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3D Printing: What Is It And How Is It Used

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the term 3D printing. This technological concept has existed for decades, but it now specifically refers to the use of a machine to construct a three-dimensional object layer by layer.

The popularity of 3D printing machines has risen significantly as their prices dropped over time. It is now cheap enough that people from all walks of life are buying their own machines and getting creative. Many post videos of their 3D printing machines on social media websites as a source of income. Using SocialGreg to gain followers, people are having fun with their 3D creations and earning from ad revenue shares. 

What Exactly Is 3D?

Before the term 3D Printing, the technology was known as additive manufacturing. This patented term was used to describe bonding a material layer by layer to create a final three-dimensional shape. A three-dimensional design is first created using a computer program, and fed into a machine to ‘print’ the designed object. In the past, the technology was only applicable to metalworking. Scientists developed ways to spray layers of metal in the manufacturing process to automate the manufacture of a final solid object. The older methods for 3D printing involved using a binding powder to fuse the different layers together. Newer methods use a thermoplastic material that can be heated in order to shape it and left to cool (and harden). 

Several techniques have been developed for 3D printing, Inkjet head 3D printing, SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), and FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling), and MultiJet Fusion are only a few of many currently used 3D printing technologies There are many applications for this technology, and it is used in many industries. 

FDM vs SLS

The most popular (and affordable) method of 3D printing is FDM, alternatively known as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). These are the smaller machines that many users on social media are filming the use of. Simply explained, a filament (of a chosen thermoplastic material) is heated and extruded at the same time, and deposited as a layer, according to a given design. These machines range from very small, to larger and more complex. They can even be used as an educational tool, giving students a means to creatively model and experiment with engineering principles. Inexpensive prototypes can be made within hours, allowing for a better understanding of engineering, molecular chemistry, and biology, among other subjects. 

Although it has its relevant applications, models printed using FDM are less accurate and weaker than those using SLS. The latter uses a carbon dioxide laser to fuse together a powder made of a thermoplastic polymer. In simple terms, the laser is used to heat up specific parts of a powder, allowing the particles to fuse together forming a layer of solid material. SLS is more expensive than FDM but relatively cheaper and faster than traditional methods of manufacture. Additionally, the quality of manufactured products is very high, allowing for its use on an industrial scale. 

How is 3D Printing Useful?

Although widely popular videos on TikTok make it seem like a toy, there are many useful applications for 3D Printing.

  • Concept Models

In industrial situations where a small number of prototypes need to be made, 3D printing allows for a smaller structurally sound model to be made in a shorter period of time. This is particularly useful in making custom tools to fix a particular problem during any manufacturing process. 

  • Car Manufacturing
    For decades, vehicle manufacturers have used 3D printing to construct various parts. Other methods to manufacture these parts can be too difficult or produce less sturdy results. By using 3D printing, automotive part manufacturers can speed up their production cycles in addition to providing more creative freedom when designing parts. The use of 3D printing allows for more customization in all levels of automotive manufacturing, and 33% of companies surveyed say that the technology allows for faster, customized production.
  • Construction

Complex buildings can be made faster using 3D Concrete, allowing for expansive construction to be cheaply made, with more structural integrity. A larger 3D printer is used to construct a building based on an architectural design, without human assistance. This also makes for a less expensive project. For example, a Chinese company states that they can print an apartment block (5 levels) for under $200,000. It is worth noting that this method of construction is often zero-waste, and thus makes it more environmentally friendly.

  • Prosthetics and Implants
    The prosthetics industry has come a long way from wooden legs that look, feel, and function unrealistically. With the technological and medical advantages, nowadays prosthetics can be made a perfect fit for the recipient. The same can be said for implants such as titanium hips etc. Additionally, the lower cost of production makes prosthetics affordable for more patients. 
  • Bioprinting
    Medical scientists developed a method to use living cells and other biological materials as the 3D printing material, creating the opportunity to make tissues for various testing purposes. Experts project that this industry’s market size will grow 4 to 5 times in the coming years.   
  • Art and Jewelry
    As this technology gives artists complete creative freedom, the options are endless. Artists are using affordable 3D printers to design and create artistic pieces, as well as jewelry. Custom-made jewelry is also easier to make by this process. 

There is no doubt that there are still more advances in 3D printing technology to come. With an industry worth over $50 billion, it’s a safe bet that more uses for the technology will be developed. NASA is even thinking of ways to create zero waste food by 3D printing it. As 3D printers become increasingly more affordable, more hobbyists will be able to experiment with them. Naturally, this will lead to advances in the technology, and further development of old and new methods for 3D printing. The education of younger students on the methods of 3D printing will give rise to a generation of scientists that can further develop this amazing technology.

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