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3D-printing: what it is and why it is so exciting

Hello! This is the first of the series of articles on 3D-printing. Our aim with these will be to help you stay current with new trends in technology. We will do this by organizing tons of information available on the internet into interesting, succinct and well-organized articles on various aspects of 3D-printing. In our age of rapidly developing trends and technologies in order to achieve something one must keep in touch with the latest developments. Thousands of people have already found their niche in the rapidly growing industry of 3D-printing and millions have found great pleasure and benefits in exploring and using this cutting edge technology that is now available to everyone. Let’s get started!

You’ve probably heard about 3D-printing already. This is not a new technology, it was invented in 1984. Until quite recently, though, it didn’t receive quite as much attention as it does now, and this is not without a reason. 3D-printing has reached a point where it became a mass trend, whereas before it was a prerogative of technical people working with cutting edge technologies. 3D-printers were very expensive and hard to operate. Today there is a great variety of consumer-grade personal 3D-printers for any budget. The fact that many of the patents on various 3D-printing technologies have expired or are nearing their expiration dates has also given a great boost to the industry. Right now there are tons of blueprints and guides on how to make your own 3D-printer, ready to be downloaded for free.

3D-printing 101

Basically, 3D-printing is a process of additive manufacturing. That is, instead of subtracting material from a piece of material (like they do when carving something out of wood or metal), you gradually add material.

One of the simplest examples is Fused Deposition Modeling 3D-printing technology. Fused material is being extruded through a nozzle that is constantly moving above a platform, depositing the material where needed, just as it does in an inkjet printer. The main differences between an inkjet printer and a 3D-printer are that the latter can print with a wide variety of materials (plastic, metal, chocolate, concrete… even live human cells!), and that in a 3D-printer the nozzle can move along the vertical axis (Z-axis), which makes it possible to deposit the next layer of the material on top of the previous one, thus printing out a 3-dimensional object.

See this video for a short time-lapse of an object being printed:

The movements of the nozzle depositing the materials are controlled by a special controller or a computer. In order for the computer to know where to deposit material, a 3D computer model of an object is required. So, basically, with a 3D-model of a thing you want to create, a 3D-printer and a computer is all you need create objects of almost any shape, including those that are impossible or extremely difficult to create using conventional manufacturing techniques.

A consumer-grade 3D-printer
An industrial 3D-printer
A consumer-grade 3D-printer
A consumer-grade 3D-printer

 

 

 

A homemade 3D-printer
A homemade 3D-printer

In the simple case described above, the technology is quite limited. For instance, the shape can only be such that there are not parts hanging in the air without being directly supported from below (see the next picture), because a printer just can’t deposit material where there’s no previous layer underneath, and so, from the functionality standpoint the variety of things one can create with one material seems at first to be very limited.

An object that can be printed without supports (left) and one that needs support structures (right)
An object that can be printed without supports (left) and one that needs support structures (right)

These and many other problems have long since been solved. In order to print shapes with overhanging parts, support structures are printed first, which are designed so as to break off easily after the printing is complete.

Take a look at this video to see a good example of support structures removal:

Furthermore, many 3D-printers today can print with several materials simultaneously, which makes it possible to create more functionally complex objects. An example of such an object is a functional keyboard that was printed on a 3D-printer that prints with two materials: hard plastic for keys and the frame and rubbery material to act as a spring. This, of course, is a very simple example and modern 3D-printers are capable of printing much more complex things. The more materials a printer can print with, the more the possibilities. The vision is that soon it will be possible to print just about anything (a cell phone, for instance) on a 3D-printer.

Also, the fact that one can use multiple materials can be of use with printing support structures we talked about a bit earlier. For instance, by printing support structures from a water-soluble material, one can make the process of getting rid of the support material so much more easy! To see a good axample of this process, watch this video where a 3D-printing fan prints out a cage with a smiling face inside of it and then dissolves the support material:

Various technologies of 3D-printing may differ significantly, but the underlying principle is the same:  3D object is being built layer by layer by gradually adding material to it.

Why is 3D-printing so exciting and is growing so fast?

The industry of 3D-Printing is constantly growing, and it does so faster and faster, at an exponential rate.

The growth of additive manufacturing global market share
The rate of growth of additive manufacturing global market share

It is obvious that 3D-printing is catching fancy of more and more people and organizations around the world. Why is that?

If I had to answer this questing with a single word, I’d say “Freedom”. People always wanted freedom. Freedom means possibilities. Progress is often about freedom. Just like a cell phone is a freedom from being tied to a stationary phone apparatus and laptops give us freedom to carry our computers with us, 3D-printers can give people freedom in choosing precisely what they want to make as well as in choosing when to make it, without being dependant on the market, factories and suppliers. For instance, imagine you need a small detail to repair some household appliance or whatever. But the demand for this particular detail is very small, it is unprofitable for the company producing this machines to separately sell all the pieces that might break for every model of every machine they produce and then to transport those spare parts to the stores around the world where they would lie for months until someone comes and actually buys one. That’s why it is often either hard or very costly to obtain a small spare part and one just has to throw the machine out and buy a new one. With a 3D-printer one has the freedom to manufacture whatever he wants. Furthermore, he can take a model of something to be printed and personalize it before printing it out. It might mean adding some useful features, or just adding a nametag to the surface of the object. So it’s also about freedom of customization and personalization.

It is curious to note that in “Star Trek” movie, there was a thing called “Replicator”, which was capable of creating and recycling objects. Star Trek features many technologies that scientist reckoned would be invented in the future.

Let’s compare the design of a replicator from “Star Trek” (left) with a 3D-printer (right)
Let’s compare the design of a replicator from “Star Trek” (left) with a 3D-printer (right)

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. If you have any questions, suggestions or comments, let me know in the comments section.

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