Reality is closing in on fiction. With 3D printers, many science-fiction themes such as the dream of replicating objects (and even humans?) as illustrated in many popular movies such as Star Trek now suddenly seem within grasp. But now that they are widely available, what can 3D printers actually do for today’s businesses? And how do they work?
Understanding 3D printers
It is important to understand that these printers do not necessarily use the same technology. However, there are common processes which are almost always used. Besides, there are now many manufacturers producing 3D printers on the market.
3D printing takes place in the history of additive manufacturing. Although the very term “3D printer” was only first coined in 1996, first developments of this technology appeared much earlier than one might think:
- By 1984, the first principles were already established;
- By 1986, the technology was patented;
- By 1988, it was made available to the public;
- By the 1990s, low-cost models were already on the market;
- By 2006, the first self-replicating printer was developed;
- In 2009, the first 3D model manufacturing printers were released on the market.
How 3D printers work
These printers use several technical methods to print, differing mostly in the way the layers of the printed object are created and piled up. Stereolithography, fused deposition modelling or FDM and selective laser sintering or SLS are the two most common methods used. The American Society for Testing and Materials has conveniently classified a list of seven processes normally used in 3D printing:
- Vat Photopolymerisation
- Material Jetting
- Binder Jetting
- Material Extrusion
- Powder Bed Fusion
- Sheet Lamination
- Directed Energy Deposition
Users with little knowledge of 3D printing could think that manufacturers of traditional printers would have naturally made themselves known in the 3D printing industry. But as technologies are completely different, this is not the case at all. Respected manufacturers of 3D printers include:
Typical business uses
3D printers may be used in many industries, but experience has so far proved they are especially useful in the medical, aerospace, aviation and automotive industries.
The medical industry has been using 3D printing since the technology was created, as early as the 1980s. Today, full implants are now commonly made using 3D printing. While it is not possible to replicate human tissue yet, bio-printing is already a reality concerning small layers of living cells.
Aerospace and aviation industries
3D printers are now commonly used to create prototypes and sometimes even production parts. For example, Nasa makes combustion chamber lines using 3D printing technologies, and GE aviation has come up with the first 3D printed jet engine part.
Quite similarly, the automotive industry is also using these printers now quite commonly. Typical uses include concept models, design verification and the marking of fully functional vehicle and engine parts. It is estimated that 3D printing in this industry only will represent an £1.1 billion market by 2019.