3D printing is a fascinating technology. It works in much the same way as the inkjet printer at your home or office: it moves back and forth, each pass building on what came before to make real an idea you had in your head. Except instead of laying down ink to form 2D words, a 3D printer layers plastic resin to construct an object you can hold in your hand.
The benefits of 3D printing are numerous. If you have an idea for a part, and you already have the mating part that goes with it, you can draw your idea in CAD, print it out and see how it mates. You can check for thin walls, or the interference of internal holes. These things are hard to see on a flat piece of paper. But once your idea is tangible, you can really evaluate the pros and cons and hone your design to perfection.
3D printing can handle incredibly complex parts. We’ve included a picture of a toy in the shape of a dodecahedron with interconnected shafts and gears. If you turn one part the others move with it. There’s no way to build it that doesn’t involve a welded joint somewhere—except for 3D printing. And 3D printed complex designs are special for another reason: they take exactly the same time to manufacture as simple designs of the same size. No matter how intricate, the process is still the same and it moves at the same speed.
But the speed of 3D printing is still somewhat slow. Coupled with the fact that it’s only possible to work with plastic resins right now, 3D printing is typically limited to the manufacturing of prototypes. But it’s a technology that’s evolving every day. Researchers are working right now to improve the speed, and to make printers that work with metal powders. If they succeed, it will be possible to print a finished metal part. As it stands now, steel has to be made in a mill, poured, rolled into a bar or sheet and formed or subjected to a subtractive process like cutting or grinding to get it into the desired shape. Because 3D printing is an additive process it will result in less scrap. And one 3D printer could potentially take the place of several machines, saving floor space in factories.
If researchers are successful at making 3D printing a viable option for finished production, it will revolutionize manufacturing as we know it. Until then, we’re having fun printing prototypes for our customers, and seeing the many inventive creations that people come up with. We even got wind of a 3D printer that can print itself.