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What is 3D printing?

Julie Sartain | March 25, 2014
Inside the magical world of 3D printing.

3D printers are the hottest new technology on the IT landscape. Everyone —users and vendors alike— wants a piece of the pie and, with 3D systems now printing candy and food, they could get their wish; that is, an actual, edible piece of pie.

Why are 3D printers so popular? Because they are the 21st century version of Star Trek's replicators and they can, literally, print (or replicate) anything from a piece of pumpkin pie to a full-blown multi-story house.

Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colo., has identified more than 50 additive manufacturing and 3D printing companies. A report from lists more than 230 printers and printer kits starting at $199 and ranging all the way up to $330,000 or more. On this list, the average 3D printer price is $2,346; not much more than a high-end color laser printer and certainly not out of reach for most users.

Origins and technologies

The most common 3D printer technologies, thus far, are fused deposition modeling (aka fused filament fabrication), stereolithography, digital light processing, selective laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, selective laser melting, selective heat sintering, laminated object manufacturing, and polyjet 3D printing.

There are other, similar technologies available and many more on the horizon as independent entrepreneurs and Kickstarter candidates continue to research, design, and develop new ways to create three dimensional objects from pools of plastic, polymer resins, powdered products, sand, glass, food substances, and liquid metals such as stainless steel, cobalt chromium, titanium, aluminum, and nickel, silver, and gold alloys.

In a nutshell, 3D printers are simplified versions of rapid prototyping machines, which have been around since the early 1980s, only smaller, cheaper, and less complicated. However, as the pool of inventors expands, the lines between rapid prototyping and 3D printing are becoming more and more blurred. The smaller, cheaper 3D machines are using more varieties of materials and some of the larger rapid prototyping machines are getting smaller and costing less. For example, Michigan Technological University has just unveiled a new, open-source 3D metal printer that sells for only $1,500. And Makerbot's Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer (which sells for $2,899) can print a functioning, mechanical, 3D-printed hand called the Robohand. Makerbot also sells a mini version of this same printer for $1,375.

How it works
The process of each 3D technology (also called additive manufacturing) is fairly similar. Objects are designed with a CAD-like software program, then sliced into extremely thin layers (like slicing a loaf of bread). The machines then spray, squeeze, or dribble the material onto a base, one layer at a time, fusing these together with heat until the object is formed. Some machines extrude a filament of plastic materials through a nozzle and build the objects on a platform from the bottom up. Some build the objects in a tray of powder or liquid and the platform lowers as each layer is applied, building from the top down.


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