There’s no shortage of discussion about 3D printing these days. Between fears over printable guns and excitement surrounding deep-space travel, it’s tough to take a stance on this advancing technology. In order to help you better understand how 3D printing works, we’ve created this easy-to-understand guide.
What Exactly is 3D Printing?
At its most basic, 3D printing uses a digital model to create a three-dimensional object by building successive layers of the printing material. The digital model is essentially a blueprint used by the computer to create the desired printed object, and is often referred to as an STL file. There are a number of 3D-printing materials available, ranging from colored plastics to liquid chocolate.
When Was 3D Printing Invented?
Though 3D printing is getting a lot of buzz at the moment, Charles Hull is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern technology. He received a patent for his invention in 1986, defining the printing process as stereolithography. In the same year Hull went on to found his company, 3D Systems. They specialized in rapid prototyping; a new process that allowed engineers to create design prototypes in a shorter amount of time with less expense.
What Are the Types of 3D Printing?
The various types of 3D printing are called additive processes or additive manufacturing. Each builds a three-dimensional object through the layering of various materials. Common printing processes include:
•Photopolymerization: This was the method used by Charles Hull in his earliest 3D printers. It takes a liquid polymer and exposes it to UV light, hardening the polymer. This process is repeated until the solid object is created. Another version of the photopolymerization process uses a gel and lasers to create more detailed features.
•Fused Deposition Modeling: This is the most common process used in current 3D-printing technology. It uses a spool of thin plastic or metal, which is fed into a nozzle. The nozzle is controlled by the printing software or digital model, and heats the printing material, dispensing it in tiny layers to create the solid object.
•Granular Binding: This process works similarly to fused deposition modeling, building layers of fused granules. The resulting products are usually reinforced through a sintering process, which uses lasers to heat the object and fuse the granular layers.
What Are the Potential Applications of 3D Printing?
•Medical: There’s a great deal of promise for 3D printing in medical fields. In May 2013, doctors successfully created an artificial airway for a young boy using a 3D printer. This has led some to speculate that with advancements in printing technology, human organs such as kidneys could be created for those in need of transplants. Additionally, the possibilities of skin grafts, prosthetic limbs and dental implants are currently being researched.
•Manufacturing: The uses for 3D printing in manufacturing are somewhat limited at the moment. The technology is mainly used to reduce the time needed to create prototypes for large-scale production. The present technology works too slowly to meet high-volume demands. With improvements 3D printing could greatly increase manufacturing efficiency as one machine can make multiple products, and multiple machines can be controlled by a single person.
•Food: The weirdest 3D-printing application is probably food. One company has invested hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in the development of printed meats that utilize medical-grade tissues. The idea is to significantly reduce the resources currently required for meat production. 3D printing is already being used to create some food products. Granular binding uses sugar to create decorations for cakes and cookies, while chocolate is listed as a printing material for one of the early commercial printers.
•Home Use: Much of the excitement about 3D printing surrounds home use. Printers are already available through Staples that can print simple objects like toys, coathangers, cell phone cases and jewelry. Another popular home use is creating replacement parts to fix common household appliances. Some have speculated 3D printing could eventually change the face of manufacturing, allowing users to download the plans for a product and print it at home.
•Deep-Space Travel: NASA already has plans to install a 3D printer in the International Space Station, but their real excitement surrounds deep-space travel. Presently, space travel is limited as all of the journey’s necessary resources must be on board at takeoff. With 3D printing, astronauts could build tools, parts and even food on an as-needed basis. This would reduce the cargo weight, allowing for longer space-exploration trips. It has even been suggested 3D printing could utilize Mars’ natural resources to help construct buildings for colonization.
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