What Is 3D Printing?

by Kevin Ackerman, Staples® Contributing Writer

It’s not your imagination: 3D printing is everywhere these days. But while the innovative technology might seem to have sprung out of nowhere, it’s actually been around for decades — and it’s finding more uses every day.

“It’s not just for tchotchkes,” says Ash Martin, director of product management for consumer products at Rock Hill, SC–based 3D Systems, which produces printers and on-demand printed objects. “People are customizing their wardrobe, printing out jewelry and using 3D printing to explore their own creativity as well.”

One example is Patrick Durgin-Bruce, cofounder and creative director of New York City–based design firm Ultravirgo, who uses 3D printing to produce a line of monogrammed jewelry and housewares on demand. “It’s a custom monogram where you can combine any two letters three-dimensionally into, for example, a silver pendant for a necklace,” he says.

Understanding 3D printing technology and how it’s evolved, especially in recent years, is the key to putting this technology to use for your small business.

A Brief History

In 1983, while working for a company that applied durable coatings onto tabletops using ultraviolet lights, Chuck Hull (who would go on to found 3D Systems) made a discovery. By focusing and aiming the light properly, he could create shapes, rather than coatings. And thus, 3D printing — or stereolithography, as he called it — was born.

Once commercialized, 3D printing was mostly used for rapid prototyping, a method of quickly bringing digital designs to life. ”It really accelerated physical product time to market,” Martin says. ”The faster you get a product to market, the more quickly you can determine whether it’s successful.”

Over the next 25 years, 3D printing would be used primarily for prototyping, but some companies leveraged the technology for “additive manufacturing.” Traditional fabrication techniques like milling (the process of carving an object out of a piece of wood, plastic or metal) are known as ”subtractive,” and they can be wasteful with materials and expensive to set up, and require economies of scale to be cost effective. 3D printing was none of these things, which is partly why it was so attractive to manufacturers. Still, the cost of 3D printers, and the restrictions on the size of objects they produced and the materials they output in was a challenge.

But in the past 10 years, many of those setbacks have been addressed. As the price of these printers has come down, niche businesses that leverage 3D printing have popped up. ”People are starting to find unusual and interesting use cases that the original inventors of 3D printing probably never imagined,” says Martin. From producing everything from cellphone cases to human organs, 3D printing has changed the world — and business — forever.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

3D printing isn’t much different than paper printing, though several methods have emerged since Hull first pioneered the field with stereolithography. For example, stereolithography works a lot like laser printing, using high-powered light beams to transform liquid resins (instead of printer toner) into objects. Selective laser sintering, another popular 3D printing method, works similarly, but instead uses a bed of powered resin as its raw material. And working like inkjet printers, fused deposition modeling printers extrude heated material through a tube to make their 3D objects take form.

Each method has benefits and detriments, including rendering time and output material, but they all work one microscopic layer at a time. Depending on the technology being used, layers can be as thin as five to 10 microns (about the thickness of a couple of strands of human hair). Likewise, the print time also varies, especially depending on the size of the object being output. “It prints anywhere from an inch an hour, sometimes faster, sometimes slower,” says Martin of commercial-grade 3D printers. Consumer-level printers take longer, and as Martin points out, “it really is the function of the complexity of the object.”

For example, multiple material printing has started to give 3D printed objects additional intricacy. This method, which could print an entire wheel in one shot — from the rubber tire to the metal hubcap — can increase the output time four-fold, because it switches back and forth between materials. “That’s the kind of thing you could set to print when you went to bed, and it would be ready in the morning,” says Martin.

What’s Next?

Currently, 3D printing can be used in more ways than most people even imagine. These desktop-sized printers can output in multiple colors, in all sorts of plastics, metals and waxes. In fact, the term ”object” is even misleading — these printers have also output fabrics, bones, food and even human organs.

And as printers continue to run faster and output in larger sizes, the industry will grow exponentially. ”We’re really focused on lowering barriers to entry and removing any obstacles in people’s way to express their creativity, because we believe everyone has the creative bug,” says Martin.

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