How does 3D printing work?
In the ‘additive process’ of 3D printing, ‘printed objects’ are created from adding layers of material on/in/by a ‘3D printer’ that is connected to a computer running software that interprets the product blueprint in its 3D CAD format and relays it to the printer.
In conventional machining, extrusion of material (subtractive technique) is done by specialized mill machines. In addition to this, established manufacturing processes involving foundries, plastic injection moulding machinery and presses make up for a bulk of the traditional manufacturing process.
3D printing could do away with wastage and these printers are flexible enough to work with a variety of materials. 3D printers have become progressively more capable and the cost of these machines has also come down as the technology matures and demand for them increases.
What is the impact it could have on the small-scale manufacturers and other users?
As of now, 3D printing occupies a very niche position in production. It is especially attractive for those in the realm of specialized, low-volume products. It is increasingly finding use in rapid prototype modeling which is a major activity in engineering and industrial design. There is still a long way to go before 3D printing becomes a subsitute for established mass production techniques. Automotive component manufacturing is one sector which could benefit immensely with this technology.
3D printing is fast finding favour with jewelry designers, artists, architects, product designers and even hobbyists. This is a very specialized segment of users, who value the freedom afforded by 3D printers in bringing their creations to life, sometimes in a very simple production process.
This exciting new technology could help firms with a low capital base ramp up product development in a less risky fashion. It is easy to experiment, iterate and upgrade designs when the 'real world' prototype can be materialized in a simple Ctrl+P fashion. Most of the industry segments where 3D protoyping and manufacturing is finding favour are attracted to the tangible nature of the process, where the end product can be visualized as close to reality as possible.
State of the technology
Most of the current 3D printing technologies are of the additive variety. Most of these are still maturing technologies, and most of them are still pricey for anything other than high-cost, specialized production. Some of them are as follows.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), where a laser fuses the material, can work with thermoplastics, powders of metals and ceramics. Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), where almost any alloy metal can be used.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a popular 3D printing technique where thermoplastics and temperature cured mixture of metals can be used. Stereolithography (SLA), where a photopolymer is used.
Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM), where laminates of paper, plastic film or foil are used as building material in a laminated fashion. Electron Beam Melting (EBM), which is used to fuse titanium alloys in creating high strength objects. Inkjet 3D printing, inspired by low-cost inkjet technology to deposit material and create objects.