (including brass, steel, and ceramic) to create fully-functional objects. Indeed, just recently the first 3D-printed aircraft and car were created, signaling a significant step forward in the technology’s continued evolution. 3D printing also allows the production of objects with such intricate and complex designs that it’s simply impossible to recreate using any other technology.
3D printing also has a number of uses and applications in a wide range of industries. For example, 3D bioprinting will allow doctors and researchers to print organs and human tissue. Already, many 3D printers on the market are able to print at such high resolutions: necessary when dealing with the human body. The food industry can also benefit through this emerging technology. Edible objects can be created by printing objects using edible materials.