3D Printer Features & Usage

What is 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM)? Quite simply, it is a process by which items are produced in response to a computer-generated blueprint or design. Unlike conventional manufacturing processes, however, the finished object is built up using thin layers of material, such as metal or plastic, rather than carved out of a block of material by drilling, sculpting or cutting, which is a subtractive process.

What is a 3D printer?

A 3D printer is required in order to generate a solid object from an initial blueprint. Essentially, it is a computer-controlled device that can interpret and implement the design. There are a number of different 3D printer features and these affect which specific model is suitable for a particular task. For example, print speed, size, tolerance and resolution give an indication of the likely quality of the 3D models that can be produced. The industry standard is now a print platform of a minimum of 9 x 9 x 9 inches (approximately 23 x 23 x 23 centimetres). Smaller print plates may necessitate scaling down a print or slicing it for printing during multiple print sessions. Larger print plates mean that scaling or slicing is not normally an issue.


Understanding the technology

A 3D printer works like other printers in that it obeys the commands contained in the original design or blueprint generated by a computer. The fundamental difference, however, between a 3D printer and a standard printer is that a 3D printer has the capacity to construct objects based on 3D plans, while a conventional printer can only replicate in two dimensions.

The relationship between the quality of the finished object and print speed is similar to that of standard inkjet printers. In general, the faster the speed of the printing process, the poorer the quality of the finished object. There are exceptions to this rule however, as some printers are capable of printing high quality objects relatively quickly, while others take a long time to produce items of a lesser standard.

Just as an inkjet printer pushes ink through tiny holes to form letters or shapes, so a 3D printer forces out fibres of the chosen material. This process is commonly described as the extrusion of filaments. The tolerance of a 3D printer refers to the capacity of the printer to extrude the filament to a particular degree of accuracy. As with the inverse relationship of printer speed to quality, a smaller tolerance is an indicator of a more precise printing capability.

The resolution of a 3D printed object is determined by the height of each layer of material; higher resolution is achieved by smaller layer heights. The optimum height is equivalent to the thickness of a piece of paper, that is, approximately 0.1 millimetres.


Current usage

Universities and commercial companies have been using 3D printers to make prototypes for research purposes from casting media, such as cartridges, paper, plastic and sand, since the early 1980s. Among the wide variety of 3D printing services, customisation now has a secure position, so much so that companies are creating facilities to enable their customers to use commercial 3D designs to customise items such as mobile phone cases. A reciprocal online service allows customers to upload their designs to be 3D-printed by the company so that the finished object can be returned to the client.

Biological scientists have utilised 3D printer technology to help animals, including creating new beaks for injured birds and even a new foot to make it possible for a crippled duckling to walk again. In the medical arena 3D printing is delivering extraordinary results, including bio-printing, organ-printing, tissue engineering and body part printing.

Fashion designers continue to experiment with 3D printing for the creation of dresses, shoes and bikinis, while at the domestic level, hobbyists enjoy creating small objects, including working clocks and doorknobs. Popular decorative pieces include bags, necklaces and rings.


Future challenges

There are several things that 3D printing is not achieving at the moment and these present challenges for the future. For example, currently the speed with which printing is done is relatively slow, and this needs to be improved if mass production is to be made viable. For the most part, 3D printers can use only one material in one colour at a time, although some developments in the design of fused filament machines have resulted in multiple extruder heads that allow printing using multiple colours or the making of multiple prints. Across a number of disciplines, however, 3D printing is already making a profound difference and the scope of the technology is likely to become more extensive year on year.