There are a variety of very different types of 3D printing technologies, but they all share one core thing in common: they create a three dimensional object creating it layer by successive layer, until the entire object is complete.
Each of these layers is a thinly sliced, horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. Imagine a multi-layer cake, with the baker laying down each layer one at a time until the entire cake is formed.
How Did 3D Printing Begin?
A 3D printer is similar to a normal printer; however a normal printer produces ink on paper. 3D printers, on the other hand, layer atoms on top of each other to create, or print, actual 3D objects. It sounds fascinating, right? But 3D printing is certainly an invention that did not occur overnight. What is known as 3D printing now was once known as rapid prototyping. Rapid prototyping has been in use for many years now, and it involves an engineer designing an object as a computerized aided design file, or CAD. This file would then be sent to machines, which would produce the 3D object. The only problem with this early type of 3D printing is that the plastics and the metals that were used were just not of a high-enough quality to be used as anything other than a prototype. Although the machine could produce the parts designed, the end product didn’t have structural integrity and was only used to design things that engineers wanted to see a life-size model of.
3D Printing Now
The revolution from previous 3D printing methods to what has been developed today, all began when companies like 3D Systems started designing “radically new materials”. The industry evolved from using weak, waxy plastics to very robust materials that can actually be used as a machine part, rather than just a prototype of a part. Companies came up with new materials such as nanocomposites, different blends of plastics, and different blends of powdered metals. These materials are able to mimic other stronger materials such as steel. Companies have already begun using 3D printers to create parts on demand. For example, Jaguar is already using the technology for rapid product development. Other companies such as the Bell Helicopter division of Textron are also making use of the new technology and its faster production times. Just think of all the various ways that 3D printing can change our world and the speed in which objects are created!
The Future of 3D Printing
This is a disruptive technology of mammoth proportions, with effects on energy use, waste, customization, product availability, art, medicine, construction, the sciences and of course manufacturing.