3D printing is an interesting form of technology when you think about it. For those of you who don't know what 3D printing is, it is a form of manufacturing also called additive manufacturing. This technology allows for the creation of virtually any shape out of a large variety of materials to choose from. These materials consist of ceramics, thermoplastics, and metals, including precious metals. There are over 60 materials to choose from. This is great for prototyping products and designs, as they can be created in such a wide variety of materials. The rubber within a handheld phone can be prototyped, functional parts can be created, and snap on parts can be created. There is massive potential for creation!
So how does the 3D printing process work? Before anything begins to be prototyped, it has to be designed. A 3D developer will create a model on the computer to be used as a blueprint for printing. On this model, thickness, ridges, and curves will be drawn out on every aspect of the model. One side note about 3D printing - it has almost entire geometrical independence on some machines. By that I mean almost any shape can be designed to be manufactured. Some forms of manufacturing like milling or CNC cutting don't offer this kind of independence, as they are designed to be cut by a drill. With milling and CNC cutting, 3D developers have to design products a specific way and are limited in what can be created. Not quite the same with 3D printing.
After the model is developed and ready to be used for manufacturing, the computer file will be sent to a 3D printer - or the machine used to manufacture models through the process of 3D printing. When a product is manufactured on a 3D printer, it is done like this: The printer will lay down layers of powder as thin as a few microns.
(The diameter of a human hair is around 20 microns) These industrial 3D printers will then proceed to fuse these layers together, one miniature layer at a time. The process of fusing these layers together consists of precise laser melting, or the use of adhesive chemicals. So imagine that! The 3D printing process has a laser melting miniature layers of powder together, or a jet is gluing these powders together. The levels of precision are ridiculous with this technology! If a designer can access a 3D scan of a person's face, it can be printed... in color! The process is very interesting; the layers of powder I mentioned earlier will keep stacking and fusing. These layers are very small; it might take 400 layers to create a product only a couple inches tall. This powder being laid down will consist of a specific material. The powder could be metals, thermoplastics, or ceramics. Over 60 materials are available within 3D printing. So, in a nutshell, 3D printing is the layer by layer laser melting or adhesive fusion of one of over 60 materials in accordance to a computer blueprint. 3D printing can create virtually any shape unlike other forms of manufacturing, and offers a wide variety of material choices.