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3D Printing Beginners Guide

by Cameron Williams on December 07, 2021

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, creates objects by laying down materials in thin layers to build a physical version of a digital model. Flexible, fast and efficient, this innovative technology is being used to create a huge range of products from sunglasses and jewellery to medical prosthetics and implants. In this beginner’s guide we’ll outline the basics of the process, the materials that can be used and some interesting applications.

TECH

Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques that shape items from a large block and waste a lot of original material, 3D printing is precise and efficient with minimal waste. It doesn’t require multiple expensive tools or complicated assembly and has unmatched design flexibility for complex features.

No matter which technique is used, all 3D printing follows the same core procedure. It begins with a 3D digital CAD (Computer Aided Design) model created using a software programme. In the next step, a slicing software converts the design into layers that detail what the printer will do to create the solid 3D object. Some of the many software options out there including Cura, PrusaSlicer and, probably the most widely used Fusion 360.

When it comes to the machines there are two main types of 3D printer: Fuel Deposition Modelling (FDM) and Resin. Stereolithography (SLA) is the oldest Resin technology however Digital Light Processing (DLP), and Liquid-Crystal Display (LCD) are the newer guys on the block.

With FDM, material filament is melted to the relevant temperature and laid down on the print bed in layers by an extruder nozzle. Each layer is very thin, typically 100 microns (one tenth of a millimetre), resulting in a smooth finish. FDM is relatively cheap and easy to use making this the most popular type. Thermoplastics like PLA and ABS are typically used with this method. PLA (Polylactic Acid) is derived from renewable sources such as cornstarch and sugarcane and in the correct industrial composters it is actually biodegradable (however, not in regular composting conditions). The benefits of PLA are that it’s easy to print with, has a low melting temperature and most PLA filament is safe for food-related items. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is stronger and more durable and is recyclable but is more sensitive to temperatures in the printing process.

The Resin method works with ultraviolet lasers that selectively harden liquid resin in layers to build the final piece. Resin is capable of very intricate detail and a micron layer thickness ranging from 25-100 producing a quality final product with a smooth surface. The resin is a light-reactive thermoset material in which molecules join together and solidify when exposed to certain wavelengths. As with the thermoplastic filaments, resins vary in type and properties and less environmentally-toxic resins are available.

Although plastic is currently the most widespread material used in 3D printing, constant developments are being made in the use of metals, ceramics, sand, foodstuffs and other bio materials.


WHAT IS IT USED FOR?

Rapid prototyping was the original use of 3D printing as it enabled large corporations to quickly create and assess models of a product or component part before large-scale production. While this is still one of the major applications of 3D printing, the technology is now more economically accessible to smaller businesses and individuals and is becoming a main manufacturing process for a wide range of industries.

In the medical and dental sectors, 3D printing enables individualised designs for prosthetics, implants, hearing aids and orthodontic items, as well as the rapid production of necessary PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in recent months. The architecture and construction industry is utilising 3D printing to fabricate homes, commercial buildings and other public structures, such as bridges. The design freedom and opportunities for experimentation afforded by the 3D manufacturing process make it appealing to the art world. Ceramics, sculptures, 3D renditions of paintings, haute couture pieces and intricate customized jewellery are just a few examples of the ways artists are using the technology in innovative ways.

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