A Primer on 3-D Printing: An Emerging Technology You Should Know About

A few days ago, the first 3-d printed airplane flew for the first time.  See the LA Times article “World’s first 3-D printed airplane takes to the skies”.

Although 3D printing has been around for a number of decades, the quality has increased dramatically in recent years and the prices are just beginning to drop, making it much more affordable for small and medium businesses.  And if you really want to explore 3D printing, they are even getting cheap enough for consumers to own.

The reality is 3D printing is a very cost-effective way to have an in-house rapid prototyping capability.  For a relatively modest investment, design engineers can use a 3D printer to catch design flaws earlier in the process lowering costs and shortening design cycles.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing involves having the computer sending the coordinates for a 3D object to an output device (a 3D Printer) that employs the same ink-jet printer principle that is used to print on paper.  However, in this case the ‘printer’ deposits successive layers of material to build up a full-scale 3D model.   The material used can be powder, plastics, resins or even metals.

In the case of powder, the printer is actually delivering ultra-thin layers of powder onto a surface, one on top of another, until it produces a 3D model.  With each successive run of the ‘printer head’, the powder that is deposited is then given a spray of a binding liquid that' helps to harden the powder and help form a solid object.

The end-result of this process might be a model which designers can use to verify a product’s design qualities before full-scale manufacturing begins, or it might be an end-use specialty product ranging from a component in a complex aircraft engine to a consumer medical  or dental implant.

The big benefits of 3D printing is it’s low cost and speed.  The printers can generally produce models in as little as one-tenth the time it takes other types of machines.  3-D Printer-produced models are throwaway models that allow you to see things you would not be able to see as well on a computer with a CAD system.  The beauty of this approach is people can hold the proposed design, study it, and get a good feel for its shape.

Video Introduction to 3D-Printing

The video below (about 4 minutes) provides an introduction to 3-D printing.

 

 

Implications for Traditional Manufacturing

It is doubtful that this new generation of 3D printers can replace traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding, machined or milled parts and manufacturing line assembly.  However I do believe that small and medium specialty manufactures should consider implementing 3D printing processes for individual steps or subsystems in a traditional line manufacturing process.  It is very possible that these new low cost printers would help reduce overall manufacturing costs.

Implications for Consumers

Many people in the 3-d printing industry fully believe every household will have a device that’s capable of printing any solid object, and even basic mechanical objects.  Imagine pressing the “bowl” or “cup” button on the 3D printer in the kitchen, followed by the “fork” or “spoon” button. It would even work for larger objects like cutting boards and colanders and laundry baskets — and it would be easy enough to provide fairly extensive customization, too: a stripy cup, with colors of your choosing, a narrower fork, a bowl that is perfectly tapered to support and grip an unwieldy watermelon, and so on.

Implications for Healthcare

Experts also see a bright future for 3D printing in the medical industry.  3D printing technology is currently being studied by biotechnology firms and academia for possible use in tissue engineering applications where organs and body parts are built using inkjet techniques. Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures.  Future applications include Organ printing, bio-printing, computer-aided tissue engineering.  

Vendors

For those of you wanting to learn more about products and services out on the market, here are a few vendor sites to visit

  • Desktop Factory  Makes a very small and affordable printers that truly fit on top of a desk.
  • 3D Systems   Provides mid-range solutions that employ a technology that film transfers photopolymer to build 3-D objects
  • Z Corp  Is widely thought of as providing top of the line printers for an office environment
  • MakerBot, an entry level machine, has sold more than 4,000 so far.
  • Ultimaker, a new entrant into personal 3-d printing

For More Information