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What Is 3D Printing?

The last few years has seen a dramatic advancement in technology; computers evolved to become laptops and then tablets, mobile phones became sophisticated smartphones and we can now even print in 3D in the comfort of our own homes. 3D printing has made its mark across whole diverse sectors of industry too; everything from prosthetic limbs, architectural models, jewellery, food and even human organs can now be ‘printed’. So how does 3D printing work?

How does it work?

Put simply, the 3D printing process creates extremely thin, cross-sectional slices of the object to be printed and places them in layers, building up gradually until the completed object is formed.

The objects begin life as a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file created by using a specialised modeling programme or an existing file which was scanned into the programme. A piece of software then divides the CAD file into thousands and thousands of horizontal layers. The printer then interprets this data and produces each layer to a really precise specification before blending them seamlessly to form the final 3D object.

There are a number of different versions of 3D printing technology;the two most popular being FDM and SLS.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

In this process the printer deposits a thin stream of molten material via a nozzle to create each of the separate layers that ultimately form the object.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

This method involves the use of a scanning laser beam to create the object in a bed of powder; the laser fuses the powder together to form each layer.

All the different 3D printing methods are termed; ‘additive manufacturing’, because the layers are compiled to create the finished object. In contrast, sculpture is referred to as a ‘subtractive process’ because the artist creates his finished piece of art by removing material.

Until recently, 3D printing was prohibitively expensive although it had been around for several decades as a core process in the design and creation of product prototypes in the manufacturing industry. As with most forms of technology, costs have fallen so much that 3D printing is much more widely accessible, so much so that the hobbyist can now obtain a 3D printer for use at home and it’s expected that users will ultimately be able to print every component required for the construction of a complete 3D printing unit, including its circuit board.

Applications of 3D printing

Although it sounds rather space-age, 3D printing has already arrived in the medical world with bio-printers proving capable of printing human tissue, and ultimately whole organs and even bones.

Huge 3D printers are already being used to create complex structures of concrete, brick and metal and it’s only a matter of time before whole buildings are created using 3D printed components.

Artists have embraced the new technology too with some beautiful sculptures already being exhibited and items of jewellery and home décor appearing on the shelves of some major retail outlets. Archaeologists have also used the process to produce exact 3D replicas of priceless artifacts for use in museum displays enabling the originals to be stored safely without fear of damage.

In conclusion

The future possibilities for 3D printing seem endless. Perhaps in as little as decade we could be able to not only ‘print’ replacement organs but the hospitals in which to carry out transplant surgery. It’s an exciting and slightly scary thought.

 

Image credit: Shutterstock

Alison Page

About Alison Page

Alison is a small business owner, freelance writer, author and dressage judge. She has degrees in Equine Science and Business Studies. Read her full story at http://www.theladywriter.co.uk

Alison Page

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