The 3D printer is changing business and society in more profound ways than photocopiers in the sixties or home recording equipment in the seventies. It's a revolutionary way to present prototypes or to even manufacture a finished product. Thanks to 3D printing technology, you can create physical objects from digital files.
Evolution of 3D Printing
The first documentation of what shaped the 3D printing concept came from a 1945 short story called "Things Pass By" by science fiction author Murray Leinster. He called it a "construction machine" and described it as efficient and flexible with the capability of producing machine parts more cheaply than any other method. The end product based on scanned drawings was made of plastic.
The first patent for 3D printing was secured in 1986 by Charles Hull, who co-founded 3D Systems Corporation. The company issued its first commercial 3D system in 1988. Other types of 3D printing machines soon followed. Early 3D printing was used for industrial purposes, typically for prototyping new inventions.
By the 2000s, the term "additive manufacturing" gained attention as an alternative production process to "subtractive manufacturing." While subtractive manufacturing removes material, such as hollowing out a piece of metal, additive manufacturing, in which 3D printing is a subset, builds products by adding material layers.
How 3D Printing Works
Light shining through a container of resin forms the basis of how 3D printing works. Materials used in the production process include plastics, liquids, and powder. These components allow for making a wide range of products from tools to appliances, furniture, and even food.
One of the various methods of 3D printing is called "stereolithography" (SLA), which was introduced by Charles Hull in 1986. This method uses photopolymer resin to create object layers. When UV light from a laser beams through the liquid resin, it creates a chemical reaction that hardens the resin into durable plastic. The object's layers are created one at a time through a tracing process.
Watch the recording of our "Made to Order" webinar to hear from industry experts on a wide scope of topics on the latest trends and challenges surrounding 3D printing technology, with predictions and tips for those new to or experienced in 3D printing and additive manufacturing.
Continuous liquid interface production (CLIP) is among the fastest 3D printing processes, based on digital light synthesis technology, in which LED light projects UV images to resin. Another 3D printing method is called "digital light processing" (DLP), which is similar to SLA but uses different light sources such as arc lamps.
Once you create a printable file in a CAD program, you can store it in a virtual library. From there, you can export the CAD or STL file to a 3D printer through USB, SD, or Wi-Fi. The files can be easily edited at any time. The next step is slicing, which prepares the file for a 3D printer. This step involves slicing the file into hundreds or thousands of layers using slicing software.
Turnaround time for printing an object is a matter of hours. Not only do 3D printers speed up production for a prototype, but they also eliminate the need for other expensive tools and molds. These modern machines can further be used for short-run production. But trying to mass-produce items with today's 3D printers has limitations and diminishing returns.
Today's 3D Printing Industry
Current 3D printing is used for both one-off prototyping and for limited production, still mainly in the industrial realm. According to Acumen Research and Consulting, the global 3D printing market will reach $41 billion by 2026.
Today, various industries use this technology as part of a major digital transformation to make production more efficient. Here are some of the ways it's now being used in making products:
- Automotive and Aviation - engines and other parts
- Construction - buildings can be prefabricated
- Dental - artificial teeth and crowns
- Education - creation of open-source scientific tools
- Fashion - shoes and apparel
- IT - formation of digital twins
- Jewelry - detailed, customized rings
- Medical - prosthetics
- Military - firearms
- Pharma - formulations for tableting
Countless consumer products can now be manufactured with 3D printers. These machines are particularly useful for industries that offer custom solutions. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) can use 3D printers to make proprietary machines, parts, and tools.
A major advancement for 3D printers has been in healthcare, as the technology can provide implants. During the past decade, 3D printed implants have accounted for over 100,000 hip replacements. A more subtle healthcare milestone has been the use of hidden 3D-printed hearing aids. Prior to this century, hearing aids were much more complex to create, going through multiple manual processes.
How 3D Printing Contributes to Sustainability
One of the main reasons 3D printing is considered a sustainable manufacturing solution is because it reduces waste. It only uses the right amount of material necessary to create a product, whereas traditional methods involve generating a certain percentage of wasted material. A 3D printer can also reduce the amount of energy used in manufacturing since it only uses power to a certain threshold.
The fact that a 3D printer can serve a local community elevates its sustainability profile even more. Local production reduces the need for long-distance transportation, which typically relies on burning fossil fuels. Due to global supply chain congestion with rising fuel and storage costs, it's much more sustainable for communities to adopt local 3D printing.
Learning to Use a 3D Printer
A common way to enter 3D printing is to learn computer-assisted design (CAD) software, which is used by architects, designers, engineers, and manufacturers. Universities offer courses in graphic design and CAD software, which can be applied to 3D printing. An easier way to get started is with free Tinkercad software, which is browser-based, so you don't have to install it on your device.
Future Concerns of 3D Printing
As 3D printing evolves, various challenges surround its adoption. Intellectual property protection is a major issue since products can be duplicated by a 3D printer. This activity can cut into the profits of a manufacturer, which may try to sue for infringement. Another concern is the expensive cost of a 3D printer, but a solution is to outsource to a third-party firm that specializes in 3D printing.
There are other issues that manufacturers should consider before investing in 3D printing technology. One drawback is that it doesn't reduce the cost of individual units when they are mass-produced, making large volumes somewhat impractical. Larger items require post-processing such as removing support material and applying finishing, which potentially slows down production.
Finally, some people worry that emphasis on 3D printing will reduce manufacturing jobs. This fear has been growing throughout the industrial age as machines keep appearing that handle human tasks. But there will still be a need for quality control specialists to evaluate finished products to ensure they are safe and accurately produced before selling them on the market.
Key advantages to 3D printing include manufacturing lightweight yet durable products in a flexible manner without wasting materials. Overall, the process saves time, money, and energy compared to traditional production methods. Ultimately, the process can be automated, which speeds up production and cuts labor costs. It's also an environmentally-friendly solution as it helps pave the way toward greener manufacturing.