Three-dimensional (3D) printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of making a three dimensional, solid object from a digital file. Printing can be done with plastic, resin, and even metal. To print a 3D object, a digital model must be created using Computer Aided Design (CAD). The design is then imported to 3D printing software where the model is sliced into layers to be read by the 3D printer. The printer then produces layers of material one on top of the other.
A 3D printed object is created by using additive processes. An additive process involves creating an object by laying down successive layers of material until the object is completed. If the object were cut in two, the thinly-sliced layers would be apparent. 3D printing contrasts with subtractive manufacturing, where an object is created by cutting out or hollowing a piece of metal or plastic.
Types of 3D printers
There are multiple types of 3D printers that use different processes to create objects, including:
- Fused deposition modeling (FDM): Constructs objects layer by layer from the bottom up by heating and extruding thermoplastic filament. It’s the only kind of 3D printer that uses production-grade thermoplastics, meaning the items created have better mechanical, thermal, and chemical attributes.
- Stereolithography (SLA): Operates with an excess of liquid plastic that eventually hardens and forms to a solid object. After the plastic hardens, the printer then laser forms another layer until the entire process is finished. After printing is complete, the object is rinsed using a solvent and put in an ultraviolet oven to complete processing.
- Digital Light Processing (DLP): Uses digital micromirrors laid out on a semiconductor chip.This same technology is found in mobile phones and film projectors. It applies a liquid crystal display panel to the surface of the printed layer. It hardens quickly when exposed to bright light.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): Uses a laser as a power supply to form strong printed items. The material used for this kind of printing ranges from nylon, glass, and ceramics to metals such as aluminum, silver, and steel.
Other types of 3D printers include Selective Laser Melting, Laminated Object Manufacturing, and Digital Beam Melting. These types of printers are older, and as new technology emerges, they are rendered obsolete or economically unviable.
3D printing uses
3D printing can be used for the home, but it’s also useful for many industries:
- The aerospace and defense industry uses 3D printers to create things such as air ducts, wall panels, and some structural metal components.
- The automotive industry uses these printers as an effective tool for product development and prototyping.
- The dental industry creates dental products such as crowns, bridges, and bite splints that perfectly matches a patient’s anatomy.
- In the beauty industry, 3D printed mascara wands are a popular product.