3D printing, or additive manufacturing, involves the creation of a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model. This object can be almost any shape & size. An additive process is necessary during 3D printing, whereby different shapes are achieved by the laying down of successive layers of material. 3D printing is not recognised as one of the traditional machining techniques, as, in most instances, cutting or drilling will be used to remove material.

A materials printer will normally perform 3D printing processes via digital technology. 3D printing technology is used in many different ways. It’s used for prototyping and in distributed manufacturing with applications in a variety of industries, such as architecture, aerospace, construction (AEC), automotive, civil and general engineering, industrial design, dental and medical, fashion, education, food, and bio tech (human tissue replacement). 3D printing technology is now used in the design of some footwear, jewellery and eyewear and by the military and geographic information systems. It’s been predicted that 3D printing may have mass market appeal, because of how capital costs can be easily offset by open source 3D printing. Consequently, customers will be able to avoid the usual costs when buying common household items.

In 1984 3D System Corporation’s Chuck Hall created the very first working 3D printer. The first decade or so of the 21st Century has seen a substantial increase in the sales of these machines, which has also coincided with a sharp decrease in their prices.

Though there are differing types of 3D printing technologies the core of the technology is the same: layer by successive layer is used to build a complete three-dimensional object.

All the individual layers are thin slices that are taken from the horizontal cross-section of what will be the eventual object. 3D printing has similarities, if being more precise, with 3D baking when, for instance, a multi-layered cake has been created by a baker building a cake layer by layer.

Everything starts with a digital file.

The process starts with a digital Computer Aided Design (CAD) file, which is used for every 3D-printed object. A 3D modelling program is used to create the CAD file, though an alternative method is for a file to be scanned into a 3D modelling program via a 3D scanner. The software will slice the design into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers, which will simplify the 3D printer’s interpretation of the digital file.

Once the 3D printer has read the file it will create each layer exactly. The layers are blended together as they are created, but the layering itself won’t be visible and a three-dimensional object will be the result.

Going to the 3D Printer

The 3D printer may be a Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printer, which is not unlike a 2D inkjet printer. The FDM printer, though, has an extra axis enabling each layer to be formed when a thin stream of melted material is deposited by the axis through a nozzle. The printer may also be a selective laser sintering (SLS) printer, whereby a scanning laser beam builds up an object in a bed of powdered material. This involves bits of the powder being fused together by the laser, layer by layer. Several other types of technologies could also be used.

Another name for 3D printing is ‘additive manufacturing’, because of how an additive process is used in the printing process. This is different to the ‘subtractive process’, which is similar to when a sculptor chips away at (subtracts from) an original block of stone to create a sculpture. This is mirrored in a manufacturing context by material being drilled, milled, cut or machined off. In additive manufacturing nothing will be removed by the 3D printer. Whenever necessary each part of the object is created in successive layers, and this is an additive process.

The Future Of 3D Printing

Digital dematerialization dominates the modern world in the shape of books, music, videos, news and our communities. 3D printing is a reminder that humans need to have at least one foot based in reality, both physically and psychologically. The future of 3D printing is bright, particularly in rapid prototyping, where the impact has already been very significant. 3D printing will become increasingly used in manufacturing, especially regarding a wide range of plastic and metal objects, medicine, the arts, and in space technology. Home desktop 3D printers are already here and in the near future will be even more affordable. Also already existing are 3D printers with a capability of outputting in colour and many materials. These printers will eventually make it possible to output functional products. Offering a strong bridge between the physical world and cyberspace is an important aspect of the Second Digital Revolution, and consequently 3D printing will have a noticeable impact on all our lives.

This ground-breaking technology’s impact on 21st Century civilization will be huge, and energy use, waste, availability of products, customization, art, medicine, the sciences, construction and, of course, manufacturing will all feel the effects. How we see the world will be forever changed – and before we realise it.