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?
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.
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