What is 3D printing?
3D printing is the process of creating objects by layering materials on top of each other. 3D printing is known as additive manufacturing (AM), rather than the traditional subtraction used in industrial production, such as CNC milling.
This technology has been around for about 40 years and was invented in the early 1980s. While 3D printing started out as a slow and expensive technology, extensive technological developments have made AM today more affordable and faster than ever before.
How does 3D printing work?
A digital 3D model is sliced into hundreds of thin layers by specialized software and output in G-code format. This 3D printing format is a language that 3D printers read to know exactly when and where to deposit material.
Each layer corresponds to a section or slice of the object in its exact two-dimensional shape. For example, if you were to 3D print a pyramid, the first layer (at the bottom) would be a flat square, and the last layer (at the very top) would be a small dot.
The layers are 3D printed consecutively, one at a time, until you get the complete printed object.
Common 3D printing techniques
There are different ways to 3D print objects. Today's leading 3D printing technologies are:
FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) or FDM (Fused Deposition Molding), which use spools of filaments.
SLA (stereolithography), a technique that cures photosensitive resins
PBF (powder bed fusion), a series of powder-based methods that use powerful lasers to fuse particles
Material or adhesive jetting, which deposits tiny droplets of material on a bed of powder
Each of these 3D printing technologies has advantages and disadvantages and can be adapted to different use cases and industries.
Why use 3D printing?
3D printing offers a considerable number of advantages, not the least of which is the ability to produce highly complex designs that would otherwise be impossible.
Another important benefit of 3D printing is speed. While 3D printing an object can take hours or even a full day, it is still much faster than mainstream production methods such as injection molding.
Prototyping - one of the most popular professional uses of 3D printing - can be done in-house with little to no lead time, and design iterations can be implemented and printed on the spot.
This technology also offers many possibilities for 3D printing materials.
What can you 3D print?
3D printing can be done with almost any material. The most common 3D printing materials are plastic-based, from standard PLA to advanced, highly resistant polymers such as PEEK or PEI, to name a few. It is even possible to reinforce thermoplastics with carbon fiber or glass fiber.
Some niche 3D printing materials are also gaining popularity. Scientists and biologists are experimenting with 3D bioprinting, chefs can get their hands dirty with food 3D printing, and contractors are increasingly looking at concrete 3D printing.
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