The printing machine understands the design via a .stl file and lays down consecutive layers of powder, liquid or sheet material, i.e., whatever is needed to make the model from a number of cross-sections. Thereafter, these layers, which are in line with the virtual cross-sections from the CAD model, are either connected together or automatically fused to make the desired shape. The key advantage of this technique is its ability to make just about any contour or form.
The printer resolution defines the layer thickness and X-Y resolution in dpi (dots per inch), or micrometres. On an average, the thickness is about 0.1 mm. However, some printers such as the Objet Connex series and 3D Systems’ ProJet series can print layers as thin as .016 micrometres.
The time taken for model construction using contemporary methods ranges from a few hours to a few days. The actual time taken would depend on the method used, and the size and complexity of the model. Additive systems can bring down this time to a few hours depending on the nature of machine used, and the dimensions and quantity of the models being created simultaneously.
While conventional techniques, such as injection moulding, cost less for manufacturing polymer products in large numbers, 3D printing is speedier, more flexible and also cheaper when the number of units is low. The greatest advantage is that design and concept development teams have the freedom and power to produce parts and concept models using their own desktop-size printer.
Choosing a 3D printer
To start with, a firm needs to determine whether a 3D printer is really required or not, i.e., whether using a service provider would be better or would owning a 3D printer lead to higher productivity, lower costs and quicker delivery. 3D printing is a solution that takes care of all the modelling and prototyping needs of an organisation. Another purpose that 3D printing serves is that of confidentiality—especially with a new design, since blueprints or CAD designs do not go out of the company at all. How you intend using the 3D printer will determine what type you buy. For instance, if you plan to use the 3D printer in the concept development stage for product design and for design validation, you should go in for a high-speed full-colour printer with labelling options. Test-driving the printer’s control software will tell you how easy or difficult it is to send .stl files to the 3D printer.
Apart from commercial printers, personal 3D printers are also available. And there are both fully assembled and DIY models. One can use the free version of applications such as Google SketchUp and the Blender program with them. Imagine if you and I begin using 3D printing—each of us could ‘manufacture’ something. Today, customers expect a higher level of customisation and personalisation, which 3D printing can facilitate through the concept of mass collaboration. Websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, etc, are geared up to ‘mass collaborate.’ Reddit is a website which includes various sub-reddits. These sub-reddits enable members to share special interests.
The free software (the starting point in the above diagram) has been developed by Google. A company like Nike is in a position to enlist particular communities that have an interest in design and fashion, as well as access to a 3D printer. Via mass collaboration, people can come together to create new designs and send them to Nike. Personal 3D printers are becoming affordable and free software is also available. This means that home users now have the resources to develop prototypes. This could bring down unemployment and, yes, maybe you can also reinvent your house in a cost effective manner.
Living on the moon: The future of 3D printing
Living on the moon could become a reality with 3D printing. An entire moon base could be printed using lunar dirt as raw material. A team from The European Space Agency (ESA) is working closely with architects to chalk out ideas for a 3D-printed moon colony. The whole idea is to design for extreme climates and exploit the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials—just as it is done on Earth.
Using material that exists on the moon would mean there is no need for large and expensive spaceships to transport materials from Earth. The moon base would be built using a robotic printer moving over an inflatable dome. The base would have hollow walls and a cell-like robust structure that looks like the skeleton of a bird. This would guard humans residing on the moon from gamma radiation and small meteorites. ESA and its partners have simulated building some portion of the base that weighs about a ton using a blend of silicon, aluminium, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides. This is similar to the composition of moon dust. The 3D printer is being run in conditions identical to those on the lunar surface, i.e., the 3D printing is being done inside a vacuum chamber.
Perhaps the evolution of 3D printing could mirror that of photo printing. When printer prices dropped and became affordable, people started printing their own photographs, in the comfort of their homes.
Currently, most people do not print their photos at home. Rather, they actually pay for printing services from high-quality speciality print shops on special occasions. The same scenario may emerge in the case of 3D printing. People will invest in 3D printers as they start to become affordable. Eventually, as 3D print technology becomes omnipresent, users will start approaching specialised shops in order to get quality that stands out from what can be achieved at home. We already have a few companies such as Shapeways, Kraftwurx, Freedom of Creation, etc, that deliver online 3D printing services in both the B2C and B2B space. Customers will upload their 3D designs to the company website, the designs would then be 3D printed using industrial 3D printers and delivered to the customer.
So if you get that 3D printer, you know you can actually do a lot more than just printing your lost hearing aid.
The author is currently associate professor at the School of Management Sciences, Apeejay Stya University