Dubbed “The next industrial revolution” by commentators including the BBC, 3D printing has become a buzzword across industries as diverse as fashion, healthcare, construction and even food. Last week even saw a successful operation to reconstruct a man’s face using 3D printed bone. But what’s 3D printing all about?
Definition of 3D printing
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, builds objects layer by layer, in contrast to traditional manufacturing that uses moulds or assembles different parts.
The technology has been around for decades but has only recently been commercialised on a level accessible to the average consumer. You can now buy a 3D printer for as little as £500 and simply plug it into your laptop to start “printing” basic products.
How does 3D printing work?
There are essentially two main types of domestic or light industrial 3d printing, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Stereolithography (SL). Other heavier industrial printers use proprietary technologies that are typically more advanced forms of extrusion or SL.
FDM works by using an extruder (nozzle) and a filament in a coil attached to the machine. The machine “prints” each layer with the nozzle in a similar manner to an inkjet printhead. Layers can vary in thickness depending on the resolution of the machine. In general FDM-printed objects are cruder and rougher than SL-printed objects, but there is a lot of variation between the different FDM machines.
There are two main types of filament as follows:
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS): This was the first type of filament to come onto the market. It is typically tougher than PLA and gives a slightly smoother finish. Also, it must be heated to be used in a 3d printer.
Polylactic acid (PLA): This is becoming a much more popular filament for 3d printing. It’s two main advantages are that it is biodegradable (as it’s made from corn starch) and can be used without heating in a 3d printer. Therefore many of the cheaper printers use PLA only. However, the finish is often cruder and the items printed less durable than with ABS.
Both ABS and PLA are available in a variety of colours, and most machines are compatible with either generic PLA or ABS filaments, or both. There are two sizes of filament – 1.75mm and 3.00mm diameter. Not all machines are compatible with all diameters, so it is important to check what diameter works best for your project.
Stereolithography (SL) works by using a UV-reactive resin in a tank and a UV laser that “prints” by curing the resin layer by layer, with the result being a printed object in hardened resin that is then removed from the tank. The remaining resin can then be re-used. At the moment there is only one SL printer on the market for domestic or small business use, the Form 1 by Form Labs. The quality of the end product is very good but the print area is very small, and the resin is only available in 2 colours, so if you wanted a different colour you would have to sand and treat the object.
What is the best 3D printer?
When it comes to buying a 3D printer for a specific project or small business needs, there are a number of factors you must consider in order to find the right printer for you,
Quality of output
Most FDM printers, whether using PLA or ABS plastic, still produce products where the lines from each print layer are visible. However using higher-quality composites and even metals rather than plastic helps to improve output quality (as long as the printer is compatible).
Alternatively, SL printers such as the Form 1 from FormLabs produce a much smoother finish by curing a resin base material with a laser. Another way to improve the quality of output is to combine a standard FDM printer with sanding and finishing processes.
Size of printer
Most household and small commercial 3D printers have a print bed area of between 400 and 800 cm2 and a height of between 15 and 30 cm. However for larger items, particularly architectural prototypes, tower printers such as the Delta Tower, a German-Swiss joint venture product, can be especially useful.
Here it is important to distinguish between machine cost and per unit production cost. In terms of machine cost, some of the more economical printers include the Ultimaker (UK), Makerbot (USA), Sharebot (Italy), Bee (Portugal) and Witbox (Spain).The production cost depends a lot on the type of filament used, and how many units the machine can realistically produce in a given timeframe.
How can 3D printing be used by businesses?
In the very near future, 3D printers are likely to be as commonplace in the small business office (or spare room) as inkjet printers are today. Already commercially accessible and affordable, 3D printing technology offers companies the opportunity to generate new products, enhance existing ones, and build entirely new business models. For any business with a physical product or design element, an understanding of 3D printing is becoming increasingly essential.
At present, unit production costs are still too high to make large-scale additive manufacturing economically feasible. However, there are still many ways business are starting to take advantage of the technology.
By “printing” unique components or small products, businesses can offer something truly unique to their clients. For example, a fashion or accessories brand can offer a personalised component that can be added to a generic product. 3D printing is also being used to produce small, personalised gifts that can be ordered online.
Particularly for architectural or product design firms, 3D printing provides a cost-effective way to make prototypes and mock-ups for client approval. It often takes less time to produce than traditional manual methods and provides a more accurate and attractive result.
There are now a number of “printed” spare parts available for various machines, but these are likely to be produced by an industrial 3D printer (like Voxeljet in Germany) and ordered especially rather than printed in house. However, as the technology improves and costs come down, expect to see companies printing their own spare parts in a few years time.
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B2B Marketing products
Companies can print a small number of giveaways such as keyholders or phone covers as part of their B2B marketing efforts. This trend can be observed in particular at trade fairs and exhibitions, where companies can save by printing just enough giveaways for visitors to their stands rather than ordering excessive quantities.