3D printing or Additive Manufacturing is the process of making a 3 dimensional object of virtually any shape or size from a digital model. 3D printing uses a process which adds successive layers of the chosen material in different shapes. Traditional Machining techniques mostly rely on removing excess material by cutting or drilling until a the desired shape is reached.
This is a great process that will save designers from having to create actual models and then spend the time and money to ship them to a client. I once, while living in Las Vegas, had to hire a moving company, found from reading their online Oasis Moving & Storage reviews to transport a (scaled down) prototype of an art project to a client in California. It was a delicate prototype that fortunately arrived without a mishap, which I was most grateful to Oasis Moving & Storage. However with a 3D printer I can send design concepts from anywhere in the world and they can be visualized 3 dimensionally by a client.
The first 3D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp. There has been an increase in the sales of these machines and their prices have dropped greatly. The applications this technology can be used for are endless because it is used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing. Applications range from architecture, construction (AEC), industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, civil engineering, dental and medical industries, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, food, and many other fields. Because 3D printers can easily offset their initial cost by enabling consumers to avoid costs associated with everyday items found in the home many people feel this technology will become a mass market item used in everyday life.
As of 2012, 3D printing tech. is being studied by bio-technology firms and the academic world for use in tissue engineering. This would allow organs and body parts to be built using inkjet techniques. This process calls for layers of living cells being deposited onto a gel medium or sugar matrix. Then it is slowly built up to form a 3 dimensional structure including vascular systems. At the current stage of development 3D printing can produce a personalized hip replacement with the ball permanently inside the socket and is possibly available in a resolution which does not require polishing.
The University of Glasgow, UK. showed in 2012 that it is possible to use 3D printing techniques to creates chemical compounds, this includes new ones. Cornell Creative Machines Lab confirmed it is possible to produce customized food with 3D Hydrocolloid Printing. NASA is conducting tests to assess to potential of this technology making space exploration cheaper and more efficient. Rocket parts have been built using 3D printing including two rocket engine injectors. These parts have performed as well as traditionally constructed parts during the hot fire tests conducted which exposed them to temperatures approaching 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit as well as extreme pressures.
3D scanning technology allows the replication a real object without a mold. This is important because in many cases the molding process can be very expensive or too invasive to be performed. This is the case for many precious or delicate cultural heritage artifacts where direct molding substances could harm the objects surface.
Cost is being driven down and demand is on the rise. We should be seeing an explosion in the number of units produced as well as new ways to use this amazing machine.