Started From the Bottom Now We’re Here: The Rise of 3D Printing

3D Printed Globe

It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about the current state of manufacturing without mention of 3D printing, an additive process that uses digital CAD models to build physical, real-life objects, layer by layer. While additive manufacturing has existed for more than 30 years, it wasn’t until the last few that 3D printing, led by increased accessibility, has become the poster child for progressive technology within the industry — NASA prints telescope! Designers print runway pumps! Scientists bio-print human organs!

It’s undoubtedly an exciting time in manufacturing that has many eager to see what the future brings, but can the promise of a printed world withstand the heat? We deconstruct the layers of 3D printing to find the substance beneath the style.

The relationship between 3D printing and additive manufacturing is akin to Google and Web search or iPod and mp3 player. They’re essentially interchangeable with the former used much more frequently as an umbrella term that describes the latter. Technically, 3D printing refers to the process of building layered objects with an actual inkjet printer head; Z Corporation cleverly trademarked a process in the early 1990s called 3D printing (3DP), where a printer head solidifies powder layers with a liquid binder. However, a decade earlier, engineer Chuck Hull developed stereolithography (SL), which truly marked the dawn of 3D printing. Along with SL, which uses a fine laser to solidify layers of liquid thermoplastic resin, many other 3D printing technologies fall within additive manufacturing, namely:

  • Fused deposition modeling (FDM): spool of plastic filament or metal wire extruded from a nozzle into successive cross-sectional layers that form three-dimensional shapes
  • Selective laser sintering (SLS): thermoplastic nylon powder fused in layers to create solid objects
  • Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS): layers of atomized metal power fused to form fully dense metal objects
  • PolyJet (PJET): UV-curable photopolymers jetted by inkjet head, layer by layer, into final objects
  • Laminated object manufacturing (LOM): thin sheets of material cut and adhered together to form desired shapes
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