Introduction – What is 3D printing ?
Technology has affected recent human history probably more than any other field. Think of a light bulb, steam engine or, more latterly, cars and aeroplanes, not to mention the rise and rise of the world wide web. These technologies have made our lives better in many ways, opened up new avenues and possibilities, but usually it takes time, sometimes even decades, before the truly disruptive nature of the technology becomes apparent.
It is widely believed that 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) has the vast potential to become one of these technologies. 3D printing has now been covered across many television channels, in mainstream newspapers and across online resources. What really is this 3D printing that some have claimed will put an end to traditional manufacturing as we know it, revolutionize design and impose geopolitical, economic, social, demographic, environmental and security implications to our every day lives?
The most basic, differentiating principle behind 3D printing is that it is an additive manufacturing process. And this is indeed the key because 3D printing is a radically different manufacturing method based on advanced technology that builds up parts, additively, in layers at the sub mm scale. This is fundamentally different from any other existing traditional manufacturing techniques.
There are a number of limitations to traditional manufacturing, which has widely been based on human labour and âmade by handâ ideology rooting back to the etymological origins of the French word for manufacturing itself. However, the world of manufacturing has changed, and automated processes such as machining, casting, forming and moulding are all (relatively) new, complex processes that require machines, computers and robot technology.
However, these technologies all demand subtracting material from a larger block â whether to achieve the end product itself or to produce a tool for casting or moulding processes â and this is a serious limitation within the overall manufacturing process.
For many applications traditional design and production processes impose a number of unacceptable constraints, including the expensive tooling as mentioned above, fixtures, and the need for assembly for complex parts. In addition, the subtractive manufacturing processes, such as machining, can result in up to 90% of the original block of material being wasted. In contrast, 3D printing is a process for creating objects directly, by adding material layer by layer in a variety of ways, depending on the technology used. Simplifying the ideology behind 3D printing, for anyone that is still trying to understand the concept (and there are many), it could be likened to the process of building something with Lego blocks automatically.
3D printing is an enabling technology that encourages and drives innovation with unprecedented design freedom while being a tool-less process that reduces prohibitive costs and lead times. Components can be designed specifically to avoid assembly requirements with intricate geometry and complex features created at no extra cost. 3D printing is also emerging as an energy-efficient technology that can provide environmental efficiencies in terms of both the manufacturing process itself, utilising up to 90% of standard materials, and throughout the productâs operating life, through lighter and stronger design.
In recent years, 3D printing has gone beyond being an industrial prototyping and manufacturing process as the technology has become more accessible to small companies and even individuals. Once the domain of huge, multi-national corporations due to the scale and economics of owning a 3D printer, smaller (less capable) 3D printers can now be acquired for under $1000.
This has opened up the technology to a much wider audience, and as the exponential adoption rate continues apace on all fronts, more and more systems, materials, applications, services and ancillaries are emerging.