3D printing has been one of the biggest buzzwords of the last decade. It’s like something from a Sci-Fi movie. You design your 3D model on a computer, and then you can see it materializing in the flesh inside the printer. But how does it work, and what is it used for? Let’s find out.
History of 3D printing
YouTube is full of videos of hobbyists creating all sorts of cool figurines and stuff with 3D printers. Some people in the maker community also use it to make parts for more intricate creations. But before they trickled down to general consumers and hobbyists, 3D printers had a more serious purpose. They also didn’t have the catchy name they have now.
Before 3D printing, objects were manufactured by processes such as injection molding, metal casting, or machining. The latter is when an object is cut from a larger piece of material, such as metal or wood. This process is also called subtractive manufacturing. 3D printing had it’s origin in the opposite process, additive manufacturing.
The earliest developments in additive manufacturing in the early 80s used photosensitive polymers. At first, layer upon layer of polymer were hardened by UV light through a mask. This is called stereolithography. The process was improved by using a UV laser instead of a mask, in order to build up the layers very precisely and quickly. The process could be controlled from a computer from a digital model.
Meanwhile, several processes for metal additive manufacturing were also developed. They used either of two methods, sintering, and melting. Sintering fuses powdered metal into a solid form. Melting melts the material fully. Some common processes during the time were selective laser sintering, direct metal sintering, and selective laser melting.
In the early 90s, MIT developed a method to create 3D objects in a powder bed using modified inject print heads. This is where the term “3D Printing” had its beginning, and it stuck. At first it was only used to describe cheap consumer-grade printing, but now it’s commonly used for all additive manufacturing.
Uses of 3D printing
One of the first widespread uses for 3D printing was rapid prototyping. This allows manufacturers to create a physical model for testing purposes, and refine the design until it’s ready for mass production through traditional means.
With advances in technology, it is now also commonly used for rapid manufacturing. This is useful to manufacture limited-run objects, or even specialized parts that can’t be made by processes such as injection molding, for example. It’s even possible now to use rapid manufacturing for mass production.
Recent developments in 3D printing
The inevitable path that every piece of technology follows is miniaturization. What started out as big industrial machines, have developed into small 3D printers no bigger than a standard home printer. Now the technology has gone handheld. 3D printing pens are the latest craze. They enable people to creative freehand 3D doodles and art. Best of all is that you can have the best 3D-printing pen for a relatively small amount of money. This promising technology can soon be the crayons of the future.