What's 3D Printing?
3D printing is a term used to refer to “Additive Manufacturing” (AM), a process used to build three-dimensional objects by successive layering of material formed through computer control. These objects derive their form from digital model data or other electronic data sources. In simple terms, a 3D printer creates three-dimensional objects like a paper printer creates a document. Once a data file is created using a 3D computer aided design (CAD) software, the 3D printer uses the data to lay successive layers of material and build a component or object.
3D printing started gaining popularity for the first time in early 1980s, and was primarily employed by industrial designers for prototyping – creating initial stage, functional product mock-ups to support design and engineering process. It employed technologies like Stereo lithography, and powdered polymer as “ink” (material) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) using a wide range of powdered material, and remained just a prototyping tool over the next couple of years.
Evolution Of 3D Printing
With time, manufacturers realized 3D printing had far greater potential beyond prototyping, and started using it to create components for end-use products. New technologies and materials development also revolutionized the way 3D printing was previously applied in industrial process. More designers adopted its use to undertake rapid prototyping which allowed faster user-feedback in design and quick iterations. With the new applications came more advanced technologies in 3D printing, among them; Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Binder Jetting.
The 3D printing market today is still dominated by prototyping for engineering validation, which is a phenomenal application, but can’t support much progress of the industry. However, progress is being made with companies like General Electric (GE) using it to build fuel nozzles for engines, Boeing in jet body parts and Invisalign in customized dental braces.
3-D printing has heavily influenced design thinking through enabling a design-driven manufacturing process of complex products over shorter production lines. It also allows a high degree of freedom in design, optimization and integration of functional features, the manufacture of small batch sizes at reasonable unit costs and a high degree of product customization even in serial production.
3D Printing Usage
3D printing offers limitless future innovative opportunities. New generation 3D printers with the capability to create useful finished products are set to democratize manufacturing process by allowing consumers to “download” a product and print it. High product customization is also going to become easier with the expansion of the do-it-yourself user community, as well as shortening the product supply chain and production time.
However, 3D printing must overcome some challenges before it can rise to be a force beyond prototyping. Solutions to these challenges are: Developing 3D printers that are faster and easy to manipulate as well as capable of handling diverse materials to print active systems or components; devising simpler and robust method of 3D model creation and improving resolutions, expanding material choices and evolving material property controlling methods.
In conclusion, however slow the pace of 3D printing development it remains a goldmine of future innovativeness and an anchor of sustainable manufacturing.