3D Printing is a form of additive manufacturing where a 3-dimensional object is created by laying down multiple layers of a material. In contrast to traditional manufacturing, additive manufacturing refers to any process that adds on layers instead of cutting them away. Additive manufacturing has been used for decades for ‘rapid-prototyping’, but had always been prohibitively expensive. Only the largest corporations could afford these machines.
However, in the past decade, with the advent of 3D-printers, the creation of 3D objects has become much more accessible – now even hobbyists, artists and small businesses can afford their own machines.
Designers and engineers continue pushing the limits of 3D printing. 3D Printers are still mainly used for rapid prototyping, but with vast improvements in speed, accuracy and pricing, it’s becoming increasingly common to see them used for final products. Industry experts expect this trend to continue growing, and foresee widespread personal and small business adoption.
With 3D Printing, almost anything can be produced. But some of the most common items include sculpture, machine parts, jewelry, furniture, medical casts (dental crowns), recreational goods (snowboards) and even clothing (body armor).
The future looks bright for 3D Printers. Use-cases are spreading throughout geographies, professions and industries. A team at Loughborough University, for example, is using 3D printing to design a whole concrete building –part by part. Some are even attempting to construct whole airplanes through 3D Printing.
There are 2 ways to make your 3D design into a reality: either you can purchase your own printer, or alternatively, you can contract out the job to a 3D Printing Service’.
3D Printers range anywhere from $1,000 to $200,000 –depending on their capacity for detail, their compatible materials and the maximum build size. The cheapest 3D-Printers are quite limited on the above dimensions. They produce very low detail, single material, small-sized products –appealing only to beginner hobbyists. For small businesses, professional designers & inventors, a good 3D Printer will cost at least $6,000 -$15000. For the most advanced printers, educational institutions, manufacturers and engineering firms will pay anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 per machine.
3D Printing Services are a great option for all end-users –from the lone hobbyist to the massive engineering firm. If you don’t plan on printing regularly, it’s much cheaper to contract someone else to print your design. For many individual inventors and designers, 3D Printing services provide access to technology that the hobbyists themselves could never afford. Even large companies contract out their work. (It’s not worth buying a $200,000 printer if it’s only used a few times per year). And last but not least, hiring out allows you to learn and experiment with the technology, with little risk attached. You’ll get a better sense of the technology’s limitations, different materials and other production trade-offs.
At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself a few questions. How often will I be using this machine? What are my product requirements? (level of detail, material, and size). How much am I willing to pay? Just do as much research as possible before making any purchase decision.
There are many different types of 3D printers on the market. You should consider a few points to find which is best for you. First, make sure the printer can handle the size of the final products you envision –every printer has a ‘max build size’. Second, consider the types of materials you envision for your products. Third, determine the level of detail required for your design . Generally speaking, the greater the product size, detail or materials’ capability, the more expensive the printer will be.
Printer prices are more competitive than ever, with personal printers ranging from $1500 to $6000. But low-cost printers like Ultimaker, Object24 or Makerbot cannot handle most advance designs. Only high-end printers like EOS’s Formiga P1000 or ZCorp’s ZPrinter 650 can handle the largest build sizes, the finest detail, and the most materials. But these printers can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000.
While there are many different 3D printing processes, all of the processes feature an overall similar scheme. 3D printers are an additive process, meaning that material is added to build the product, rather than being taken away, making 3D printing more energy efficient and less wasteful. 3D printing is also usually faster as well. The process begins when the 3D printer receives the digital file, which contains layers that are read by the printer as different slices. These slices help the printer to construct and define each different layer. The product begins to take shape as material is deposited by the printer as many thin layers until the full product emerges.
One of the most common processes is called Stereolithographic printing, which uses UV laser beams to trace slices onto liquid polymer. Applying laser beams onto the polymer causes the liquid to harden. Selective laser sintering is another common process where a laser fuses layered powder granules together. Sintering allows for many different types of powder-based materials, including nylon, glass, steel, titanium, aluminum and silver. A similar process is called multi-jet modeling. It involves powder-layering and then spraying on a cohesive to bind the granules. And less common, fused deposition modeling is a process where a print head extrudes hot thermoplastic.
The most common types of materials are production-grade plastics like ABS plastic. Other ‘softer substances’ include nylon, wax and epoxy resins. The hardest materials include metals like Titanium, Stainless Steel, Gold and Silver.
Whether you’re an engineer with a revolutionary new widget or the next Rodin of our generation (or an architect, inventor, or what-have-you), 3Dprinting allows you to turn the shape you’ve conceived in your mind into hard reality. But, before you can send that revolutionary widget or objet d’art off to the printer, you need to first construct that model. The way to do that is with 3D software.
Just take a casual look on CNET, and you’ll find a host of 3D design applications, like Autodesk 3ds Max, Rhino 3D or SketchUp. With so many to choose from, it’s enough to make you ask, “What do they do?” Or, “Which one is right for you?”
At its most basic, 3D software creates mathematical representations— or “models”—of three-dimensional objects. The real potential of 3D design lies in the sheer breadth of its applications. Engineers use 3D modeling to draft parts and design vehicles. Architects use 3D design programs to realize their conceptions of buildings and landscapes. Scientists use it to depict detailed models of chemical compounds or geological formations. Special effects movies like Transformers, and video games like the Halo franchise owe everything to 3d modeling, and the list goes on.
The term “computer graphics” was first coined by William Fetter back in 1961, when he worked on Boeing Man, the first computer model of the human body. From the 1980s, programs like Wavefront Advanced Visualizer and CrystalGraphics Topas made it to desktop computers. 3D modeling applications evolved over the ‘90s as programs like 3D Studio Max and Rhino 3D came to the fore. In 1998, My Virtual Model, Inc. brought us the first commercially available 3D human model with the Lands’ End Virtual Model 3D dressing room.
Today, the market plays host to a bevy of programs, each one positioned differently along the spectrums of capabilities, cost and ease of use. For example, Autodesk 3ds Max—the contemporary incarnation of 3D Studio Max—boasts industrial-grade power and capability and is well worth it if you’ve got the scratch ($3,495 to be exact) and the time to master its learning curve.
Rhino 3D, on the other hand, is a solid middle of the road alternative. Rhino 3D has been lauded for both its ease of use and (relatively) low cost. At just under a grand, Rhino is a steal, even if it’s not as powerful as 3ds Max.
If your budget is free-to-cheap, then take a look at SketchUp from Google. SketchUp is all about ease of use, plus it comes in both a freeware version and a Pro iteration, which ranges from $395-$495 depending on how many licenses you purchase.
Once you’ve decided which 3D software is right for you, it’s time to buy a 3D printer or choose a 3D printing service. Check out our 3D printer comparison for a detailed look at available 3D printers. Or see our 3d-printing services list to compare the web’s top 3D printing contractors.