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What you need to know about 3D printing

It’s been around since the 80s but it’s only recently that 3D printing has hit the mainstream. So how does it work?

Image: Design Partners

DESPITE BEING AROUND since the early 80s, it’s only recently that 3D printing has started making its way into the mainstream.

With the first commercial printers appearing in recent years, and the range of materials and objects used increasing, it’s one of the more exciting technological developments in recent times.

The potential behind the technology has captured the imagination and allows for both greater creativity and possibilities in a number of industries.

So how does it work and what are the pros and cons behind the process?

So how does 3D printing work?

There are two ways to manufacture a 3D object, subtractive and additive. Subtractive is creating an object by cutting raw material into the shape you want, while additive creates objects by adding layers to it. Since 3D printing is founded on additive manufacturing, that’s the method that will be covered here.

The type of materials used is also important as it determines how solid an object is. You can use a number of materials for printing such as metals, rubber and paper, but the most common material use would be plastic.

How it’s printed tends to vary between printers, but the most common methods used would be to either spray, or squeeze the material depending on the printer’s hardware. Also, the higher the resolution a printer has, the more detailed an object you can create.



(Video: Adobe Photoshop/YouTube)

One such company that regularly uses the technology is Bray-based Design Partners. The company, which has worked on products such as the Logitech Touch Mouse and Google TV keyboard, regularly uses 3D printing to test out the feel and look of products first.

Its Engineering Director, James Lynch, says that one of the major benefits behind the technology is its ability to bypass the limitations of traditional manufacturing.

What’s wonderful about them is that you can make things that aren’t normally fashionable in a cheap way. Basically traditional manufacturing is done by tooling… and anytime there are undercuts, it adds complexity to the process while this [3D printing] doesn’t care, it just prints.

How does the process unfold?

It’s best to split up the process into three stages: designing, printing and cleaning. The first stage allows you to create your model, if you have access to Photoshop or any other 3D modelling software, or download a pre-existing model from a third-party site. The latter will come into play if you’re purchasing something from an online store and printing it out at home.

Once it starts printing, it builds the object layer by layer and works similarly to a 2D ink printer. To ensure that the finished model is solid and structurally sound, these layers are both tiny and compressed, meaning you wouldn’t notice the difference unless it was magnified significantly.

The GIF below is a good example as while it shows only one motion (and highlights the similarity to 2D printing), creating those basic parts alone would take a few hours, meaning that 3D printing is usually a task done overnight and planned well in advance.

image

(GIF: Design Partners)

Since the layers printed in each motion are tiny – the average layer printed would be around 0.1mm – it means an object could take hours or even a day to print, depending on its size and density.

The object being printed out in this example is zensor, a medical device which helps monitor heart rate, respiration and movement, and took between two to three hours to print.

image

image

(Images: Design Partners)

Once the item is printed out, it needs to be cleaned. While the object itself is solid and can be used straight away, the outside layer is softer and acts like a second skin for the object.

For most printers, this can cause the object to stick to the surface meaning you have to remove it carefully with a metal spatula to ensure it doesn’t break.

After that, you can remove the excess material by gently scraping or washing it off.

image

image

(Images: Design Partners)

After that process, you can use the model straight away or if you wanted to, you can then paint or touch up the 3D model so it looks more appealing.

What are the benefits?

For regular users, it allows them to purchase items and print them out instead of having to travel to a store. At the beginning, it would mean very basic items will be made available, but as the technology and the speed improves, the list of items you can print out will increase over time.

From a manufacturing standpoint, it allows you to print out prototype objects and test it out in practical situations and figure out what improvements need to be made.

Lynch uses the example of a wrench to explain the benefits. While the tool being printed out wouldn’t have the same use as a normal wrench because of the materials used, 3D printing allows them the ability to test out different ideas to see what works. Since the company designs products for consumer use, being able to trial different shapes and sizes is essential.

“If you wanted to know how it felt in your hands and your only interpretation of it was on a PC screen and it’s nowhere else in the world, then it’s valuable.”

When the technology develops further, it can allow for extra features to be included in common objects.  Certain 3D printers already allow you to print out objects using two or more materials – similar to how your normal printer would have two cartridges for both black and coloured ink. However, such printers are only available for businesses and won’t appear in the home for a while.

What are the drawbacks?

Apart from being a very slow process, buying materials for printing is expensive. The cost of materials needed to print out objects will be the biggest drawback and even printing out basic figurines right now is far more expensive then if it was traditionally manufactured.

The cost and time spent on printing means it’s something that has to be planned well in advanced. For a business, Lynch says that the cost is “not massive but not inconsequential” meaning if you’re printing something, you want to make sure it’s worthwhile.

The most accessible material, plastic, isn’t the most solid material. If an object isn’t dense, the layers can be peeled away if you apply enough force. The finer the print is, the easier it is to break.

Also, because of the compressed layers, it means you will use up materials very quickly so unless you can top it up regularly, you will be running out of materials very quickly.

How long will it be before it arrives in our homes?

Chances are you could be waiting a while. Although there are a number of 3D printers being released for the home such as MakerBot, the cost of materials used means that for now, it will be only companies and hobbyist who will be investing in them.

Despite that, the most exciting part about the technology is we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. As time progresses, we will begin to see more examples and uses for it that we weren’t able to envision before, and as they become cheaper, more possibilities will emerge.

It might take some time before we reach a point where they’re in every home, but this case, it’s the journey and not the destination that will be the most interesting.

Read: Adobe adds in 3D-printing support to Photoshop >

Read: British fighter jet flies using 3D printed parts >

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