With all the 3D printing buzz over the last several years, I’m sure you are now familiar in one way or another on what the term means. Chances are many of you have had something made with a 3D printer (maybe an enclosure, or a jig?) or perhaps you already have a machine in your home/office! If not, you have read articles or saw news about a groundbreaking event happening because of 3D printing. How about the 6 month old life getting saved by doctors who designed and printed a stent before the actual operation. Unbelievable and groundbreaking news occurs daily around 3D printing, so it’s time to embrace it and make it a part of our everyday lives.

This is my first article contributing to DesignSpark with anticipation to build out a series all based on real use applications around 3D printing technology. In future articles I’ll talk about topics such as how to optimize your CAD design for 3D printing, and using automations to take printing beyond just prototyping. But for now, as in any relationship, let’s start with the basics…

What is additive manufacturing (aka AM, or 3D Printing)?

AM is the manufacturing process in which objects are formed by adding material to build the final product layer by layer. Alternatively, the traditional methods of subtractive manufacturing  remove the material to form the final geometry. The process of additive manufacturing opens up new geometrical capabilities that were previously impossible using other methods. While the technology has been around since the 80’s, there are advancements being made in the industry each day. This can include advancements in current machine types as well as developing brand new printing methods.

Technology Types : FDM, SLA, SLS, etc…

There are now a handful of different types of AM technologies to choose from. The most common and simple method is called FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling). This technology heats up the thermoplastic, such like a glue gun does with glue, extrudes the material layer by layer all while cooling the plastic as soon as it is deposited from the printhead to properly solidify into the intended geometry. FDM printing is the lowest cost AM option but also has the lowest resolution. It is great if you require structural prototypes and high volume production, but may fall short for small parts with intricate details.

SLA, known as Stereolithography, is the AM technology in which uses a liquid resin as the base material and cures the material via UV light layer by layer. While this technology is more expensive than FDM, the resolution, or detail of print can be quite a bit higher due to its processes. The material composition of SLA parts are typically not as mechanically or thermally stable as their FDM counterpart. SLA is usually best suited for small, fine detailed and non-functional prototyping applications.

SLS, or Selective Laser Sintering, is the process of fusing particles together using lasers. SLS is mostly used for printing in metals, and by nature is significantly more expensive than both FDM and SLA printing technologies. SLS has a slightly lower resolution than SLA and typically requires extensive post-processing for parts to become functional. You commonly see firms using SLS for complex aerospace and automotive applications.

There are also many other types of additive manufacturing methods including DLP and CLIP. These are usually evolutions of one of the original three AM methodologies listed above. Most typically, they are derivatives of the SLA methodology utilizing alternate catalysts for the material solidification process to improve production throughput.

Industries small and large are using 3D printers for a handful of reasons. Some common uses are:

  • Fast and cheap prototyping (i.e. an enclosure for an electronics board you’re building)
  • Architectural purposes (marketing, design validation, end use, etc…)
  • Unique one of a kind designs such figures and statues
  • Mass customization to create physical objects meant specifically for the end user
  • Complex jet engines which previously were made of 20+ parts and now are condensed into a single build
  • In the medical field for customized prosthetics. Google 3D printed prosthetics, it’s quite amazing what people are using the technology for!
  • IoT, wearables and many more applications…

I’d love to keep talking about Additive Manufacturing all day and believe me I can. So please comment below and give me your feedback! Let me know what 3D printing topics you would like to see covered in the future, whether they are surface level or a deep dive into certain verticals.

Who’s currently using printing for the prototyping or production needs? Share your story below and help inspire people to print!