What is 3D printing?

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Matthew_Anderson
edited August 2023 in PC Tech

Introduction  

3D printing was first imagined before it was invented, and for many people today, the concept still seems exotic and magical. But in reality, 3D printers have evolved into a viable consumer product accessible to everyday consumers and large manufacturers. The list of things you can make with a 3D printer is endless: desk organizers, jewelry, and even chocolate!

Outside of the home, the usage of 3D printing is expanding to more and more applications, including medical equipment, furniture, and even 3D printed houses. It is used not only to create models and prototypes but also increasingly to make final products. It is also much more environmentally friendly than traditional manufacturing, as it creates only the material necessary for an object. 

But what is 3D printing, and how does it work? 

History and Evolution of 3D printing

When 3D printing was first conceptualized, it was in the realm of science fiction. The writer Murray Leinster described a device very similar to a 3D printer in his short story “​Things Pass By” from 1945: in the story, the writer envisions a gadget that “makes drawings in the air following drawings it scans with photo-cells,” from which plastic “comes out of the end of the drawing arm and hardens as it comes.”  

But this isn’t the only visionary reference to 3D printing in science fiction, as Raymond F. Jones also described something like it in his 1950 short story “​Tools of the Trade.”

In his story, he referred to 3D printing as a “molecular spray,” an interesting difference in the imagination of both writers. Though Leinster’s imagination would prove to be more accurate in the details, both examples demonstrate the extraordinary reciprocity between fiction and reality.

In the world of science, the first use of 3D printing is typically attributed to Hideo Kodama. In the early 1980s, Kodama invented a layer-by-layer manufacturing system with photosensitive resin in an attempt to develop a quicker, more efficient prototyping system. He did not patent this technology, but he is remembered as the first pioneer in this field.

Several years after Kodama’s efforts, a team of French researchers decided to continue where Kodama had left off. Unfortunately, they had to abandon their project before they could patent the technology.

The first person to patent a 3D printer was Charles W. Hull. His printer used a slightly more advanced version of the stereolithography technique that Kodama employed. In 1986, Hull founded 3D Systems, a company that provided a range of 3D printer products and still exists today. 

Types of 3D printers

3D printing, even today, still carries an air of mystery: you may be wondering, how does 3D printing even work? The name contains the word “printing,” but in practice, 3D printers operate very differently from common, two-dimensional printers.

To make things a bit more complicated, there are a few different types of 3D printing methods that use different materials. To start, let’s focus on what 3D printers have in common.

It is true that all 3D printers analyze information from files containing three-dimensional data and then use that information to produce physical objects. All 3D printers also use an additive process to create 3D printed objects.

This means that, in contrast to factory assembly lines that create objects by manipulating, sculpting, or cutting existing material, 3D printers produce only the precise amount of material necessary for a certain object. That makes 3D printers much less wasteful than other manufacturing methods, in some cases up to 95% as much.

Now that we’ve defined 3D printers, we can describe the different types of 3D printers. Fused deposition modeling is the most common type, often seen in 3D printers designed for consumers and hobbyists. Like the device that Leinster envisioned in the 1940s, it pushes plastic, sometimes called filament, through a hot nozzle.

Stereolithography (also known as SLA), the technology that Charles W. Hull patented, is employed more often in industrial settings, as its increased level of detail commands a higher price tag.

Instead of plastic, it uses a UV reactive liquid that hardens under light. Though it makes more detailed models, it is also more difficult to use as the resin required for operation can be tricky to work with.

Fused deposition modeling and SLA are the two most common types of 3D printing, but there are others out there. Digital light projector (DLP) 3D printing, for example, is a variation on SLA. The difference between DLP and SLA printing is that digital light projector 3D printing works by exposing a liquid polymer to light.

Multi-jet modeling, the only type of 3D printing that supports multicolor printing, uses a technology similar to an inkjet to spray a binder onto layers of powder.

Costs of 3D printers

When 3D printers were first invented, they were esoteric devices too expensive for anything other than industrial applications. But in the decades that have passed since then, the technology has evolved dramatically. Now, there are a wide variety of models on the market suitable for every budget and purpose.

Whereas entry level or hobbyist models can range from $100 to $1,500, professional quality 3D printers can run thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. These models differ not only in price, but also in quality, reliability, and durability.

The ELEGOO Neptune 3 printer is a great option for beginners looking to get started with 3D printing. Currently on sale for $209.99, it offers great value, with enhanced noise reduction, a double-sided cooling fan to prevent overheating, and a smart resume printing feature so that running out of filament doesn’t stop your project in its tracks.

For those with a bit more money to spend, the Bambu Lab P1P is a considerable upgrade in speed and quality. It offers an easy setup and a range of customizable hardware for both hobbyists and professionals. It is currently on sale for $699.99 and includes necessary equipment like filament, an unclogging pin tool, and more.

Conclusion 

3D printing promises to offer a revolutionary and more sustainable approach for future manufacturing. Its enhanced speed and efficiency compared to traditional methods allow for both quicker turnaround times and less waste, and as the technology continues to improve, 3D printing will surely revolutionize many industries.

In the meantime, 3D printing can give you the freedom to create things you want or need at home, customized to your personal specifications. Whether you need to create an organizer for your desk or cosplay gadgets, 3D printing can become your best friend.

Matthew is a freelance content writer whose work has previously appeared in well-known language-learning blog Fluent in 3 Months and The Happy Self-Publisher. His creative work has also appeared in Otoliths, CafeLit, and the Eunoia Review. He is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan, where he is studying for a master's degree in Chinese Literature.

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