3D printing has hit the world by storm and it is not only an invention that has individuals standing by in awe but it has also opened up a whole new avenue of business opportunities for the average Jo. As it stands, however, 3D printing is by no means a “plug and play” hobby and one requires some knowledge, a tad bit of patience and just a little innovation to master the art of manufacturing 3D printed products. Once you’ve got the gist of it – the sky’s the limit and as the technology for this new form of engineering develops and improves, the more exciting the possibilities will be!
Whether you are looking to take up a new hobby, start a trade or simply have a keen interest in the niche of 3D Design, we have rallied up some information that we think you might find quite informative and useful as you embark upon a journey into the world of the latest technology. The set purpose of this guide is to teach you the fundamental concepts of 3D printing as well as to provide you with the tools and resources you will need to make an informed decision before purchasing your first 3D printer. We will walk you through the history of 3D printing, how it works, and what your options are when it comes to designing and building 3D objects.
What Is 3D Printing?
3D printing is a relatively new concept to many, although the technology has been around for some time. Often referred to as “Additive Manufacturing” or “Direct Digital Manufacturing”, the process of 3D printing makes it possible to turn a digital image into an actual 3D object. This means that you draw up your design using a computer and then you use software, materials and 3D printers to build a real item that’s an exact replica of the drawn digital image. Essentially, 3D printing or Additive Manufacturing sculpts a three-dimensional object from a software-compatible file (usually an AMF file) and creates the structure layer by layer using the supplied materials. Most 3D printers accommodate the following building materials:
- ABS plastic
- Glass-filled polyamide
- Stereolithography materials
The History Of 3D Printing
What is almost 40 years old but is only recently causing waves of excitement? 3D printing, of course! Yup! The first recorded use of digital printing dates back to 1981 when Hideo Kodama, a Japanese Industrial Researcher, developed a rapid prototyping technique. Kodama was the first to compile a layer by layer approach for manufacturing and used a process where photosensitive resin was polymerised by an UV light. He failed to patent is findings, however, and was soon overstepped by a group of Frenchmen who eventually found themselves a tad overwhelmed and decided to abandon the project. And then in walked Charles Hull.
In 1986 Charles Hull took the findings to date and turned them into something substantial. He founded the 3D Systems Corporation and a year later, released the first SLA (stereolithography apparatus). Stereolithography refers to the technique where you create three-dimensional objects using a computer-controlled laser beam that moves and builds the structure layer by layer. SLA’s liquid polymers harden on contact with laser lights.
In 1988 this technology soon evolved with the intervention of Carl Deckard who brought a patent for the SLS technology (selective laser sintering) to the table and Scott Crump who filed a patent for Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), the third of the main 3D printing technologies. With the invention of these technologies 3D printing as we know it was born and over the years they have evolved to include computer-aided design tools that make it possible for anyone to print their own three-dimensional objects.
How Does It Work?
We’ve brushed on the basics but this still might leave you with the question of how does 3D printing actually work? We know that a computer talks to a machine and then this machine (the 3D printer) turns a digital image into a three-dimensional object using lasers and polymer materials. But what happens in between?
It all starts with a virtual drawing of your 3D design. To design your objects, you need to have a computer that can install and accommodate the correct Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. This software saves the image into a 3D file which can be read by a 3D modelling program and then by the 3D printer. It does so by slicing the final model into thousands upon thousands of horizontal layers so that by the time it reaches the printer, the machine reads each layer and then “spits” out the liquidised and heated material as the nozzle moves about in the shape of the layers – it’s almost like drawing with liquid plastic! Each layer blends into the next almost instantly and together they cool to form one solid object.
The Four 3D Printer Essentials
3D printing has been a huge breakthrough in technology. Computers, software, machinery and materials have ingeniously been developed to work alongside each other to formulate the end product. While we have discussed how the appropriate software and computer programs work in conjunction with each other, the components of the actual printing device are just as impressive and are crucial elements of the process. These components can be divided into four main 3D printer essentials:
1. The Extruder/Dual Extruder – while many tend to refer to the extruder as the part of the printer that squirts out the molten plastic, it’s actually the part of the printer that feeds the filament (material) through the hot end and out of the nozzle. Some 3D printers have dual extruders – this means that the machine has two filament drivers as well as two hot ends. With dual extruders you can feed two different colours or two types of materials through the nozzle at the same time, allowing you to design more complex objects. The extruder/s pulls the filament into the hot end of the printer where it melts before being released through the nozzle, printing the 3-dimensional item from the bottom up.
2. The Hot End – The hot end is usually made from aluminium and is either square or barrel-shaped. It lies directly under the extruder and is responsible for melting the filament before it is pushed through the nozzle-end. This component heats up to the extreme temperature of 250° Celsius, turning the solid filament into molten plastic. The Hot End is joined to the nozzle, the piece of the puzzle that’s responsible for squirting the liquid out layer for layer. The smaller the nozzle, the finer the print – but this means the process takes longer to complete.
3. The Printbed – Also referred to as the print-plate, the Printbed is the part of a 3D printer that provides a surface area on which an object can be printed. When selecting a printer, make sure that it comes with a Printbed that is large enough to print the designs you have in mind. You will also have to decide between heated print-plates or non-heated print-plates. Heated plates are preferable but tend to be more costly, non-heated plates can be lined with builders’ tape which does just as well in accommodating the heated substance without causing warping or cracks in the object. Printbeds need to be set firmly in place because with just the slightest of movement, you could end up with a ruined end product.
4. The Filament – The filament is the material that your end product will be constructed from. Just like ink printers need ink cartridges to work, 3D printers need filament. We mentioned the types of filament you get above – this material usually comes in spools sold by the meter. Before purchasing your filament, you need to make sure that the diameter of your material will work with the printer you have (it will either be 1,75mm or 3mm) and depending on the type of filament you use, you will also need to set your printing software up accordingly. This is because different materials melt at different heating points – for instance, some materials can be extruded at minimum temperatures of 180°C while others need to be heated up to at least 250°C. Last but not least, always make sure that your 3D printer can accommodate the type of filament you have in mind beforehand.
What Can You Do With 3D Printing?
From toying around with a new weekend hobby to igniting the spirit of the entrepreneur inside of you, the introduction of 3D technology has given people an array of options and opportunities which will certainly change the way we have done things in the past.
As a hobby, you can challenge yourself to design and engineer fascinating objects, or you can build things for your own home use. Need a new plug for your kitchen sink? Sorted. Missing a bolt from your tire? Sorted. Your loved one has a birthday coming up and you want to gift them with a personalized trinket – sorted! A 3D printer is excellent to have for home use and you will realize very soon just how handy the device can be. Of course, you will need some skills when it comes to using the software and digitizing your designs but if this is not your forte, then there are already many 3D printing-friendly files that you can download from the internet.
Many are also using 3D printers to start small businesses. These entrepreneurs either design products which they then sell or they offer a service where one can approach them to design and print an object that they require but cannot source anywhere else. 3D printing is an industry that is growing considerably and is only just starting to gain traction in economies around the world.
Large corporations and governments across the globe are also investing a lot of time and money into 3D printing technology. As you read this, homes, cars, and all sorts of equipment are being printed using massive 3D printing machines – taking infrastructure to a whole new level!
How Much Does It Cost?
Contrary to what some might believe, 3D printing is not very expensive and as a result, many have used the technology to formulate a hobby where one designs and print objects for one’s own use, or just for the fun of it. You even get 3D printing pens which are currently a hit among kids and are also surprisingly quite affordable. The part that would eventually add up in cost is the filament, but even that is foreseen to drop in price on future.
The average costs of 3D printers and filament:
- 3D pens range from £10 to £50
- Small 3D printers for home use range from £150 to £650
- 3D printers suitable for light scale manufacturing use range from £250 to £1000
- Industrial 3D printers range from £15 000 to £80 000
- 3D filament ranges from £10 to £100 per meter (depending on the filament type)
Many 3D printers come with the software that’s required to run the machine, but this is not the case with every printer and you might be required to purchase the correct software at an additional cost. Then, you also need to consider the device’s energy consumption which will have an effect on your electricity bill – and let’s not forget that these machines are still n their infancy, so you are possibly going to have to weigh in maintenance costs too. All-in-all, however, for the brilliant technology these machines deliver, they are quite the value for money.
What Does 3D Printing Hold For The Future?
3D printing is an extremely useful and creative technology and has the potential to change the way we have done things in the past quite substantially. From giving laymen the opportunity to manufacture products, to building homes and military equipment, there’s simply no telling how far this technology will evolve and what it is capable of. What we do know is that it’s a subject worth familiarising yourself with because it’s going to be the topic of conversation for many years to come!
- What is 3D printing? – Wikipedia