3 years ago by in Featured, Technology, Technology

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).

A materials printer usually performs 3D printing processes using digital technology. The first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp. Since the start of the 21st century there has been a large growth in the sales of these machines, and their price has dropped substantially.

The 3D printing technology is used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing with applications in architecture, construction (AEC), industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, civil engineering, dental and medical industries, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, food, and many other fields.


Charles W. Hull is the inventor of the modern 3D printer and originator of de facto standard technologies. The first published account of a printed solid model was made in 1981 by Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. The technology has improved substantially since that first published account.

The term additive manufacturing refers to technologies that create objects through a sequential layering process. Objects that are manufactured additively can be used anywhere throughout the product life cycle, from pre-production (i.e. rapid prototyping) to full-scale production (i.e. rapid manufacturing), in addition to tooling applications and post-production customization.

In manufacturing, and machining in particular, subtractive methods are typically coined as traditional methods. The very term subtractive manufacturing is a retronym developed in recent years to distinguish it from newer additive manufacturing techniques. Although fabrication has included methods that are essentially “additive” for centuries (such as joining plates, sheets, forgings, and rolled work via riveting, screwing, forge welding, or newer kinds of welding), it did not include the information technology component of model-based definition. Machining (generating exact shapes with high precision) has typically been subtractive, from filing and turning to milling and grinding.



Additive manufacturing takes virtual blueprints from computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software and “slices” them into digital cross-sections for the machine to successively use as a guideline for printing. Depending on the machine used, material or a binding material is deposited on the build bed or platform until material/binder layering is complete and the final 3D model has been “printed.” It is a WYSIWYG process where the virtual model and the physical model are almost identical.

A standard data interface between CAD software and the machines is the STL file format. An STL file approximates the shape of a part or assembly using triangular facets. Smaller facets produce a higher quality surface. PLY is a scanner generated input file format, and VRML (or WRL) files are often used as input for 3D printing technologies that are able to print in full color.


To perform a print, the machine reads the design from an .stl file and lays down successive layers of liquid, powder, paper or sheet material to build the model from a series of cross sections. These layers, which correspond to the virtual cross sections from the CAD model, are joined or automatically fused to create the final shape. The primary advantage of this technique is its ability to create almost any shape or geometric feature.

Printer resolution describes layer thickness and X-Y resolution in dpi (dots per inch), or micrometers. Typical layer thickness is around 100 micrometers (µm), although some machines such as the Objet Connex series and 3D Systems’ ProJet series can print layers as thin as 16 µm. X-Y resolution is comparable to that of laser printers. The particles (3D dots) are around 50 to 100 µm in diameter.

Construction of a model with contemporary methods can take anywhere from several hours to several days, depending on the method used and the size and complexity of the model. Additive systems can typically reduce this time to a few hours, although it varies widely depending on the type of machine used and the size and number of models being produced simultaneously.

Traditional techniques like injection molding can be less expensive for manufacturing polymer products in high quantities, but additive manufacturing can be faster, more flexible and less expensive when producing relatively small quantities of parts. 3D printers give designers and concept development teams the ability to produce parts and concept models using a desktop size printer.


Though the printer-produced resolution is sufficient for many applications, printing a slightly oversized version of the desired object in standard resolution, and then removing material with a higher-resolution subtractive process can achieve greater precision.

Some additive manufacturing techniques are capable of using multiple materials in the course of constructing parts. Some are able to print in multiple colors and color combinations simultaneously. Some also utilize supports when building. Supports are removable or dissolvable upon completion of the print, and are used to support overhanging features during construction.


Several different 3D printing processes have been invented since the late 1970s. The printers were originally large, expensive, and highly limited in what they could produce.

A number of additive processes are now available. They differ in the way layers are deposited to create parts and in the materials that can be used. Some methods melt or soften material to produce the layers, e.g. selective laser melting (SLM) or direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM), while others cure liquid materials using different sophisticated technologies, e.g. stereolithography(SLA). With laminated object manufacturing (LOM), thin layers are cut to shape and joined together (e.g. paper, polymer, metal). Each method has its own advantages and drawbacks, and some companies consequently offer a choice between powder and polymer for the material from which the object is built. Some companies use standard, off-the-shelf business paper as the build material to produce a durable prototype. The main considerations in choosing a machine are generally speed, cost of the 3D printer, cost of the printed prototype, and cost and choice of materials and color capabilities.

Printers that work directly with metals are expensive. In some cases, however, less expensive printers can be used to make a mould, which is then used to make metal parts.



Printers for domestic use

Several projects and companies are making efforts to develop affordable 3D printers for home desktop use. Much of this work has been driven by and targeted at DIY/enthusiast/early adopter communities, with additional ties to the academic and hacker communities.

RepRap is one of the longest running projects in the desktop category. The RepRap project aims to produce a free and open source software (FOSS) 3D printer, whose full specifications are released under the GNU General Public License, and which is capable of replicating itself by printing many of its own (plastic) parts to create more machines. Research is under way to enable the device to print circuit boards and metal parts.

Because of the FOSS aims of RepRap, many related projects have used their design for inspiration, creating an ecosystem of related or derivative 3D printers, most of which are also open source designs. The availability of these open source designs means that variants of 3D printers are easy to invent. The quality and complexity of printer designs, however, as well as the quality of kit or finished products, varies greatly from project to project. This rapid development of open source 3D printers is gaining interest in many spheres as it enables hyper-customization and the use of public domaindesigns to fabricate open source appropriate technology through conduits such as Thingiverse and Cubify. This technology can also assist initiatives insustainable development since technologies are easily and economically made from resources available to local communities.

The cost of 3-D printers has decreased dramatically since about 2010, with machines that used to cost $20,000 costing less than $1,000. For instance, as of 2013, several companies and individuals are selling parts to build various RepRap designs, with prices starting at about €400 / US$500. The price of printer kits vary from US$400 for the Printrbot Jr. (derived from the previous RepRap models), to US$599 for the RoBo 3D Printer to over US$2000 for the Fab@Home 2.0 two-syringe system. The Shark 3D printer comes fully assembled for less than US$2000. The open source Fab@Home project has developed printers for general use with anything that can be squirted through a nozzle, from chocolate to silicone sealant and chemical reactants. Printers following the project’s designs have been available from suppliers in kits or in pre-assembled form since 2012 at prices in the US$2000 range.

Printers for commercial and domestic use

The development and hyper-customization of the RepRap-based 3D printers has produced a new category of printers suitable for both domestic and commercial use. The least expensive assembled machine available is the Solidoodle 2, while the RepRapPro’s Huxley DIY kit is reputedly one of the more reliable of the lower-priced machines, at around US$680. There are other RepRap-based high-end kits and fully assembled machines that have been enhanced to print at high speed and high definition. Depending on the application, the print resolution and speed of manufacturing lies somewhere between a personal printer and an industrial printer. A list of printers with pricing and other information is maintained. Most recently delta robots have been utilized for 3D printing to increase fabrication speed further.


Predive manufacturing, starting with today’s infancy period, require manufacturing firms to be flexible, ever-improving users of all available technologies in order to remain competitive. Advocates of additive manufacturing also predict that this arc of technological development will counter globalisation, as end users will do much of their own manufacturing rather than engage in trade to buy products from other people and corporations. The real integration of the newer additive technologies into commercial production, however, is more a matter of complementing traditional subtractive methods rather than displacing them entirely.

Gun control

As an example of possible future applications, an open source group emerged in the US in 2012 that was attempting to design a firearm that was downloadable and printable from the Internet. The weapon would still require bullets produced by traditional methods. Calling itself Defense Distributed, the group wants to facilitate “a working plastic gun that could be downloaded and reproduced by anybody with a 3D printer”. Soon after Defense Distributed succeeded in designing the first working blueprint to produce a plastic gun with a 3D printer in May 2013, the United States State Department demanded that they remove the instructions from their website.

After Defense Distributed released their plans, questions were raised regarding the effects that 3D printing and widespread consumer-level CNC machining may have on gun control effectiveness.

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 The United States Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Regional Intelligence Center released a memo which was obtained by Fox News, saying that “Significant advances in three-dimensional (3D) printing capabilities, availability of free digital 3D printer files for firearms components, and difficulty regulating file sharing may present public safety risks from unqualified gun seekers who obtain or manufacture 3D printed guns,” and “Proposed legislation to ban 3D printing of weapons may deter, but cannot completely prevent their production. Even if the practice is prohibited by new legislation, online distribution of these digital files will be as difficult to control as any other illegally traded music, movie or software files.”

Internationally, where gun controls are generally tighter than in the United States, some commentators have said the impact may be more strongly felt, as alternative firearms are not as easily obtainable. European officials have noted that producing a 3d printed gun would be illegal under their gun control laws, and that criminals have access to other sources of weapons, but noted that as the technology improved the risks of an effect would increase. Downloads of the plans from the UK, Germany, Spain, and Brazil were heavy.

Attempting to restrict the distribution over the Internet of gun plans has been likened to the futility of preventing the widespread distribution of DeCSS which enabled DVD ripping. After the US government had Defense Distributed take down the plans, they were still widely available via The Pirate Bay and other file sharing sites. Some US legislators have proposed regulations on 3D printers, to prevent them being used for printing guns. 3D printing advocates have suggested that such regulations would be futile, could cripple the 3D printing industry, and could infringe on free speech rights.


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