3D Printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design. There are different 3D printing technologies and materials you can print with, but all are based on the same principle: a digital model is turned into a solid three-dimensional physical object by adding material layer by layer.
How does 3D printing work?
Every 3D print starts as a digital 3D design file - like a blueprint - for a physical object. Trying to print without a design file is like trying to print a document on a sheet of paper without a text file. This design file is sliced into thin layers which is then sent to the 3D printer.
From here on the printing process varies by technology, starting from desktop printers that melt a plastic material and lay it down on a print platform to large industrial machines that use a laser to selectively melt metal powder at high temperatures. The printing can take hours to complete depending on the size, and the printed objects are often post-processed to reach the desired finish.
Available materials also vary by printer type, ranging from plastics to rubber, sandstone, metals and alloys - with more and more materials appearing in the market every year.
A Brief History of 3D Printing
Although 3D printing is commonly thought as a new ‘futuristic’ concept, it has actually been around for more than 30 years.
Check Hull invented the first 3D printing process called ‘stereolithography’ in 1983. In a patent, he defined stereolithography as ‘a method and apparatus for making solid objects by sucessively “printing” thin layers of the ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other’. This patent only focuses on ‘printing’ with a light curable liquid, but after Hull founded the company ’3D Systems’, he soon realized his technique was not limited to only liquids, expanding the definition to ‘any material capable of solidification or capable of altering its physical state’. With this, he built the foundation of what we now know today as additive manufacturing (AM) - or 3D printing.
So, why all the 3D printing hype today?
Until 2009 3D printing was mostly limited to industrial uses, but then the patent for fused deposition modeling (FDM) - one of the most common 3D printing technologies - expired.
Through the RepRap project’s mission to build a self-replicating machine, the first desktop 3D printer was born. As more and more manufacturers followed, what once cost 200000$ suddenly became available for below 2000$, and the consumer 3D printing market took off in 2009.
3D printer sales have been growing ever since, and as additive manufacturing patents continue to expire, more innovations can be expected in the years to come. There are roughly 500,000 consumer 3D printers in the world - and this figure is increasing exponentially every year.