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What is 3D printing?

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

Some use lasers, such as selective laser melting (SLM), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and selective laser sintering (SLS); some fuse the materials together, such as fused deposition modeling (FDM) and fused filament fabrication (FFF); some cure liquids as in stereolithography (SLA); and some use a lamination process called laminated object manufacturing (LOM), where thin layers are sliced and then laminated together using papers, polymers, and/or metals. Each process has its own unique set of challenges and its own bundle of benefits.

Accuracy, materials, cost, and production time generally determine which printer an individual or company chooses.

Draw it or scan it

Most all 3D printers come with their own proprietary 3D design software, most are compatible with a number of CAD/CAM programs, and Adobe's new Creative Cloud includes Photoshop CC, Adobe's radically simplified 3D modeling software. Other independent programs include Autodesk 123D family of products, SketchUp, Maya, Form Z, Bonzi3D, TinkerCad, etc., plus a number of open source options.

3D scanners, which also play an important role in this new economy, are an easy solution for replicating an existing product or design. Makerbot's Digitizer Desktop 3D scanner (looks like a small, open DVD player) is easy to use (no design or 3D modeling skills necessary). Users see results in two clicks -- from original object to scanned file; but cost, including software, is a hefty $1,099.

Cubify's Sense 3D scanner is a handheld device that looks like a rectangular flashlight with a grip through the center. Because it's small and portable, this device can scan anything from a coffee mug to a motorcycle. The Sense 3D scanner fully integrates with Cubify's Sculpt software and cost only $399. And, like 3D printers, these scanners come in all shapes, sizes, and prices.  

Print your next car or build a 2,500-square-foot house in 20 hours
There will always be a need for the giant 3D rapid prototyping machines because precision, size, and complex materials are required for many of the items produced in the aerospace, medical, architecture, automotive, and defense industries. For example, the Urbee 2, a hybrid car that gets hundreds of miles to the gallon was created on the Stratasys Dimension 3D and Fortus 3D production printers. But the biggest project, so far, is Contour Crafting's first, and only, 3D printed house.

Owned and developed by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California, this automated construction of civil structures includes actual life size, inhabitable buildings. Khoshnevis says, "We have built sections of buildings. But it has been logistically difficult to build a complete house because, if we build one in the lab, we will not be able to build anything else, hence we would have to demolish the house and remove it from the lab. However, we will soon attempt it once we secure a site in an open field and obtain the permit from authorities to build complete buildings."


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