What next for 3D printing?

This article was produced on behalf of PrinterInks – leading suppliers of ink cartridges throughout the UK.

A revolution is coming. Ever since 3D Systems, based in South Carolina, pioneered stereolithography, eventually releasing the first commercially available stereolithography machine in 1986, all manner of different 3D processes and machines have been developed.

3D printing technology has advanced to the point where solid objects, quite complex in design, are being made with 3D printers which will soon approach the size and cost of high-end desktop inkjet printers. So is 3D printing coming home? Will we soon be able to print a Frisbee off before going to the beach? Well, not quite yet, unless you have the budget, but the day is fast approaching.

The manufacturing industry has wholeheartedly embraced 3D printing, generally referred to in the industry as ‘additive manufacturing’, and right now everything from aerospace components to toys are being created with the help of 3D printers ranging in price from under $10,000 to over $1m. The length of time for the printing process to be completed depends on the object size, its detail level and the materials used to make it, but a simple small object can be produced in around an hour, while large complicated pieces can take a whole day.

Without doubt the 3D printing industry is growing, with industry monitoring consultants suggesting that while the additive manufacturing global market was worth $1.2 billion in 2008, by the time 2015 comes round it might have doubled its size. Needless to say, 3D printing has a great many people excited, particularly as it has so speeded up the design process within the manufacturing industry. But who are the leading pioneers and innovators who have been the driving forces behind the 3D printing revolution?

Z Corporation, based in Burlington, Massachusetts, US, has been a key pioneer, utilising a modified form of inkjet printing, in which the printing heads spray a binding liquid on to a layer of white powder where the layer must be solid. The bed is then slightly lowered and the process repeated again, building the object layer by layer. Colour can be added layer by layer, allowing the production of multi-coloured objects. Once the process is completed all the remaining powder is air jetted away to reveal the finished object.

Objet Geometries, based in Israel, have machines whose print heads deposit thin layers of two kinds of liquid photopolymer, moving back and forth. One kind is used where the object is to be solid, the other where there are areas with holes and spaces. Ultraviolet light hardens the polymer in the solid areas and turns the polymer in the spaces into a supporting gel. This process is repeated layer by layer, until a jet washes the support gel away, revealing the completed structure.

Stratasys, based in Minneapolis, US, are the market leaders in a type of 3D printing called ‘fused deposition modelling’, which involves thermoplastic material being fed through a moving extrusion nozzle, which melts the material, dropping it on the build tray in the design pattern. Hardening to create the solid parts in each layer, the layers naturally fuse together. Overhangs and other spaces can have physical supports added during the process and removed when the object is finished.

But when will we be using these at home? Not for a few years, when the cost is low enough to make them commercially viable for companies to mass produce them for the consumer market. Before then, we will most likely see them appearing in hardware stores, allowing customers to upload designs and choose materials. 3D printers could soon be the must have consumer product, just like home inkjet printers before them.

Image credit (top of article): Maria Keays

3 thoughts on “What next for 3D printing?”

  1. I think this technology is really cool. I had a friend of mine take me and my nephew to his work and my nephew was able to create and build a toy to be printed 3D. We had so much fun and it was a great learning process for my nephew.

  2. 3D printing will almost certainly move on leaps and bound sover the next few years, and I think within the next 3 years it could be a $2 billion + industry.

  3. If you could connect through the internet a 3d-scanner on one side and a 3d-printer on the other, it would be possible to “give” things through the web !

    It wouldn’t be the real thing, but a “teleporter” at last šŸ™‚


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