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The PP3DP plastic extrusion printer at MakersFactory gets the job done. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

The PP3DP plastic extrusion printer at MakersFactory gets the job done. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

When describing the actual 3D printing process, a good analogy to use is that of an inkjet printer, which takes information and prints it onto paper, in two dimensions, line by line, from the top down. In a similar fashion, 3D printers take information and print it, in three dimensions, layer by layer, from the bottom up.

In the past, manufacturing has largely employed a subtractive process, meaning that you start with something and cut away at it—with tools such as lathes—to get an end product. 3D printing is an additive process, meaning that you start with nothing and build something.

The limitations of subtractive machining, including the need for a trained machinist, fall away with 3D printing. Things that are difficult or impossible to machine in one piece using a subtractive process, such as complex geometric shapes, cylinders within cylinders or curved holes in a metal block, can all be done with 3D printing.

For hobbyists, 3D printers including the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic and the UP! printer work by heating and printing inexpensive materials such as plastics (including bioplastics) and chocolate (yes, friends, we are printing chocolate). Printers in this range can be picked up for under $2,000. But the price is dropping fast.

Recent Kickstarter campaigns have booted the Printrbot and MakiBot printers from prototype to market, and they both come in under $500. Like inkjet printers, the price on 3D printers will presumably drop until they hit a point that makes them standard computer peripherals.

“These technologies are like the early days of computers or laser printers,” says The MakersFactory’s Chris Yonge. “At the generally affordable level, they’re still rather crude but at the same time they’re very flexible, and they offer a huge amount of promise for the next generation.”

In addition to MakerBots, the MakersFactory has powder printers, which are the next step up the 3D printing ladder. They print using a variety of powdered materials including gypsum, nylon, clay—even glass, steel and titanium.

Using this technique, the object is printed within densely-packed layers of powder. Wherever the design designates the object, the printer puts the powdered material and a binding agent; where the design designates empty space, the printer prints non-binding, space-holding powder that is later blown away. With this self-supporting method, designs can have a level of fragility and detail that plastic printers such as the Thing-O-Matic can’t support.

On the industrial level, 3D printers can build remarkably complex things using the same additive, layer-by-layer process. Last year the Airbike, a customizable bicycle printed out of a powdered nylon that rivals steel or aluminum in strength, was unveiled by the European Aerospace and Defence group, and this year GE is rolling out a jet engine built with some 3D printed parts, including the fuel injector.

In addition to being an exciting technological advance, 3D printing is potentially less expensive than traditional manufacturing (the price of 3D printed objects ranges from a few dollars on up), it is a low- or no-waste process, it allows for unlimited customization and it will soon be widely available.

“What I find the most exciting is just the potential, the unknown,” says Mike Catterlin of TechShop San Jose. “It really does seem to have limitless possibilities.

“The technology is exciting and it’s fun to see it print stuff, but just thinking about the bigger picture of what it means and how far it can go—that’s what’s the most exciting to me.”

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/how_3_d_printing_works.html 3D Scanman

    3D printing aka SLA has been around commercially since the early ‘90s. While it’s true that development in low cost 3-axis servo systems have enabled the “cheaper” products, accuracy suffers greatly.

    3D Printing is fast becoming the technology story of 2012, but the majority of these consumer level devices making the news are little more techno-toys.

    Let’s consider that plastic widget you want to 3D print to replace a broken part. Not only will it likely not fit when finished, it will also cost considerably more to “print” it than order it.

    Fun technology for the spendthrift at the low end. The higher end machines can produce considerably better parts in a variety of materials… starting around 50K for a low end version of an accurate 3D machine to 1 million+ for a machine capable of producing precision parts in a usable durable materials.

    Personal thoughts: The vendors in these areas are doing a great job of promoting 3D printing as the “next” technology darling for designers and manufacturing. Good marketing goes a long way, and often exceeds the reality of the expectations it creates.

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/2012/03/20/how_3_d_printing_works 3D Scanman

    3D printing aka SLA has been around commercially since the early ‘90s. While it’s true that development in low cost 3-axis servo systems have enabled the “cheaper” products, accuracy suffers greatly.

    3D Printing is fast becoming the technology story of 2012, but the majority of these consumer level devices making the news are little more techno-toys.

    Let’s consider that plastic widget you want to 3D print to replace a broken part. Not only will it likely not fit when finished, it will also cost considerably more to “print” it than order it.

    Fun technology for the spendthrift at the low end. The higher end machines can produce considerably better parts in a variety of materials… starting around 50K for a low end version of an accurate 3D machine to 1 million+ for a machine capable of producing precision parts in a usable durable materials.

    Personal thoughts: The vendors in these areas are doing a great job of promoting 3D printing as the “next” technology darling for designers and manufacturing. Good marketing goes a long way, and often exceeds the reality of the expectations it creates.

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/how_3_d_printing_works.html Magnus Bombus

    3D Sacnman makes some very good points here, its important to make the distintion between the “Techno toy” and those machines currently being pushed towards manufacturing production levels but it is also important to remember that the marketing hype is rampant at both ends of the market and of course some of these companies (and military organisations) have vast somes of money invested in these technologies, so much so that they may not be being totally honest with the press office.

    Just a couple of questions to consider:

    How many parts on the Blood hound project are actualy 3D printed compaired to traditionaly manufactured?

    Does any one really belive that Selectivly sintered nylon can ever rival the strength of steel? (in truth, NO!)

    How many printed bikes have you seen riding arround latley? and just how much cheeper do you think that bike might be than the wallmart special for sale at $50? (I urge you give EADS a call and ask them how much?)

    Just to clarify I’m not saying that some of the claims being made may not come to pass but what I am saying is we may all have a little longer to wait, governments are still scrapping years of work because of material porosity in 3D printed parts, traditional manuafcturing methods still give more bang for your buck, as well as being proven, tested and reliable, and Marketing departments will always streatch the truth.

     

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/2012/03/20/how_3_d_printing_works Magnus Bombus

    3D Sacnman makes some very good points here, its important to make the distintion between the “Techno toy” and those machines currently being pushed towards manufacturing production levels but it is also important to remember that the marketing hype is rampant at both ends of the market and of course some of these companies (and military organisations) have vast somes of money invested in these technologies, so much so that they may not be being totally honest with the press office.

    Just a couple of questions to consider:

    How many parts on the Blood hound project are actualy 3D printed compaired to traditionaly manufactured?

    Does any one really belive that Selectivly sintered nylon can ever rival the strength of steel? (in truth, NO!)

    How many printed bikes have you seen riding arround latley? and just how much cheeper do you think that bike might be than the wallmart special for sale at $50? (I urge you give EADS a call and ask them how much?)

    Just to clarify I’m not saying that some of the claims being made may not come to pass but what I am saying is we may all have a little longer to wait, governments are still scrapping years of work because of material porosity in 3D printed parts, traditional manuafcturing methods still give more bang for your buck, as well as being proven, tested and reliable, and Marketing departments will always streatch the truth.

     

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/how_3_d_printing_works.html passinglurker

    let me guess neither of you actually own a printer do you?

    I don’t think you guys are giving 3d printing enough credit. you can already use these prints to make another equally functional 3dprinter which is quite an accomplishment. and these articles disprove your points about accuracy
    http://blog.reprap.org/2011/12/001-layer-height-on-prusa-mendel.html
    http://www.makerbot.com/blog/2012/03/19/dirty-dishes-thingiverse-to-the-rescue/

    3d printing isn’t a toy its a new way of thinking that will change the world and its here to stay

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/2012/03/20/how_3_d_printing_works passinglurker

    let me guess neither of you actually own a printer do you?

    I don’t think you guys are giving 3d printing enough credit. you can already use these prints to make another equally functional 3dprinter which is quite an accomplishment. and these articles disprove your points about accuracy
    http://blog.reprap.org/2011/12/001-layer-height-on-prusa-mendel.html
    http://www.makerbot.com/blog/2012/03/19/dirty-dishes-thingiverse-to-the-rescue/

    3d printing isn’t a toy its a new way of thinking that will change the world and its here to stay

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/how_3_d_printing_works.html Jeff

    let me guess neither of you actually own a printer do you?

    I don’t think you guys are giving 3d printing enough credit. you can already use these prints to make another equally functional 3dprinter which is quite an accomplishment. and these articles disprove your points about accuracy

    /John, gaming laptops, dry scalp home remedies, how to potty train a toddler, dejtingsidor

    3d printing isn’t a toy its a new way of thinking that will change the world and its here to stay

  • http://www.santacruz.com/news/2012/03/20/how_3_d_printing_works Jeff

    let me guess neither of you actually own a printer do you?

    I don’t think you guys are giving 3d printing enough credit. you can already use these prints to make another equally functional 3dprinter which is quite an accomplishment. and these articles disprove your points about accuracy

    /John, gaming laptops, dry scalp home remedies, how to potty train a toddler, dejtingsidor

    3d printing isn’t a toy its a new way of thinking that will change the world and its here to stay