Three-dimensional (3D) printing is a relatively new manufacturing process that was first patented in 1980. Since the inception of the open source RepRap project in 2005, the 3D printing industry has exploded at an exponential pace. The RepRap project allowed the maker community to acquire 3D printing at an affordable price point, enabling it to grow from the expensive scientific based experiment it started out as to part of the current Industry 4.0 manufacturing revolution of today.
Over the past decade, several new types of 3D printing technologies have emerged including concrete, metal, and even chocolate. With the development of these new technologies, it is now possible to create new inventions that were not possible with traditional design and manufacturing methodologies. Used by small home based businesses and large corporate manufacturing companies, 3D printing has become a versatile and affordable technology in a wide range of industries.
3D printing is the Additive Manufacturing (AM) method of building up a 3D object from a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file with a material in a layer by layer process. There are different technologies and methods for 3D printing that include Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Digital Light Processing (DLP), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) to mention a few. All 3D printers use this layered process of building up a material in order to create a 3D design.
To help better understand how 3D printing works from start to finish, the process can be broken down into five steps:
- Design – design is the beginning of any 3D printing idea. Once the design has been finalized in a CAD program, it is typically exported in an OBJ, STL, or any file format that slicing software can understand and interpret.
- Slicing – slicing turns the CAD model into a file format that a 3D printer can understand. The slicer creates a G-code file that has the commands for the printer to create the desired object. G-code tells the printer the exact coordinates for every move of the printer extruder. Slicer settings are usually the part of the 3D printing process that requires the most amount of tuning to obtain a high quality print.
- Printing – the information from the G-code file is used by the 3D printing machine to build up each individual layer. This step may look different for different printing methods, but the layer-by-layer AM process holds true for each method.
- Post-processing – this is the process of cleaning up the printed object. This can involve removing unnecessary support material or adding finishing touches like filler and paint. Some 3D printing methods require more post-processing time than others due to the nature of the build method.
- Iteration – iterative design is an affordable step with 3D printing, whereas with traditional manufacturing technologies this step would not exist because of the costly downside.
One of the biggest advantages of 3D printing is that it is easily the most cost-effective rapid prototyping process that is currently available. While 3D printing does have some downfalls and drawbacks, the many advantages outweigh the negative associations of this ever growing technology.