Most of us have definitely heard of printing before, but have you heard of 3D printing? No, it is not the printing of images into a 3D shape! 3D printing is a process in which a 3D digital model on a computer is turned into a real physical object. Its process is similar to printing. Apps that can create models to be 3D printed include AutoDesk Fusion 360, SketchUp, as well as the basic Microsoft 3D Builder.
The earliest known form of 3D printing happened in Japan in 1981 when inventor Hideo Kodama (兒玉秀雄) created a machine that harnessed ultraviolet lights to solidify plastic materials to create solid objects. This was the foundation for the first 3D printing process called stereolithography, a term that was coined by American Charles Hull. During this period, 3D printing (or stereolithography) was used to make smaller versions of product proposals to save time and money before making the real item. It was also this time that Computer Aided Designs (or CAD) was used in making 3D models.
Between the 1990s and the 2000s, many industries picked up 3D printing and started manufacturing new 3D printers. Although these were mainly for industrial use, the first commercially available 3D printer went on sale in 2009. This was the start of a new age and from then on, 3D printing became widespread and more accessible to smaller corporations as well as individuals. In fact, it is now possible to obtain a printer for under $1,000!
What made this process different from the current widespread way of printing is that the object is rinsed with a solvent after printing and solidified using ultraviolet light.
Most Common Types of 3D Printing
Stereolithography is dubbed as the most accurate 3D printing process. Most of the time, it involves a direct laser which reacts with liquid photopolymer resins in a tub. The liquid resin solidifies, hence creating a layer of ‘printed’ material. It is very accurate as the laser does not stray apart, but is always directed to a certain position. However, the post-processing steps can be a burden and the material used in printing can become more brittle over time.
Digital Light Processing is similar to stereolithography as it also involves photopolymers. It uses a conventional light source such as lamps, which is reflected against a mirror and applied to the entire exterior of the tub of photopolymer resin, increasing the speed of the 3D printing.
Extrusion is still by far the most common type of 3D printing. It is in most commercial and/or entry-level 3D printers. A thick strand of material is heated and melted through a heated extruder so that it can be laid down and hardened into a layer. This process repeats with more layers placed on the object. The bottom layers bond with the upper layers, forming the original 3D digital model. No rinsing is required as it is already in its solid plastic form. It is also a rather fast process thanks to the ease of forming the object.
Practical Uses in the World
Most people can get a 3D printer to create their own objects leisurely. It can range from anything, from a statue to even a tool that they can use!
3D printers are also used in schools to provide replicas of items to showcase to students, as well as to hone students’ engineering and creative skills by making such models themselves, thanks to the wide availability of it.
It is possible for food to be 3D printed, as shown in a recent study, where steaks were printed from peas, rice, seaweed and some other ingredients. Common food like chocolate and pasta are supposedly the best materials to be used in 3D printing of food. In the future, food may even become 3D printed on demand.
3D printed structures are even used in construction! Currently, components of buildings such as electrical sockets, panels and switches are already manufactured using 3D printing, but it can possibly be used to make whole rooms or buildings! Much effort will need to be put into researching, such as whether a 3D printed building can survive a storm.
3D printing is an amazing piece of technology. It will revolutionalize the world with its far efficient practical uses. Although it may not affect every aspect of our lives, we are bound to be surrounded by it one day, from food to buildings.