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3D printing

by Chris Marker

Imagine never having to go out to the shops to buy a product again. Instead you would sit at home press a button on your 3D printer and wait a few minutes for your product to be built. This may sound like science fiction but it is closer to reality than you may imagine.   

3D printing is the process of using a digital file to make three dimensional solid objects which are built up gradually in layers using materials such as plastics. 3D printing was originally developed by Charles Hull in 1986.  Hull named his method stereolithography; it is a photopolymerisation technique that uses a vat of liquid ultraviolet curable photopolymer resin and an ultraviolet laser to build the objects layers one at a time.  Since its invention 3D printing has been used in rapid prototyping to make objects quickly in order to test their form, fit and function. It is now being taken increasing seriously as a manufacturing process by large corporations.

There are a number of different methods of 3D printing but they all follow the same principles. A virtual design of the object being made will be produced on a computer. This design will be transformed into thin, virtual, horizontal cross-sections. The 3D printer will read in the data from the computer drawing and lay down successive layers of liquid, powder, or sheet material, to build up a model from the series of cross sections. These layers will then be joined together or fused automatically to create the final shape. The model can be built up in a matter of hours or in a number of days depending on the complexity of the object being built. 3D printing techniques include:

• Selective laser sintering
• Direct metal laser sintering  
• Fused deposition modeling
• Stereolithography
• Laminated object manufacturing  
• Electron beam melting
• Powder bed and inkjet head 3d printing

The primary advantage to 3D printing is its ability to create almost any shape or geometric feature; this allows it to produce many different objects. In 2010 Urbee was the first car to have its entire body shell printed out. In 2011 the first printed plane was flown by researchers from the University of Southampton. In 2012 scientists from Exeter University developed a device to print chocolate enabling people to make their own sweets. Also in 2012 University of Glasgow researchers have used a £1,250 system to create a range of organic compounds and inorganic clusters to create drugs.

As 3D printing technology is still in its infancy large scale rapid manufacturing using this process is still a year or two in the future. With increasing research and development however the day when you can just print what you want cannot be too far away.

Inspec covers all aspects of 3D printing, control terms include:

• rapid prototyping (industrial)
• laminated object manufacturing
• laser sintering
• laser manufacturing
• prototypes
• stereolithography
• three-dimensional printing
• virtual prototyping
• production engineering computing
• ink jet printing

classifications include:

• e1510 Manufacturing systems
• e1520Z Other manufacturing processes
• c7480 Production engineering computing
• e0410D Industrial applications of IT
• e14 Design