What is 3D printing, and just what can it do to improve the quality of life for humanity’s sake? Well, there’s more than one answer to that question on more than level. In the most general of terms, 3D printing is a technological advance in the manufacturing industry. It has practical applications with influences in different fields ranging from medicine to aerospace. Delving a little deeper, it’s fair to say this technology has an international history which spans across decades. There are a few facts to cover in order to get the best understanding of 3D printing and how it works.
What is 3D Printing
Like the technology that runs fax and copy machines, which are still widely used to this day, 3D printing happens layer by layer. A material hits the surface of a “canvass” so it can dry and be removed from the printer. This happens because digital information is interpreted and recreated into the physical world. However, 3D printing takes this concept to another level by adding layer after layer of material onto a surface. In doing so, it builds something more substantial than digital communication and becomes Additive Manufacturing.
Precision and expertise is what makes the additive nature of 3D printing such a breakthrough in manufacturing. Traditionally, manufacturing starts by loading a rectangular or square piece of material into a machine. Depending on the material, there may be a spraying of liquid lubricant involved to prevent sparks a protect the milling tools. No matter the material or amount of spraying involved, it makes a mess and produces scrap. In 3D printing, there’s none of the milling (cutting) or scrap (waste) involved in production.
Actually, 3D printing looks more like injection molding than anything else. It kind of operates off the same mechanics and principles. With injection molding, production comes down to shooting heated material through a nozzle and letting it cool before processing it further. The difference being that in injection molding requires a predetermined cut-out shape to yield a final product. When it comes to 3D printing, the material involved is more versatile. This allows for shaping without the use of outside forces. In some cases, layers of metallic material are heated by lasers one after another to produce a finished part.
Generally speaking, there’s only one drawback to 3D printing when compared to old-fashioned methods. It tends to take a little longer to produce an object than traditional manufacturing. However, where 3D printing takes longer to create a product, it uses technically effective methods to get the job done. There are more than half a dozen ways to 3D print, and the each offer their own advantages. Extrusion of material is known as FDM in 3D printing. When ultraviolet light cures a photopolymer inside a vat, it goes by SLA or DLP. Anytime powder particles fuse due to a selected source of energy, it’s SLS, SLM, or DMLS. Material jetting (MJ) happens from smaller drops that dry fast. Binder jetting (BJ) involves a liquid acting as a bonding component to a powder base. LENS or LBMD printing fuses materials by an energy source instantly. In LOM or UAM methods, materials are laid down and bonded one at a time.
The history of 3d Printing
Relatively speaking, 3D printing does not have a long history to mention. This technology isn’t exactly nascent in its nature. However, when compared to other advance or events in society, 3D printing is something of a newer generation. For example, there are network television shows on air (The Price Is Right) that have been around longer than additive manufacturing. Still, nothing as complex as 3D printing can come from nowhere without some kind of tale to tell. Actually, some people may be somewhat surprised if not interested by the details regarding its origins.
To sum things up in a nutshell, the concept and engineering behind 3D printing is just a bout 40 years old. Also, the technology comes a long way crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It all depends on how you look at it. But, those in the know about the evolution of additive manufacturing agree that things get started in Japan circa 1981. Before the research, development, and engineering of a project can begin, someone has to do the initial write up and submitting. This credit goes to Dr. Hideo Kodama. But as a matter of bureaucracy, his name is not on record for having the first patent.
By other accounts, Kodama is not the only pioneer in the field. And, other names are on record for spearheading 3D printing. For example, the names Alain le Mehaute, Olivier de Witte, and Jean-Claude Andre ring bells in France for their collective efforts. As history tells us, le Mehaute has the initial vision that would eventually bring the three together. Meanwhile, the professional experience de Witte has in the field drives the team’s direction. It appears that the only thing the duo would need to make the breakthrough is an inside man with the right institution, Andre. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned. And by the year 1984, the three colleagues decide to turn to other projects.
Where others had the obstacles of bureaucracy, professional stifling, and financial hurdles to overcome, a man named Charles Hull has not. As a result, his name is in the patenting record for inviting Stereolithography. It takes a couple of years for the patent process to go through, but that’s all Hull needs to ride the wave of continued success. Just two years after receiving his patent in 1986, the company he started releases it’s SLA-1 for sale.
In the same year that Hull releases his product for sale, another man by the name of Carl Deckard files a patent for SLS (Selective Laser Sintering). And all though his product wasn’t ready for commercial production, it does helps the Jinn get out of the bottle. One good example of this progress is the patent of fused deposition molding FDM. The world has Scott Crump to thank for this one according to the records. His company and technique help to lead the way in the field of 3D printing.
Top Trends in the Industry
It’s great to pay respect to the “founding fathers” of 3D printing as they are true pioneers in the field. However, there’s so much going on with this technology in modern times that focusing too much on the past proves counterproductive. To this end, getting to know about the top trends in additive manufacturing complements knowing its history nicely. With so much in the works, the best way to understand the matters of fact involves breaking things into big chunks. These big ideas in engineering can then be chiseled and chipped into more bite-size stats and facts.
To start with, there are about a handful of trends to follow in 3D printing. They are metal divergence, elevated levels of sophistication in metal printing systems, innovation in binder jetting, and quality plastic printing. Of course, there’s more going on than that in the field, but looking at these aspects is a good place to see what comes next.
So, the divergence of metal 3D printing is one of the more simple phenomenon to explain in the arena. It’s really just a matter of more companies investing in their research and development departments to produce more units. This supply grows slowly with demand, and the selling price adjusts according. What used to be super-expensive is now only mildly pricey. Think flat screen TV sales for comparison.
It’s kind of hard for some people to imagine additive manufacturing when it comes using metal in 3D printing. However, it’s simple to understand. Instead of using a bulky slab of metal to make smaller pieces, dust and lasers are used to make metal parts. The margin for error is so much lower, and there’s no point in comparing old methods to 3D metal printing when it comes to scrap (waste).
Where metals are added one layer at a time to cut down on unnecessary waste in 3D printing, binder jetting does the same thing with plastic polymer materials. Except in the case jetting, things kind of happen in reverse. The printing material is laid down first, then a binding solvent is added like a an ink jetted to paper. There are a few more steps to it than metal 3D printing. For example, the solvent has to be heated to the material after it’s laid down layer by layer.
Some Interesting Facts
Interestingly enough, all the other trends like divergence, sophistication, innovation, and jetting point to another trend that’s easy to explain. All evidence points to a rise in the overall popularity of 3D printing. This is clear from the percentage of people who use additive manufacturing on different levels. The number of people who use these printers with proficiency grows as time goes on. While the those who use it on the novice level declines. Arguably, 3D printing has a sharper rise than drone use, and that’s saying something.
The reasons for the increase of metal use in the industry of 3D printing comes down to good-old-fashioned cost efficiency. Metal components made from additive manufacturing can weigh half as less to parts made the traditional way. Moreover, these newer parts are just as sturdy and meet impressive standards. Some of these printers are good enough to create their own parts. Many of the items produced from metallic 3D printing have highly useful applications in society. They are used in things from everyday plumbing to procedures in medical offices.
Increased use and application regarding 3D printing is an impressive trend all on its own. But, there’s more going on beneath the surface than a lot of experiments and research. A business of mass production slowly grows and nurtures a whole new economic system with it. Like many advances, such as cordless and mobile phones, what once was for the trend setters become more available for the masses. And as these numbers grow, people find personal or casual uses for additive manufacturing. Of course, there are far out implications far into the future. With the right connections to material and the proper know how, anyone could simply print their own table top, towel rack, or brake pads.
With all the rise in popular demand and various use, there has to be way to keep up with it all from a company point of view. Here is where things actually get interesting, because it means better jobs and more of them. However, this boost in the job market does have a bit of a curve-ball feel to it. For people who like who like to make a living from engineering and design, additive manufacturing kind of messes with job security. Sometimes, cutting production costs means keeping a smaller skeleton crew of workers or outsourcing the hands-on labor. So far, there’s still a need for someone to load the printer. And, there has to ne someone inspecting the overall process for the sake of safety. So, it turns out that the need for project management should see a bump from 3D printing in the years to come.
Overall, the biggest trend to hit 3D printing is an overall increase of quality to match quantity when it comes to meeting business needs. In other words, companies that use additive manufacturing are finding that the ability to change specs easily saves a lot of trouble. Not calling a meeting and making conference calls is super important to mass production. The network of professionals working with 3D printers is just as important to the levels of customization offered by the machine itself. When a user, be they a manager designer or engineer, gets thrown a curve ball the hardware and software has be ready to serve them in the same way they serve their clients.
Simply put, 3D printing is the wave of the future today. We’re not at a level of sophistication where scale models and artificial hearts can be jetted within the hour. However, the dream of telling a machine to quickly replicate a desired object is right around the corner.