Will 3D Printing Start A Manufacturing Revolution?

A decade ago, it might have been a thing of science fiction to make a solid, 3-dimensional object using just a desktop-sized printer and a computer. A decade ago, printing was a traditional practice. You could print using a desktop and an inkjet or laser printer attached to the computer or big printing machines that are used in creating books, magazines and billboards. When we said that a print or an image was 3-dimensional, it was a printed image on a piece of paper that was just a representation of a mathematical 3-dimensional space.

a 3D printed T.Rex head. Image courtesy of www.3ders.org
A 3D printed T.Rex head. Image courtesy of www.3ders.org

Now, in almost all tech sites and IT circles, 3D printing is a hot topic. From prosthetic technology to jewelry, action figures to firearms, all kinds of objects are being “printed” using a 3d printer. With every new technology, there will always be excitement, hype and new effects on how we do things. There any of course many questions, positive outlooks and also skepticism surrounding this technology. Most experts say that this is just the beginning of digital manufacturing destined to change how people create, store or transport many things. Many futurists have stated that within 10 years, some products may be downloaded from the internet for a 3d printout in a store or at home. There are already  do-it-yourself enthusiasts building their own 3d printers while the consumer models are just starting to show up. Will it be a game changer? Will it be a fad? Will it revolutionize how we produce or manufacture good and services? Is the technology another phase of engineering that will help advance mankind?

Understanding 3D Printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing is a type of process whereby 3-dimensional solid objects are made from a source digital file. Creating a 3D printed object is done using an additive process where successive layers of specific materials are laid or nuzzled down through the aid of a computer. Each layer is seen as thinly sliced, horizontal cross-sections of the modeled object.

A Brief History Of 3-Dimensional Printing

Here is a short history of 3D printing. Early additive manufacturing equipment and materials were created and developed in the 80s. They were expensive and required special handling when being used or operated. Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp invented a process called stereo lithography that uses a UV laser in curing photopolymers. He also made a patent for the “Apparatus for Production of Three Dimensional Objects by Stereo Lithography”  that was issued on March 11, 1986. Hull described  the process as an apparatus and method for making solid objects by successively laying out thin layers of UV curable material on top of the other. This process was called Stereo lithography. The process Hull invented was parallel to the development of the Fused Deposition Modelling or FDM, which was invented by Scott Crump, the Stratasys founder, in 1988. By 1990, the plastic extrusion technology was commercialized by Stratasys. In 1993, the tech famous Massachusets Institute of Technology or MIT patented “3-Dimensional techniques”. The patent was based on the modifications made in 2D printer technologies. In 1996, the first major release of 3D printers was made by pioneering companies Stratasys, Z Corp and 3D systems and during this time, the use of 3D printers gained a foothold and became more widespread.

Chuck Hull, father of 3D printing. Image courtesy of http://www.industryweek.com/

Further developments were made during the next decade and culminated in 2005 with the release of the Spectrum Z510, dubbed as the first hi-def colored printer in the market at the time. By 2006, an open source printing project called “Reprap” was created in England. The Reprap was capable of making different plastic parts. The first version of the Reprap was called the “Darwin” that was released in 2008. The Mendel was introduced with the continuous development of riprap printers. Further research took the project onto different directions which resulted in the “Huxley” and the “Prusa”.

How 3D Printing Works?

3D printing starts with creating a virtual design of the object to be printed. The designs can be created using CAD or by using a 3D scanner. The machine then reads the 3D printable file and lays down successive layers of material to build the object. The layers that correspond to that of the CAD model are automatically fused in creating the final shape of this object. The printer reads every cross section with no lapse in the layering process which results in a seamless 3-Dimensional object. Model printing using contemporary processes can take from several hours to several days depending on the size, the method used and the complexity of the object. The printing resolution mentioned earlier describes how thick the layer is and in micrometers. Some printing techniques  are capable of using different materials in creating objects. Some can print in different colors or color combinations. Some can also make use of removable or dissolving  supports when printing an object.

How #D printing works. Image courtesy of http://www.best-infographics.com/
How 3D printing works. Image courtesy of http://www.best-infographics.com/

Not all 3D printing uses the same technology, although the goal is the same. At present there are three main methods used in 3D printing.

Selective Laser Sintering or SLS

This method uses high powered lasers in fusing small particles of plastic, ceramic, glass powders or metal into a 3-Dimensional object. The laser fuses the powdered material by going through a scanned cross section with the help of the 3D modeling software on the surface of a powder bed. Once the cross section is scanned, the powder bed is then lowered by equivalent to a layer thickness and then a new layer of the powdered material is added on top. The process is repeated until the desired object is made.

Fused Deposition Modeling or FDM

This process utilizes a metal or plastic filament  which is unwound from a source coil and then supplies the material through an extrusion nozzle that turns the flow of material on and off. The heated nozzle heats the material and can be moved in a vertical or horizontal direction by a controlled mechanism that is directly controlled by a CAM (computer aided manufacturing software). The project object is made by extruding the melted material in forming layers as it hardens after the extrusion from the nozzle.

Stereo lithography or SLA

The process uses a vat of liquid UV curable photopolymer resin and a UV laser to build the object’s layers. The laser traces a cross-section of the pattern on the surface of the liquid resin for each layer. Exposure to the UV laser solidifies the pattern traced on the resin and fuses it to the previous layer.

Uses of  3D printing include:

  • Rapid prototyping
  • Mass customization
  • Rapid manufacturing
  • Mass production
  • Clothing
  • Domestic uses
  • Hobbyist uses
  • 3-Dimensional bio printing
  • 3-D imensional printing for medical devices, prosthetics and implants.

The Revolution Starts Here

3D printing will surely shake up the status quo of technology. Just like pioneering technologies like the wheel, the first printing press, the steam engine and the internet, 3D printing will make many changes in how we do things and how this will affect our daily lives. While there are DIY and 3D hobbyists taking advantage of the technology, the real changes are happening in the world of industry. According to the CEO of Autodesk  Carl Bass “Industrial printing is very important. The consumer side of 3D printing was overvalued and the true value of industrial 3D printing is underappreciated”. Bass also added that there is too much hype on 3D printing and people are too excited about having their own desktop 3D printer instead of focusing on how manufacturers and producers can use the technology in changing the manufacturing world. Improvements in technology,  machinery, materials and software will lead to a new age of innovation in many industries around the world according to Bass. General Electric general manager of technology Christine Furstoss stated that although 3D printing has been around for some time now, the world needs to use the full capacity of the technology at present because people are very enthusiastic about it. She also added that additive manufacturing is not just another way of producing parts, but it is a way of changing how we work. It’s a way of introducing products at a faster rate than before because AM allows fast prototyping. It can allow designers to go back to their designs, make the changes at will which makes manufacturing and producing faster. It also means that innovations and ideas can be presented faster as compared to traditional processes which results in a more competitive market. 3D printing  is not just for making prototypes, but it is more essential in innovating and creating products that can be manufactured in other ways.

3D printing success. Image courtesy of dilbert.com
3D printing success. Image courtesy of dilbert.com

Some see the 3D printing revolution as equally important as the Industrial revolution which showed different ways of doing things that can kick-start tiny operations, disrupt many industries and transform the business landscape.  Johnny Danko, President of Danko Arlington a century old company that manufactures components for aerospace, military and commercial customers, stated that there will be no factories in the future, only office buildings. Arlington had their first 3D printer4 years ago and it allowed him to witness a manufacturing revolution. Just across his metal foundry, he prints out industrial patterns – patterns in which he can longer find skilled workers to do by hand. The actual technology is not new, in fact, it’s three decades old. But in recent years when the cost of machines dropped, companies started adopting the technology. 3D printers may replace machine specialists in the future. Many worry that this technology will totally replace  traditional manufacturing and producing, but according to Todd Ramsburg, supervisor of Mechanical Fabrication Group at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in the next few years it will be a combination of traditional manufacturing and 3D printing. The human factor will never be gone from industry work and it will leverage the benefits of 3D printing and traditional manufacturing. The revolution starts now.


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