Now a days, there is lot of buzz about 3D printing and the endless possibilities it offers. Everyone from Barrack Obama to Jeff Bezos is talking about 3D printing these days. But what exactly is 3D printing? Is it really revolutionary? What are the various applications of 3D printing technology? What is the future of 3D printing? Here is quick guide to answer all those questions. At the end of the article, you shall get a basic understanding of 3D printing technology.
What is a 3D printer?
3D printer is a device to print three dimensional objects by depositing the material layer by layer. All one needs to do is connect the 3D printer to computer, load the 3D model and print. 3D printers are remarkable because they can produce different kinds of objects, in different materials, all from the same machine.
A 3D printer can make everything from ceramic cups to plastic toys, metal machine parts, stoneware vases, pizzas, chocolate cakes and even human body parts. They replace traditional factory production lines with a single machine just like home inkjet printers replaced bottles of ink, printing press, hot metal type and a drying rack.
Why is it called printing?
Technically speaking, 3D printing is called “Additive Manufacturing” as the objects are built by adding layers of plastic. But as the objects are created from scratch, much like 2D printed objects, the process got a colloquial name “3D Printing” as it is an extension of “2D Printing Process”. The other term for 3D printing is “Rapid Prototyping” as the three dimensional objects are built in a short span of time.
How do 3D printers work?
The most important input for a 3D printer is the 3D design. One starts off by designing a 3D object on an ordinary home PC using various 3D modeling softwares like AutoCAD, Catia. Once the design is created, it is given as an input to the 3D printer, press print and just sit back and watch.
When you press “print”, the 3D printing process turns the whole object into thousands of tiny little slices and then makes the object from bottom-up, slice by slice. Those tiny layers stick together to form a solid object. Each layer can be very complex. For 3D printer, the complexity of the design is not a subject of concern. 3D Printers can create moving parts like hinges and wheels as part of the same object and one can print a whole bike – handlebars, saddle, frame, wheels, brakes, pedals and chain – ready assembled, without using any tools.
Opportunities in 3D printing space
Imagine you have broken a tool and the spare parts aren’t available in the market to fix that broken tool or it is very difficult to get access to that tool, then the only option so far is to throw that tool and buy a new one. But with 3D printing, you can design the spare part in the computer, print it using 3D printer and fix it to the object. The fact that we can print almost anything at home provides endless possibilities and create a world very different from the one we are used to. It is a world that doesn’t need vehicles to deliver goods or warehouses to store those goods. It is a world where nothing is ever out of stock and where there is less waste, packaging and pollution.
It also creates a world where customized objects can be create made to measure to specific requirements. It means we can print shoes specific to our feet, make furniture specific to our home, customized meals specific to our tastes, all at the touch of the button. But you might be wondering it is also possible now. It is true but it is possible only if you are super wealthy. 3D printing democratizes that process making the whole process highly affordable.
What are the limitations?
As it stands now (in 2014), there are various limitations for 3D printing limiting its adoption by consumers. Although owning a 3D printer is no longer very expensive, the cost per item one produces is higher. So, most consumers prefer the mass produced goods. Once the cost of materials come down (which happens when there is a good adoption of 3D printing in the market) then there will be a switch towards 3D printing.
Secondly, the object finish isn’t as smooth as of industrial machines, nor offer the variety of materials or range of sizes available through industrial processes. It takes some more R&D effort to create a smooth finish. Thirdly, the kind and type of materials that can be used through 3D printer are highly limited and are no match to the possibilities offered by industrial printers. Finally, the speed of printer is limited. It takes lot of time to print an object using 3D printer.
But like many household technologies, it is matter of time before the capabilities improve, technologies mature, prices come down bringing the benefits to the masses.
Is it the next big thing?
For now, many product designers and engineers are find good usage of 3D printers. They find this technology to be really beneficial for their day to day work. But the same can’t be said for others. The technology has to evolve before individual consumer find real benefit of 3D printing technology. The industry hype for this technology is few years ahead of the actual reality. It is an emerging technology which means most remain skeptical about needing one until everyone has got one and then all wonder how they ever managed without these printers.