Introduction to 3D Printing

3D printing may be relatively new to many of us, but the truth is that 3D printing has been around for a long time and the industry has been steadily growing. This method of printing is alternately called “additive manufacturing” or “desktop fabrication.” This type of technology is used to create a 3D representation/object based on the digital data, which is called prototyping.

Printing of 3D designs is ideal for a variety of fields, including medicine, dentistry, fashion, architecture, military, engineering, industrial design, construction – actually virtually all fields can benefit from this prototyping. 3D-printed models can be assembled with actual parts, resulting in products that are fully functional for the purposes of testing and evaluation.

So how did 3D printing start and evolve?

Its origins were way back in the mid-1970s, following the invention of the inkjet printer. Continuous research, adaptations and advancements have led to the transformation of printing with ink into printing with certain materials. During the early 1980s, Charles W. Hull invented the solid imaging process which is known as stereolithography, a terminology he also coined and later patented. Stereolithography became known as 3D printing. Hull later co-founded a company called 3D Systems where he also became vice-president and chief technology officer, positions he still holds up to this day.

Simply put, 3D printing works like ordinary one-dimensional printing using inkjet printers. But instead of ink, specific agents in 3D printing are used to make successive layers to create an object based on the digital data.

The “ink,” or the materials used in 3D printing, come in different varieties, with respect to their ability to mold itself and cool quickly, their toughness and strength, etc. Several materials typically used in 3D printing are thermoplastics (like poly lactic acid [PLA] and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene [ABS]), metal alloys, plaster, photopolymer, plastic film, paper, thermoplastic powders, and so forth.

There have been various 3D printers, but almost all of them have basic components such as:

– laser source (which sends a laser beam to turn the material into a more solid form)
– elevator (the part which raises and lowers the platform to help dispense the layers in place)
– vat (where the 3D object is being printed)

3D printers, especially in the early days, had been typically very heavy and bulky ones – the same descriptions can also be said of the cost. Printing a model is time-consuming, as it takes several hours or even days before achieving the end result, depending on the digital data it’s based on. However, 3D Systems also has a line of relatively smaller and cheaper 3D printers such as Cube and Projet models – perfect for domestic use and for hobbyists. In 2011, Vienna University of Technology had developed and introduced the smallest, lightest and cheapest 3D printer ever. It weighs only a kilogram and a half, and costs about 1,200 euros (or about $1,600).

There is a difference between a 3D printer and a prototyping machine, in case you’re wondering about it. Typical 3D printers are less capable of coming up with complicated prototypes, and are also smaller and more compact. They’re more ideal for use in offices or for hobbyists. Rapid prototyping machines, on the other hand, have been used by certain fields such as aircraft industries. Also, the build chambers of the 3D printer are smaller than those of the rapid prototyping machines. Rapid prototyping machines print more accurately than 3D printers.

Truly, 3D printing is a rapidly expanding field, thanks to the lighter and more affordable units that have come out recently. As more and more people are becoming aware of its benefits and gain access to these printers, 3D printing continues to have a positive impact in the field of learning and profession.

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