The 3D printing business involves a process called additive manufacturing. The printing equipment essentially uses a CAD, or computer-aided design, to combine various materials and shape them into solid, three-dimensional objects. 3D printers are extremely precise, and users can create almost anything imaginable with them.
Most 3D printers function on the same basic principle as an inkjet printer. But instead of using ink layered onto a sheet of paper, most 3D printers take materials like nylon plastic, heat them until they become molten, and then layer or sculpt them into a three-dimensional shape. Other printing methods include directing lasers into liquid resins to cure and harden the liquid into a form or using beams to melt powdered plastics into solid, bonded structures.
The user creates a 3D design on a computer which includes precise measurements, angles, dimensions, and material requirements. The CAD is then fed to the 3D printer, which analyses the design and begins to formulate a procedure for recreating it.
What You Can Create with a 3D Printer
3D printers are known for their ability to create absolutely anything. From a basic shape to intricately detailed artwork, engineering parts, and even replicas of human organs! All you need is a printer and a design, and you’re good to go.
3D printing is evolving fast, and people are coming up with new and exciting designs every year. You can use durable plastics that remain soft and flexible once they’ve cooled and dried or hard, rigid types that won’t crack or easily break. Toys, components, jewelry, and even food are within the 3D printer range.
The Future of 3D Printing
3D printing has been called the future of manufacturing and offers an incredible range of opportunities to all industrial sectors, including medicine, engineering, education, construction, and aerospace – to name but a few.
Most 3D printers are limited by their physical dimensions, unable to print anything much bigger than themselves. Things are changing, though, with 3D printers getting faster and better at printing parts of a whole design and capable of using materials beyond plastics.
Types of 3D Printing and Materials
There are many different models and 3D printer designs, each boasting various strengths or capable of using different materials. Let’s look at a couple of the more common techniques and methods.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) Printers
FDM printers are the most widely used 3D printers around. These printers heat plastic material by melting a block of the polymer and feeding it through a nozzle onto a surface. The printer sees the design as a series of 2D “layers” that will be progressively added on top of each other, level by level. As each layer of material is laid down, the object begins to take shape from the ground up. The printer knows, from the CAD, which areas to leave open inside the object and when to add or withhold materials. Layers are then merged either by glue or by using ultraviolet light to bond them together.
Stereolithography (SLA) Printers
These are the original 3D printers and are still very popular. SLA printers direct a laser beam into a liquid polymer resin. This liquid is photosensitive, reacting to the light from the laser by ‘curing’ or converting it into hardened plastic. The process – called ‘photopolymerization’ – produces highly accurate end products with a smooth finish and SLA resins offer a wide range of plastic properties.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) Printers
SLS printers use ‘sintering’, where lasers heat powdered nylon material close to its melting point, causing tiny particles to bond into a solid shape. SLS printers can create exact geometric shapes, and some are capable of using metallic materials.
Other 3D printing methods include PolyJet and MultiJet Fusion (MJF) printing.