Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but, 3D printing is exactly what it sounds like – using a machine to create three-dimensional objects.
In the early days “Stereolithography” was the term coined to define the method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of the ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other. Today, many names are used, Rapid Prototyping, Additive Manufacturing, and Solid Freeform Fabrication to name a few.
Back in 2004, North Carolina State University (NCSU), received the first of its kind in the US, the (EBM), Electron Beam Melting Machine which was fully capable of functional 3D metal parts of virtually any geometric shape within hours of their design. Considered a major advancement in metal prosthetics such as artificial hip implants, today’s 3D printers are capable of producing parts using many different materials, such as jells, soft and hard plastics and resins.
The process of 3D printing begins on the computer by creating a three-dimensional model of an object using a Computer Aided Design (CAD) program. This could be a sculpture, bridge or a knee joint, whatever you can think up. Once you have the 3D object loaded, it must be converted to an STL file or stereolithography which basically maps its surface using a series of connected triangles, then it is sliced into very thin layers. Watch the video, this is shown in detail.
This technology is at its early stages, but is already expanding and moving in several directions. Some of the most promising areas are certainly the medical applications, custom parts replacement, but many see the customized consumer products market as potentially, even bigger. Imagine not having to go to the hardware store to get a certain kind of tool, you can just make one. What about a part for your car, or a new case for your cell phone. Instead of trying to track down the part, pay for shipping, and waiting days or weeks for its arrival, you’ll just be able to print it out and go.
NASA and the Department of Defense are looking closely at the machines as well. If the Astronauts on the space station could just make what ever they need on site, this would be a tremendous advancement. Naval vessels operating in extreme conditions or a long distance from any base or station could make their own replacement parts as well.
3-D printing and rapid prototyping are becoming more and more prominent and in the past few years with the addition of new materials and processes have expanded the capabilities and lowered the cost to the point where small businesses and even individual consumers can afford to create their own 3-dimensional objects.