What is 3D Printing? How do 3D Printers Work? What can be 3D Printed?
3D printing uses computer-aided design (CAD) to create three-dimensional objects through a layering method. Sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing involves layering materials, like plastics, composites or bio-materials to create objects that range in shape, size, rigidity and color. Today, 3D printers can be seen building everything from homes to cars and even viable personal protective equipment (PPE), which are used by healthcare workers all over the world in the fight against COVID-19.
3D Printing Overview
With hospitals overrun with COVID-19-stricken patients and the global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical devices dwindling, the world turned to technology to solve the shortage. In fact, many healthcare facilities turned to 3D printing to supply their staff with much-needed protective equipment, as well as the parts to fix their ventilators. Large corporations, startups and even high school students with 3D printers stepped up to the plate and answered the call. Because of 3D printing, millions of PPE and ventilator parts have been shipped to hospitals on the frontlines of this deadly fight. And that’s really just the beginning of what 3D printing is capable of.
What are 3D printers? In short, 3D printers use computer-aided design (CAD) to create 3D objects from a variety of materials, like molten plastic or powders. No, they aren’t like those magical boxes in sci-fi shows. Rather, the printers, which act somewhat similarly to traditional 2D inkjet printers, use a layering method to create the desired object. They work from the ground up and pile on layer after layer until the object looks exactly like it was envisioned.
These printers have extreme flexibility in what can be printed. They can use plastics to print rigid materials, like sunglasses. They can also create flexible objects, like phone cases or bike handles, using a hybrid rubber/plastic powder. Some 3D printers even have the ability to print with carbon fiber and metallic powders for extremely strong industrial products.
Why are 3D printers important to the future? As explained above, 3D printers are incredibly flexible; not only in the materials they use, but also with what they can print. Additionally, they’re incredibly accurate and fast, making them a promising tool for the future of manufacturing. Today, many 3D printers are used for what is called rapid prototyping. Companies all over the world now employ 3D printers to create their prototypes in a matter of hours, instead of wasting months of time and potentially millions of dollars in research and development. In fact, some businesses claim that 3D printers make the prototyping process 10 times faster and five times cheaper than the normal R&D processes.
3D printers can fill a role in virtually almost every industry. They’re not just being used for prototyping. Many 3D printers are being tasked with printing finished products. In healthcare, 3D printers are being used to create parts to fix broken ventilators for the COVID-19 outbreak. The construction industry is actually using this futuristic printing method to print complete homes. Schools all over the world are using 3D printers to bring hands-on learning to the classroom by printing off three-dimensional dinosaur bones and robotics pieces. The flexibility and adaptability of 3D printing technology makes it an instant game-changer for any industry.
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How Do 3D Printers Work?
3D printing is part of the additive manufacturing family and uses similar methods to a traditional inkjet printer- albeit in 3D. It takes a combination of top-of-the-line software, powder-like materials and precision tools to create a three-dimensional object from scratch. Below are a few of the main steps 3D printers take to bring ideas to life.
3D Modeling Software
The first step of any 3D printing process is 3D modeling. To maximize precision (and because 3D printers can’t magically guess what you want to print), all objects have to be designed in a 3D modeling software. Some designs are too intricate and detailed for traditional manufacturing methods. That’s where this CAD software comes in. Modeling allows printers to customize their product down to the tiniest detail. The 3D modeling software’s ability to allow for precision designs is why 3D printing is being hailed as a true game changer in many industries. This modeling software is especially important to an industry, like dentistry, where labs are using three-dimensional software to design teeth aligners that precisely fit to the individual. It’s also vital to the space industry, where they use the software to design some of the most intricate parts of a rocketship.
Slicing the Model
Once a model is created, it’s time to “slice” it. Since 3D printers cannot conceptualize the concept of three dimensions, like humans, engineers need to slice the model into layers in order for the printer to create the final product. Slicing software takes scans of each layer of a model and will tell the printer how to move in order to recreate that layer. Slicers also tell 3D printers where to “fill” a model. This fill gives a 3D printed object internal lattices and columns that help shape and strengthen the object. Once the model is sliced, it’s sent off to the 3D printer for the actual printing process.
The 3D Printing Process
When the modeling and slicing of a 3D object is completed, it’s time for the 3D printer to finally take over. The printer acts generally the same as a traditional inkjet printer in the direct 3D printing process, where a nozzle moves back-and-forth while dispensing a wax or plastic-like polymer layer-by-layer, waiting for that layer to dry, then adding the next level. It essentially adds hundreds or thousands of 2D prints on top of one another to make a three-dimensional object. There are a variety of different materials that a printer uses in order to recreate an object to the best of its abilities. Here are some examples:
- Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS): Plastic material that is easy to shape and tough to break. The same material that LEGOs are made out of.
- Carbon Fiber Filaments: Carbon fiber is used to create objects that need to be strong, but also extremely lightweight.
- Conductive Filaments: These printable materials are still in the experimental stage and can be used for printing electric circuits without the need for wires. This is a useful material for wearable technology.
- Flexible Filaments: Flexible filaments produce prints that are bendable, yet tough. These materials can be used to print anything from wrist watches to phone covers.
- Metal Filament: Metal filaments are made of finely ground metals and a polymer glue. They can come in steel, brass, bronze and copper in order to get the true look and feel of a metal object.
- Wood Filament: These filaments contain finely-ground wood powder mixed with a polymer glue. These are obviously used to print wooden-looking objects, and can look like a lighter or darker wood depending on the temperature of the printer.
The 3D printing process takes anywhere from a few hours for really simple prints, like a box or a ball, to weeks for much larger detailed projects, like a full-sized home.
There are also different types of 3D printing depending on the size, detail and scope of a project. Each different type of printer will vary slightly on how an object gets printed. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is probably the most widely-used form of 3D printing. It’s incredibly useful for manufacturing prototypes and models with plastic. Stereolithography (SLA) Technology is a fast prototyping printing type that is best suited for printing in intricate detail. The printer uses an ultraviolet laser to craft the objects within hours. Digital Light Processing (DLP) is one of the oldest forms of 3D printing. DLP uses lamps to produce prints at higher speeds than SLA printing because the layers dry in seconds.
How Much Do 3D Printers Cost?
3D Printing Examples
3D printing has permeated almost every single sector and has offered some innovative solutions challenges all over the world. Here are a few cool examples of how 3D printing is changing the future:
3D Printed Houses
Nonprofits and cities all over the world are turning to 3D printing to solve the global homeless crisis. New Story, a nonprofit dedicated to creating better living conditions, is actually printing homes right now. Using a 33-foot long printer, New Story is able to churn out a 500 square-foot home, complete with walls, windows and two bedrooms in just 24 hours. So far, New Story has created mini 3D-printed home neighborhoods in Mexico, Haiti, El Salvador and Bolivia, with more than 2,000 homes being 100% printed.
3D Printed Food
3D printed food seems like something out of the Jetsons or too good to be true. In fact, if it can be pureed, it can be safely printed. Like something out of a sci-fi show, 3D printers layer on real pureed ingredients, like chicken and carrots, in order to recreate the foods we know and love. 3D printed food is entirely safe to eat as long as the printer is completely cleaned and working properly. You might want to order your meal ahead though. 3D food printers are still relatively slow. For example, a detailed piece of chocolate takes about 15-20 minutes to print. Even so, we’ve seen printers craft everything from burgers to pizza and even gingerbread houses using this mind-blowing technology.
3D Printed Organs and Prosthetic Limbs
In the near future, we’ll see 3D printers create working organs for those waiting for transplants. Instead of the traditional organ donation process, doctors and engineers are teaming up to develop the next wave of medical technology that can create hearts, kidneys and livers from scratch. In this process, organs are first 3D modeled using the exact specifications of the recipient’s body, then a combination of living cells and polymer gel (better known as bioink) are printed off layer-by-layer to create a living human organ. This breakthrough technology has the ability to change the medical industry as we know it and reduce the drastically-high number of patients on the organ donation waitlist in the US.
3D printing has also been a boon for the prosthetics field. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new hand, arm or leg with traditional prosthetic techniques, 3D printers can provide a similar look and feel for as low as $50. Admittedly, these printed prosthetics are not as high quality as professional prosthetics, but they make excellent replacements for children who are more prone to break their prosthetics and grow out of them.
3D Printed Aerospace Technology
Will the future of space travel rely on 3D printed rockets? Companies, like Relativity Space in California, think so. The company claims that it can 3D print a working rocket in just a few days and with one hundred times fewer parts than a normal shuttle. The company’s first conceptualized rocket, the Terran 1, is set to launch in 2020, and it will only take 60 days from the start of printing to the launch into space. The rocket will be custom-printed using a proprietary alloy metal that maximizes payload capacity and minimizes assembly time. Total payload capacity for this rocket reaches 1,750kg (about the weight of an average Rhinoceros). Not bad for something that came out of a printer.