Additive manufacturing, or "3D printing", is a unique form of manufacturing that uses a computer program to create 3 dimensional models that are then turned into physical products. 3D printing uses an additive process that breaks down a computer design into layers which are in turn stacked on top of one another and printed in sequence. These layers come together to form complex and original creations. Even products with moving and interlinked parts such wheels, springs, and chain links come to life in minutes.
3D printing brings efficiency to the prototyping process by reducing waste, cost, and time. Traditional methods such as "subtractive manufacturing" and molding have large amounts of wasted product and human intervention to create a well polished final product. Cutting down on these wastes allows for a quicker and cheaper product for designers and consumers.
Pictured- The MakerBot Replicator+ uses FDM technologies.
There are different types of 3D printers that use techniques such as fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithography, laser sintering (LS) and polyjet to create products. Some of these techniques use lasers or electron beams to melt the plastics, metals, and other materials together. Other techniques, like FDM, heat a filament to melting point and then layer it until a final product is formed.
Additive manufacturing has been around since the 80's, but 3D was primarily used for prototypes or modeling. In the early 2000's, key patents expired creating a boom in interest. One of the original 3D printing communities to form was the RepRap forum, with the goal of creating do-it-yourself printers from home. RepRap is short for self-Replicating Rapid-prototyping. This community designs machines that are open source to everyone and that can be built using other RepRap machines. The original RepRap was created by Adrian Bowyer using parts from the local hardware store and some stepper motors. Many different DIY and easy assembly printers exist including the Mendel, Huxley, Printrbot, Prusa i3. Companies and individuals have built off these early models to create high quality assembly kits and plug-n-play printers.
Today there are hundreds of companies creating printers for a variety of applications. Hobbyist still dominate a large portion of the consumer market, but many businesses have also grasped onto the increased potential that rapid prototyping can offer them. It is not uncommon to see printers in architecture, interior design, and engineering facilities. These industries have already seen the value created by the ability to quickly and efficiently create unique 3D prototypes.
As the technology progresses, many industrial companies are taking advantage of the lower costs and increased customization of parts. Companies such as GE apply AM methods to create fuel nozzles for jets. NASA is currently working on 3D printing technologies that would allow astronauts to print their food during long space voyages. Still other companies are using these techniques to print building made of concrete.
The 3D printing industry is a rapidly changing environment with limitless potential. As technology grows, we are seeing unbelievable ideas being unveiled. Everything from houses, to bridges, to human organs are being built by sophisticated printers. We are seeing ever increasing possibilities as printers become faster, more accurate, and able to handle a larger array of materials.