One of the latest shifts in product development is the impact of 3D printing on rapid prototyping. 3D printers give the ability to create three-dimensional products, and is so versatile that it can make almost anything from the very practical to the purely artistic works within homes, offices or workshops. It is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical products from a digital design which is being developed and improved on in technology and material.
To arrive to the final product it all starts with the making of a virtual design of the product. This can be done on any 3D modelling program or scanner, and produces what is called a CAD file (Computer Aided Design). This file is very important before printing because without it it is like printing a word document without any words, therefore they are considered as ‘blueprints’ for the 3D printer. These ‘blueprints’ are then sent to the 3D printers program which ‘slices’ the file into before printing.
Slicing is a process where the program literally slices/divides the 3D model into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers. Once sliced the file is then programmed into the printer and the model is ready to be 3D printed layer by layer, hence the slicing.The printer reads every slice (2D image) and creates a three dimensional object. The printing can take hours to complete depending on the size, the printed objects are often post-processed to reach the desired finish and depending on the printer itself.
Not all 3D printers use the same technology as there are several ways to print differing mainly in the way layers are build to create the final object. Some methods use melting or softening material to produce the layers such as desktop printers that lays the melted material down onto a print platform. These materials vary according to the printer and range from plastics to rubber, sandstone, metals and alloys. This can also be seen on large industrial machines that use a laser to selectively melt metal powder at high temperatures. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) are the most common technologies using this way of 3D printing. Another method is when curing a photo-reactive resin with a UV laser or another similar power source one layer at a time.
But the most important factor to consider are the benefits that these 3D printers offer to manufactures in the 21st century. 3D printing is increasingly being used by large companies to replace some of their traditional manufacturing methods. Traditional manufacturing methods rely on moulds and cutting technologies to produce a finite number of shapes and structures, with more complex hollow ones having to be created from several parts and assembled together. But 3D printing changes this altogether – the 3D printer’s nozzle can build an infinite number of complex figures, being limited only by human imagination. This method gives them more durability and higher structural integrity. This aids in lowering shipping and packaging costs, less human resource involved, cheaper and more reliable raw materials. The speed of 3D printers being able to ‘manufacture’ most objects in a matter of hours, than the classical manufacturing methods which take up to several days or even weeks, are slowly becoming obsolete.
Manufacturing metal and plastic objects in particular is usually a wasteful process with chunky parts and a lot of surplus material. But by making a similar object using additive manufacturing not only uses less energy but also reduces waste to a minimum. And sometimes, the finished 3D printed product can be up to 60% lighter compared to the machined and cost savings can be achieved and less waste also means a lower impact on the environment. Less waste compared to traditional manufacturing methods is not only a cost saving feature of 3D printing but also a possible eco-friendly attribute.
With so many obvious and potential benefits for 3D printing there is no surprise that this technology is making its way through a varied number of industries with both life-saving applications and personal entertainment uses.
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