What Is 3D Printing?
3D printing is a groundbreaking technology that’s changing the face of business, creativity, and innovation around the world.
What 3D printing is and how it works
At its most basic level, 3D printing is the process of creating a physical object from a digital file (known as CAD, or Computer-Aided Design, files). Every print job starts with a 3D design file that works like a blueprint for your object. Whenever you print out a letter or a report, the text file serves as the blueprint for what comes out; 3D digital design files are the same thing. But unlike text documents, these files are sliced into small layers before being sent to the 3D printer. Though the printer type or materials used may vary, the process is completed through additive manufacturing — a process in which an object is created one successive layer at a time.
The most popular method of 3D printing is FDM, or Fused Deposition Modeling. This process is a more technical application of the additive manufacturing process mentioned above. In FDM, the printer heats a thermoplastic filament to its melting point and then lays the filament down one layer at a time until the 3D object is fully created. When necessary, a supporting material is used as a base throughout the process until enough of the object has been created to stand on its own.
3D printing is largely made possible by STL files, which are essentially the digital directions sent to the printer. STL stands for StereoLithography. The STL file has been a 3D printing mainstay for more than three decades. The file contains the actual 3D model that’s used by the printer to create an object. That 3D model is created using a series of interlinked triangles to generate a mesh.
As previously mentioned, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process. Quite often, the two terms are used interchangeably, but additive manufacturing isn’t the only method for creating 3D objects. Subtractive manufacturing is the process of building a 3D object by cutting away from a solid block of material, which is completed either manually or through the use of a machine. Subtractive manufacturing is desirable for projects that require details standard 3D printers aren’t as capable of producing, and are often combined in projects that require more manufacturing options. However, additive manufacturing is generally more widely used because it allows for faster and easier production, and produces less waste.
3D printing is a technology that’s accessible to everyone because it doesn’t require an extreme amount of tech savvy or an advanced digital skill set. And better yet, it drastically minimizes the gap between the end consumer and the manufacturing process. Never before has it been this easy for an everyday consumer to take ideas from design to manufacture so independent of professional assistance.
Different kinds of 3D printers
Though there are several 3D printers currently in use across the industry, there are a handful that are more sought after and more effective. MakerBot is the most accessible brand because its 3D printing models, like the Replicator, allow users to print their own objects right from their desktop. The company has positioned its consumer grade 3D printers as a solution for at-home practice, as well as personalized manufacturing.
Prusa’s i3 3D printer is a consumer grade option with an open functional design that’s constantly being improved (the i3 is the product’s third iteration). Many businesses and individuals rely on Prusa printers for smaller in-house jobs and small-scale equipment repairs.
Many industries are using their own custom printers that target their specific needs. In fact, 45% of the 3D printing industry is controlled by small operations. For example, the aerospace and biomedical fields have been relying heavily on metal 3D printing since its inception. It’s only through recent developments in price reduction and process refinement that metal 3D printing is now expanding faster than any other part of the industry.
Materials in 3D printing
When it comes to 3D printing materials, there are a host of options out there depending on the focus of your design, but there are five materials that you’ll encounter most often regardless of the scope of your project.
PLA, or polylactic acid, is one of the two most common materials used. It’s a biodegradable thermoplastic created from renewable resources. It’s one of the cheapest materials to source and makes the resulting 3D objects very resistant to physical damage.
ABS, short for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is the other most commonly used thermoplastic. Among its many benefits, it gives the resulting 3D objects increased strength and better resistance to UV rays as well as strong resistance to physical impact and corrosive agents.
PETG, known as copolyester, is a modified version of plastic resin that’s resistant to water and saltwater. It’s also as durable as PLA and ABS, and it’s considered food safe since it can be sterilized.
Metals like stainless steel, bronze, and copper are used in 3D printing for their malleability, but denser metals like titanium and tin are more difficult to work with. This version of 3D printing relies on more specific processes like power bed fusion, directed energy deposition, and metal binder jetting for industrial-grade jobs.
Carbon fiber is extremely light and packs in great strength. Through 3D printing, carbon fiber is revolutionizing the racing industry by making expensive replacement car parts more accessible to the mainstream.
The type of material chosen for your project will determine the resulting resistance and the melting point. For example, ABS and PLA are used more often because they can be heated to their melting points, cooled, and then heated again without losing much of their durable qualities. Other materials, like carbon fiber and metal, may have desirably high melting points, but they don’t fare as well through the cooling and reheating process.
3D printing for all
3D printing opens up a world of manufacturing possibility for everyone, whether you’re running a small business or interested in personal DIY projects. From printing otherwise costly replacement parts for home appliances like an off-market washing machine to printing out a knob for a broken kitchen cabinet, 3D printing enables you to fix things on your own. You can skip the trip to Home Depot, and in the process, you can personalize your products to your exact needs. You save time searching for the perfect match, and you save money on rare, imported, or outdated parts.
The future of 3D printing
The future of 3D printing is a bright one because its level of accessibility will rival that of the computer printer industry. As developments continue, and as newer, smaller, and more accessible versions of 3D printers hit the market, everyone will be able to own one. Regardless, for larger industrial jobs that require bigger dimensions and more units, professional experts and larger printers are needed.
As the industry continues to grow, 3D printing will shift and change the face of business thanks to the ability to localize production for both consumer and industrial goods. Production materials will be customized to an unprecedented degree. For example, doctors can use 3D printing to customize replacement joints like hips, knees, and elbows for each individual patient instead of using pre-constructed industry standards. Nano printing will enable bite-size, groundbreaking new technologies that save space and energy. And as 3D printing becomes even more refined, there will be an inevitable shift to 4D printing, in which digital files will be used to construct models that can move and exhibit artificial intelligence.
But perhaps 3D printing’s greatest impact on our future will be its ease of use and unlocking of access. Small businesses will no longer fall victim to outrageous costs to fix the technologies they rely on in their day-to-day operations, as one of our West Palm Beach clients found. Consumers will discover a mixture of creativity and self-sufficiency by printing small objects on their own. Specialty businesses and service providers will be able to make anything consumers need on demand without excessive outsourcing. The consumer market as a whole will be revitalized with much lower costs for the end user.
Halo Technologies will play a hand in this by working alongside existing manufacturers. Additionally, the team wants to bring consumers along for the ride through a series of enlightening educational workshops. Halo teaches people of all ages and backgrounds how to develop their projects from the idea stage to a printed prototype, and then eventually take these products to market. Halo also caters the workshops to your learning style, offering classes as tours, full group workshops, one-on-one training, or smaller group-style sessions.
At Halo Technologies, we seek not only to assist you with your desired project but also to demystify the 3D printing process. From simple one-time printing jobs to complex custom concepts, we help you bring your ideas to life all while keeping your ideas, patents, and designs completely secure. You’ll walk away from the experience with a beautiful finished product as well as a better understanding of the process.
3D printing is a remarkable technology that will directly impact our personal lives and businesses in ways we could have never imagined. Despite the complex objectives it’s achieving and the rapid speed at which it’s altering our reality, 3D printing is accessible innovation that everyone can be a part of. But you don’t have to wait until you need something printed to learn more — contact us, or stop by our downtown location and say hi!