A Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing

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Embrace the full potential of faster and cheaper product manufacturing

3D Printing
3D Printing

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What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a manufacturing process – also known as additive manufacturing – that can produce physical objects based on  digital object file instructions (CAD representation).

The term ‘3D printing’ actually covers a range of processes and technologies that are able to utilize a diverse range of materials to produce three-dimensional physical products and parts. 

At its most basic, a 3D printer can ‘print’ physical objects by successively laying down many thin parts of a material, performing an additive process executed by a digital design object file.

An ongoing development of 3D printing and printable materials, from enterprise down to consumer level, has revolutionized construction, architecture, design and manufacturing.  

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A Brief History of 3D Printing

Due to the manufacturing industry’s demand for producing cheap and fast industrial product prototypes, the tech behind 3D printing was first developed in Japan during the early 1980s.  

Originally called Rapid Prototyping (RP), 3D printing was limited exclusively to industrial applications until 2007, when the first 3D printing system under $10,000 was developed.

The 3D printing industry sector saw rapid growth and investment during the first decade of the 21st century, demonstrating its great potential for efficiency  across a wide range of industries.

Applications of 3D Printing

Staying true to its founding principles, 3D printing today is still mostly used as an industrial prototyping solution, allowing for a quick and simple way to produce multiple versions of a product, ultimately speeding up the early stages of product development and reducing costs.

However, with processes and printable materials constantly evolving and optimizing, and as 3D printing is widely adopted across multiple industry sectors, the technology has huge potential to replace traditional manufacturing methods during later stages of product development.

Let’s have a look at some industry markets currently taking advantage of the benefits of 3D printing:

Architecture: Applying 3D printing to produce accurate architectural demonstration models almost seems like a no-brainer. It’s very common for big architectural companies to use 3D printing as an essential part of their workflow – either in-house or as a service – in order to produce detailed models that present an architect’s vision. Printing directly from 3D CAD files, architects can use 3D printing to foster innovation and to improve client communication.

Aerospace: The aerospace industry was an early adopter of 3D printing technology, deploying it as a solution for product development and prototyping.Characterised by high production costs and meticulous research and development procedures, the aerospace sector has continuously pushed the boundaries of industrial 3D printing, already integrating 3D-printed non-critical parts within today’s flying aircraft.    

Medical: 3D printing is already radically transforming the medical science world. Its applications include customized prosthetic limbs, disease-curing biomedical implants, as well as potential for 3D-printed human organs and teeth. Another exciting medical application is 3D printing’s ability to quickly develop new pharmaceutical products, helping to tackle future infectious diseases by facilitating fast, low-cost and local drug manufacturing.

Food: Food production and presentation is an emerging application of 3D printing technology. Meat is already grown in labs as a way to counter the negative environmental impact of global meat productions. As crazy as it may sound, we will soon have the ability to ‘print’ meat proteins by using enzymes as 3D printer materials. Able to produce food with an optimum balance of nutrients, 3D printing will become an indispensable tool within food production.  

Education: When it comes to sparking student creativity and optimizing learning experiences, few activities can compare to being able to digitally design an object and then to physically produce it by using a 3D printer. With a unique ability to bring objects and concepts out of textbooks and off computer monitors, 3D printing is an innovative learning tool that can create anything from 3D topology maps for geography, or 3D-printed organ models for biology.

Do it Yourself [DIY]: Need a replacement part for a household item as quickly and cheaply as possible? Just go ahead and 3D-print it! As 3D printing systems become cheaper and more user-friendly, the technology will offer significant benefits to consumers, essentially making them more autonomous by putting the replacement part industry in their hands, saving them time and money, as well as maximizing the life-cycle and value of their product purchases.

Fashion: Considering the environmental impact and working conditions of the global garment production, it’s no surprise that the fashion industry has adopted 3D printing techniques. 3D-printed items like shoes, hats, dresses and gowns can all be produced using a diverse range of flexible materials available, with many fashion products already making appearances in catwalks around the world. 

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3D Printing Materials

The 3D printing materials available today can be as diverse as the resulting manufactured products the technology produces. Flexible materials enable manufacturers to use 3D printing in order to accurately determine the texture, shape and core strength of any given product. We’ll proceed by presenting some of the most common materials currently used in 3D printing:

Plastic: Probably the most widely used material for 3D printing, plastic offers firmness, smoothness, cost-effectiveness and a range of color options that are hard for manufacturers to resist. This material is often used in 3D-printed toys, household items, utensils and many others.

Metal: Found within a diverse range of everyday items, metal isthe second most widely used material for 3D printing. It is used by aerospace manufacturers to construct aircraft components, as well as by jewelers to produce detailed engravings on bracelets and other items. 

Resins: Resin is one of the less-used materials of 3D printing because it offers limited flexibility and strength. Noted mainly for its aesthetic appeal, it is often used for 3D prints that require intricate levels of detail, such as for the clothing and facial features of small action figurines. 

Powders: Most cutting-edge 3D printers today can produce products by using powdered materials that include metals like copper and steel. The material is melted and distributed inside the printer, allowing for detailed control of the product’s texture, thickness and color pattern.  

Carbon Fiber: This is a composite material for 3D printers and it is mainly used as a reinforcement solution for plastic product designs. For manufacturers, combining plastic and carbon fibers provides a faster and more convenient alternative to using metal.

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