“3D printing” is a relatively new buzzword used to describe a process that’s been around since the 1980s: Additive Manufacturing (AM), in which a three-dimensional design is used to build an object by depositing material in layers. Recently, the term has gained traction as AM technologies have advanced and become more affordable.
Doug Collins, owner of Avid 3D Printing, presented on the current state of 3D printing at The Riverside in Boulder last month. Here are a few things we learned:
Printing a 3D object is not as simple as pushing a button. It takes a little knowledge and a lot of patience to achieve the best results.
The first step of the printing process is modeling. Computer-aided design (CAD) models are created with the use of a 3D scanner and CAD software, such as SolidWorks, ProE or AutoCAD Inventor.
The 3D CAD model then needs to be converted into a stereolithography (STL) file. STL files are the de facto format for 3D printing. You can find pre-made STL files for various projects on websites like Thingiverse. Many of those files are available to download for free.
Before STL files can be printed, they must be processed by “slicing” software that converts them into printing instructions (G-code) by cutting the digital 3D model into slices (layers). These layers are then “printed” on one another to create a 3D object.
Once the model is printed, it’s not always ready for application. Printer-produced models are often slightly oversized, rough and sometimes contain support materials for construction. A process called “finishing” is used to remove extra material and, in some cases, smooth surfaces and remove support materials. Some models require secondary finishing.
3D Printing Technologies
Multiple processes and materials may be used to create 3D models. All methods require creating layers, but each method does so in different ways. Some methods melt or soften material, while others employ processes to cure liquid materials.
Each processing method has its own advantages, but all share a similar drawback: speed. Most 3D printing technologies are just too slow. This could soon change with HP set to be the first major corporation to enter the 3D printing space. Its Multi Jet Fusion technology promises speeds ten times faster than current technologies.
3D Printing Uses
Right now, 3D printing still has a long way to go. Yes, there are 3D printers that home hobbyists can buy and tinker with, but they’re far from perfect. That isn’t to say 3D printing doesn’t have its uses. The automotive industry has been using 3D printing to produce vehicle prototypes for years, but only until recently have manufacturers been able to print usable 3D parts.
Another prime stage for 3D printed materials is health care. From medical instruments to customized surgical implants to prosthetic limbs, 3D printing technology is an increasingly more viable option for patients and providers. Researchers are even developing methods to print synthetic bone and functioning organs from “bio-ink,” which is a substance made of living cells.
For companies like Avid, 3D printing is great for product development. They can develop 3D models for proof of concept, design verification, marketing samples or even as functional test parts. Avid contracts mechanical design and product development services to both large and small companies, entrepreneurs and investors.