What Is 3D Printing?

3D printers are a rapidly growing technology, being able to produce three-dimensional things out of a wide array of materials. Over time, they have seen a sharp rise in popularity, as many retail stores like Staples or Best Buy are now offering these printers and their components for people to buy. Online services like Amazon also seem to be taking the same path, contributing to the idea that eventually most homes will have a 3D printer.

Though, this change is something that I hope will be welcomed by most. 3D printing technology has achieved many great things in numerous fields already, and there is no telling how much we have yet to achieve with it.

Regardless, I think it’s important to unpack the essentials of this technology and the potential it has for our world.

What Exactly Is 3D Printing?

In the simplest terms, 3D printing is the process by which a three-dimensional object is manufactured by laying down many thin layers of material.

While there are several different methods and materials used when it comes to 3D printing, it is important to understand the main idea – virtual models being transformed into real-world objects.

These models can come from CAD (computer-aided design) programs, 3D scanners, or CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) programs. Though, with all that aside, how does the process actually happen?

How Does 3D Printing Work?

There are several different kinds of technologies used by 3D printers. These include the following:

  • Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): One of the most common processes used. Here, a filament made of some thermoplastic (e.g. polylactic acid (PLA)) is melted and then released through a heated nozzle, layer by layer. This process was also used by the first 3D printers, and it continues to be used today for things like consumer products.
  • Stereolithography: This process involves a tank of photopolymer as well as an ultraviolet laser. In order to create the desired object, the shape of the object is traced on the surface of the polymer, which solidifies as soon as it comes into contact with the laser. Through this, the object is “printed” layer by layer using the laser, based on the directions from the file being used (CAD or CAM).
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): Here, a laser of high power is used to fuse together particles of the desired material. This method works with metal, ceramic, glass, or plastic, and any leftover material by the end is simply reprocessed and reused.

As you can see, there are several different materials that can be used with 3D printers, and what can be used is determined by the technology and method used for printing.

Among these materials are metals (e.g. aluminum, stainless steel), plastics/polymers (e.g. thermoplastics), glass, and even edible materials we use for food (e.g. cheese, chocolate).

It’s surprising to see just how versatile 3D printers are when it comes to materials, and it opens a lot of paths for future developments.

Benefits of 3D Printing

One of the biggest benefits of using 3D printing is having the ability to quickly generate prototypes or models from design ideas. At the same time, designers can make fast changes in design wherever they need to.

Not only that, but the additive process that is employed by 3D printing can help cut costs and save resources, as little to no material is lost or wasted.

All of this leads to many big changes that are currently happening in the manufacturing world.

For one, manufacturing companies can make their products more accessible to consumers – especially those in remote locations – since they eventually can release files for their products, allowing people to print them in their own homes.

Manufacturing companies themselves can also optimize their production processes. An example of this is the switch to production on demand, which will boost management of inventory while cutting down the space needed in warehouses.

What We Can Create with 3D Printing

While the rapid production of prototypes and models has been an important use of 3D printing ever since its early days, there has been a growing push towards making final products with it as well.

One of the most common examples of things that can 3D printed is consumer products, including:

  • Shoes
  • Furniture
  • Tools
  • Tripods
  • Toys
  • Wax castings (used in making jewelry)

It doesn’t end there, though. 3D printers have already seen great use in manufacturing parts for the aviation and automotive industries. Archaeologists have been able to recreate models of ancient artifacts with this stunning technology, and paleontologists are using it to duplicate fossils for further study.

The medical world is also seeing a strong development with 3D printing. Some medical technicians and physicians have developed prosthetics and artifical teeth, while others have even been able to produce models of organs and tumors from CT scans to use for surgeries. Furthermore, there are 3D printers in development that can manufacture artificial organs (like kidneys) by laying down layers of cells. There may very well be a medical revolution in our future, and it’s all thanks to 3D printing.

Another area where major progress is happening through the use of 3D printing is the world of food preparation. MIT has already developed the Cornucopia, a 3D printer that can “print” and cook food without leaving waste, and NASA has even done research in 3D printing its food for astronauts.

And to think, this is just the beginning for 3D printing. Who knows what we’ll be able to combine or create in the next 10 years? It’s truly phenomenal how far we’ve come with this technology already – and yet it may not even hold a candle to what we can achieve in the coming years.

Conclusion

The future is approaching fast with 3D printers. Soon, we can expect them to become a common sight in homes around the world, being used in more ways than we can imagine. Though, their value and utility will continue to branch out beyond just our homes. We have already seen the amazing things being done in the medical sciences with this technology, and it is even seeing use in aerospace agencies like NASA. Truly, no one can predict how far this extraordinary technology will take us.

However, I can say without a doubt that this is only the beginning of something revolutionary.

Published by Gerardo Lucena

Gerardo Lucena is a Junior at the University of Michigan pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Engineering (BSE) degree in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Computer Science. He has programming experience in C++, and he has worked with Michigan Hyperloop and MRover during his first two years at the University.

%d bloggers like this: