One of the technologies that is revolving our world in an unbelievably rapid pace is 3D printing.
But what exactly is 3D printing? Very simply put, 3D printing (also known as “additive manufacturing”) turns digital 3D models into solid objects by building them up in layers.
For over 2 decades since its invention back in 1980s, 3D printing was a very expensive and fascinating technology almost solely used for rapid prototyping by large enterprises who could afford the very high costs. This is not the case today, and it seems 3D printing is now going to play an important role in the ongoing technological revolution.
In this article, I’ve tried to explore this very briefly.
Categorizing 3D Printers
The variety of 3D printers and the technologies they use, as well as their usage are expanding almost on a daily basis. I see the pace very much the same as what has happened with computers: starting from mainframe computers in 1960s and 70s to what we know today as “IOT” (Internet of Things) where you would find an embedded computer in almost every device and appliance you use in your daily life.
From an engineer’s point of view, I would prefer to “categorize” this variety of 3D printers to better formulate the topic:
Size: 3D printers can be categorized based on size – which is obviously proportional to the size of the product they are designed to produce. We now have microscale and nanoscale 3D printers that are used to create extremely precise nanoscale-size objects with resolutions as low as 10 nm! On the other side of the scale, we have the giant-sized 37 meter long printer that can print a 2700 square-foot office in 17 days!
- Material: 3D printers can also be categorized based on the type of material they build their objects from. Apart from all kinds of plastics, there are now printers than can create objects made of metal, concrete, paper, or even living human cells!
- Manufacturing Process: Not all 3D printers use the same technology for their manufacturing process. There are tens of different technologies in use and new manufacturing technologies are being invented every day. The 7 main current categories for 3D manufacturing process are:
- Material Jetting
- Binder Jetting
- Material Extrusion
- Powder Bed Fusion
- Vat Photopolymerisation
- Sheet Lamination
- Directed Energy Deposition
This is a Material Extrusion 3D Printer, and a table that it has printed out:
A 3DMonstr photopolymerization 3D printer and its photocentric 3D print:
Fractal design metal sculpture printed via powder bed fusion.
Safety helmets printed on Stratasys polyjet material jetting hardware:
Color output from a 3D Systems Projet 4500, and an ExOne sand cast pattern.
Desktop direct metal 3D printing using Realizer SLM 50
Fruit and bowl 3D printed in paper using a MCor sheet lamination 3D printer:
Uses for 3D Printing
In the past few years, the range of applications for 3D printing is expanding at an astonishing rate. 3D printers are now so affordable that I would predict as early as 2020, they would become as common as ordinary printers and you can find one in any average home.
Some of the main usages of 3D Printers are:
- Rapid Prototypes: While this has been the main usage of 3D printers since their invention, as the technologies enhance and the prices are cut, they would enable individual inventors and engineers to quickly turn their ideas into reality without depending on investors and lengthy processes.
- Printing Molds: 3D printers incredibly minimize the time and the costs of creating the molds and other tooling which is a critical part of the manufacturing process and mass production. This would also enable manufacturers to produce less quantities of their product while keeping the costs reasonable.
- Direct Digital Manufacturing of Products (DDM): 3D printers enable direct manufacturing of products by the printer. This means millions of new business possibilities such as manufacturing all kind of customized products tailored to client’s specific demands.
- Medical: 3D printers are creating a real revolution in medical industry – doctors and surgeons can now print all kind of human body parts to the specifics of the patients, being it from artificial material or different proteins or even from living cells. 3D printers are also used for creating tiny medical robots or highly dissolvable medicine pills.
- Construction: maybe the most recent example is Dubai’s “Office of Future” where customized one-story, 2700 square-foot offices along with interior furniture are built in only 17 days at a fraction of costs and waste of material.
- Automotive and Aerospace: 3D printers enable building lighter, more complicated parts for vehicles and planes – they are so important for the future automotive and aerospace industry that GE just acquired to 3D printer pioneers a few days ago!
- Art: 3D printers open unlimited new possibilities for creative arts.
- Personal: With prices of 3D printers going as low as $250, they are now increasingly becoming a must have device for many hobbyists and enthusiasts who are using the 3D printers to “print” all kinds of pre-designed 3D objects or to turn their creativity and imagination into objects.
Future of 3D Printing
In my opinion, in a few years, 3D printers would become so common that one would barely remember how the world was before them! (Just as we now feel about computers or internet or smartphones). You would find them in every repair shop, every dental clinic, every surgery room, every construction site, and every home! Maybe in not so distant future, we won’t see many products in pre-manufactured forms, but they would be manufactured to our specific customized requirements and desires – thanks to the invention of 3D printers!