Click on the picture below for a great start into the exciting wold of 3D printing. Courtesy of 3D Printing Industry.
3D printers are unlike a standard printer, for on a 3D printer an “object” is printed in three dimensions. A 3D model is built up layer by layer from whatever the material the printer is designed to use. Most of these types of printers use a plastic printing material known as ABS & PLA, (plus many other exotic materials) which is forced through heated extruders within the 3D printer. The whole process is called rapid prototyping, or 3D printing.
The biggest current drawback for the individual home user is still the high cost of 3D printers. Although there are many new start-ups coming into the 3D printing market which are beginning to bring the price down.
Another slight setback in todays modern want it now society, is that it can sometimes take hours or even days to print a 3D model (depending on the complexity and resolution of the model) but then again we feel it is worth the wait.
From scale models, gifts and clothing to prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and the prospect of 3D-printed homes, the possibilities seem endless.
It all starts with a concept. The first stage of 3D printing is laying out an original idea with digital modeling — that is, with computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software.
Whichever program you choose, you’re able to create a virtual blueprint of the object you want to print. The program then divides the object into digital cross-sections so the printer is able to build it layer by layer. The cross-sections essentially act as guides for the printer, so that the object is the exact size and shape you want. Both CAD and animation modeling software are WYSIWYG graphics editors — “what you see is what you get.”
The one thing we will say is, whichever software you choose and you may try several of the freebies before you find one you like, but when you do stick with it for at least 6 months, as getting used to 3D software applications takes time, patience and determination, but it will definitely be worth it in the long run. This is also the same for your 3D printer, if you decide to buy one, spend time getting used to it, don’t be afraid to experiment with it, that’s what it is there for and visit the 3D forums, they are well worth a look in, as there are some uber professional designers out there, just waiting to share their expertise with you.
Then again if you’re not particularly design-inclined, you can purchase, download or request ready-made designs from sites like Shapeways, Sculpteo or Thingiverse, My Mini Factory and instructables, there also are others cropping up all the time.
Once you have a completed design in your chosen software, you then send it to the 3D printer with the standard file extension .STL (for “stereolithography” or “Standard Tessellation Language“). STL files contain three-dimensional polygons that are sliced up so the printer can easily digest its information. Then to gcode – what is gcode you may ask, read here if you are at all interested. There is also a FREE (open source) piece of software that we can recommend that slices up that .stl data and coverts it to gcode for your 3D printer and that is ReplicatorG and you can download it here or slic3r which you can also download at http://slic3r.org/.
Now for the fun part. The first thing to note is that 3D printing is characterised as “additive” manufacturing, which means that a solid, three-dimensional object is constructed by adding material in layers. This is in contrast to regular “subtractive” manufacturing, through which an object is constructed by cutting (or “machining”) raw material into a desired shape. It is also very “addictive”, so do not be surprised if you find yourself staring at your new 3D printer for hours on end, watching it print out layer after layer.
Ok so after the finished design file is sent to the 3D printer, you then choose a specific material for printing with. This, depending on the printer, can be rubber, plastics, paper, polyurethane-like materials, metals and more.
Printer processes vary, but the material is usually sprayed, squeezed or otherwise transferred from the printer onto a platform. One printer in particular, the Makerbot Replicator 2, has a renewable bioplastic spooled in the back of the device (almost like string). When the printer is told to print something, it pulls the bioplastic filament through a tube and into an extruder, which heats it up and deposits it through a small hole and onto the build plate. This has since been superseded by its big brother the Makerbot Replicator 2 X, which has the name suggests has 2 extruders and so can print two colours and the same time. This has too be specified in the design software though.
Then the 3D printer makes passes (much like an inkjet printer) over the platform, depositing layer on top of layer of material to create the finished product (and if you look closely — you can see the layers). This can take several hours or days depending on the size and complexity of the object. The average 3D-printed layer is approximately 100 microns (or micrometers), which is equivalent to 0.1 millimetres. Throughout the process, the different layers are automatically fused to create a single three-dimensional object.
There may soon come a time when 3D printing is not seen as a geeks toy, but the next piece of home furniture that we just cannot do without, but until that day we can but wonder what the world of 3D has in store for us all.
What will you print today
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