Originally, 3D printing was used for prototyping, but over the past several years, 3D printed objects are turning up everywhere: in homes as screws and replacement appliance parts to beaches as bikinis and even to the skies as airplane components. Are you wondering when 3D printing began? Are you curious how the technology works? More important, do you want to know how 3D printing can help your business? This article answers these questions.
3D Printing: A (Very) Brief History
3D printing dates as far back as 1967. In the early 1980s, scientists in different parts of the world took the original technology further, and by 1989, scientists in Japan, France, the United States, and Germany were using various forms of 3D printing. It was mostly for prototyping but there were some commercial uses. Avon used the technology to create perfume bottles and Apple 3D printed computer parts. It wasn’t until the original patents expired in 2009 that 3D printing began to take off and become a hot topic.
What is 3D Printing?
We like to call the technology 3D printing. The more accurate name is Additive Manufacturing. When you print with a common laser printer, the nozzle moves laterally and affixes ink to the paper that feeds forward. The result: letters or images on a page. We all know this.
With 3D printing, the print nozzle moves freely in any lateral direction and slowly ejects a material that forms a 3-dimensional object. However, this is the final result. There are two steps before this one: designing and slicing.
During the design stage, a model is created on-screen using 3D software or CAD (computer aided design) software. One of the amazing features of 3D software is how easy and accurately it allows you to duplicate a part of the design (like the second identical wing on a bird or the remaining three tires of a car) or duplicate the entire design and resize it. All of these can be achieved with a few clicks.
Another helpful feature is the ability to manipulate the object on the screen. You can rotate and flip the image on the screen to inspect every side and every millimeter of your design, even the parts that are not visible. When you print, there are no surprises.
Once the design is done, you need to prepare the file for the printer. This is called slicing.
How is a printer to make sense of printing a toy car or a giant Easter Island head? Where should it begin?
It begins by seeing the object in layers, or slices. Slicing is the stage where the file is literally sliced into many, many layers. Now it’s ready for printing.
When the file finally reaches the printer nozzle, it lays the material one layer at a time working upward, adding material as it prints. This explains “additive manufacturing.” Often, extra material is needed to support parts of the model that protrude. This extra material is discarded after the printing is completed. Now it’s time to finish the object and put it to use in one of many applications, from the mundane to the mind-boggling.
3D printing a prototype in mere hours allows entrepreneurs, inventors, and businesses to quickly and cost-effectively test great ideas without incurring tremendous production costs.
Alta Motors, an electric motorcycle manufacturer, 3D prints prototype parts to validate designs before initiating production. They plan to 3D print parts that will be installed directly on bikes.
Contemporary tech artist, Eyal Gever, was commissioned to create artwork that would be projected on the facade of a castle. The castle was thousands of miles from his home. Instead of travelling, Gever 3D printed a 4-meter scale model of the castle to ensure his art matched the dimensions of the actual facade.
Automotive and Aeronautics
Prototyping and printing replacement parts and tools are the main applications in the the automotive industry. This is especially useful for restoring or repairing classic cars where locating parts can take months.
Honda 3D printed a one-seat, electric car.
Boeing 3D prints parts for their planes, missiles and helicopters. All-in-all, there are over 50,000 3D-printed parts flying on Boeing commercial, space, and military products.
3D printing in the medical field is called 3D bioprinting, and it is a fast-growing industry. Prototyping and 3D bioprinting tissues, cells and cartilage for testing drugs and cosmetics are popular applications. Also, doctors have actually implanted 3D bioprinted parts in humans.
In China, a 12-year old boy with a malignant tumour in his spinal cord had a vertebrae replaced with a 3D printed replica.
A Dutch university hospital saved a woman whose skull was hardening by replacing her defective skull with a 3D printed one!
A team in London saved a two-year old girl by 3D printing and implanting a replica of her father’s kidney.
In the world of visual communications, 3D printing, especially large format 3D printing, is becoming a sought-after option. Massivit 3D manufacturers a 6-foot tall printer that uses patented technology to print and cure objects very quickly. You know how important speed is, and this printer was designed to deliver.
Carisma Printing in Brooklyn 3D printed channel letters and then videomapped graphics onto them for an amazing effect.
ES Digital in Israel created a supermarket full of supersized products and fun mannequins to enhance shoppers’ experience in the store.
Metropole in Paris 3D printed a famous cartoon character sitting on a bench, creating a hot selfie spot that generated a lot of buzz.
What’s Next for 3D Printing
The next horizons to conquer in this expanding world are the materials that can be printed. We’ve seen that companies are already 3D printing clothing and skin tissue. Others are printing concrete, metal, and even food. What’s next?
Ira Somers writes the Massivit 3D blog. Visit Massivit 3D at Booth 629.