The Ultimate Guide to Understanding How 3D Printing Works

As one of the latest technologies to become available publicly, 3D printing has already evolved as a remarkable advancement. While it has expanded with uses for digital artists, businesses, and even government applications, there’s no doubt that it’s a versatile technology, but it’s still presented as something of a mystery to the public at large.

What Exactly Is 3D Printing?
Essentially, 3D Printing offers a way to manufacture products on either a large or more moderate scale, while eliminating the production of waste and saving on energy. Many people may have already seen the concept of 3D printing in films and even in nature. An item is created by producing one ultra-small layer at a time, until the desired object is recreated in its entirety.

One example is seen in the HBO series, Westworld, in the way new robots are created for the show’s theme park. In nature, a similar process is seen in the creation of stalactites and stalagmites, when water builds mineral formations one drop at a time.

3D printing is revolutionary, because it creates only what it needs for the part. Modern manufacturing processes take a raw material and cut away what isn’t needed. That excess material is often discarded as waste. In 3D printing, none of that waste is ever created, because the printer uses only what it needs.

Additionally, the process is so exact that smaller, lighter parts can be created, saving on energy as well as raw materials. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that 3D printing can save up to 50% of the energy normally used in manufacturing processes.

Currently, 3D printers are primarily used in the production of plastic and metal parts, but experiments are already underway to adapt the technology for food items, wax, ceramics, and biomaterial. The introduction of smaller, desktop style 3D printers suggests that the applications for this technology are limited only by our imaginations.

Examining The 3D Printing Process
Even accepting the wide array of uses for this new technology, many people still feel intimidated by their lack of knowledge about the actual process. There’s no reason to feel put off, however. 3D printers have often been compared to dot matrix printers in the way they compile a series of dots and spaces to create the printed page.

The process begins with a blueprint of the desired object, created through the use of Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, which is then entered into the printer’s programming.

Next, the raw materials are prepared. As mentioned earlier, these currently consist of plastics and metals (in powder form), as well as binding substances. Before printing begins, the build platform is normally cleaned or prepared in some other fashion. A surface capable of handling heat is often incorporated into the set-up.

The process is then initiated, when the operator presses the “print” button. Though the process may vary, depending on the use of the printer, most printers create objects through material extrusion. This process involves heating the raw materials until they’re melted into a liquid. This liquid is then pushed through the printing nozzle in the shape of the desired object onto the build platform. Layers are usually no more than 0.1 millimeter thick. As the layer is dropped into place, it cools and hardens. Another layer is then produced and added on top of the previous layer.

In this manner, the object is printed out through a course of minutes, hours, and sometimes days, until it’s completed, according to the digital blueprint. Once printing is completed, the object is removed from the build platform. This may include dismantling supports or smoothing off edges.

It’s easy to see where product manufacturers might consider making the move to 3D printers, but that’s only the beginning. Government contractors have already begun to take advantage of the technology. General Electric recently adapted 3D printer technology to create a stronger and lighter fuel nozzle for a new jet engine and the healthcare community is adapting 3D printers to use as diagnostic tools for breast cancer patients.

As 3D printers become available in a number of sizes and with unlimited applications, it may not be long before traditional manufacturing companies become obsolete. If 3D printing technology continues to evolve, we may soon have our needs met right at home.

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