By Yap Shiwen



3D Printing is an additive manufacturing technology that can build physical objects from digital data. A technological field that is rapidly developing and advancing, it opens up possibilities for entrepreneurship, engineering, software development, business and development. It is also a common technology that has been around since the 1960s but has gained public attention only recently, with the emergence and marketing success of Pirate 3DP, a Singapore-based startup.

This primer is meant to cover the most basic elements of the subject and provide a general understanding of the foundational elements of a subject. It is nothing more than to provide a general overview of the field of 3D printing, its background, application and the future developments that await.

What is 3D Printing

What is 3D printing? Its a form of additive manufacturing technology that allows for production of physical objects from digital data, constructing an object of virtually any shape layer-by-layer, by depositing material layers in sequence.

The data for the 3D model, in the form of an STL file, is rendered and sliced into cross-sectional planes, and is then directed to the 3D printer which constructs the object layer-by-layer, with each layer being a cross-section. The physical process is carried out on a platform called the build tray.

This  3D printing is distinct from traditional machining techniques. Conventional manufacturing relies more upon assembly of components created mostly by subtractive manufacturing processes such as cutting or drilling.  As such,  construction of 3-dimensional solids by 3D printing comes with more complex geometries and greater precision than that of conventional manufacturing.

A 3D printer is a materials printer platform that fabricates the desired object, based on the digital data input and using 3D printing processes. The first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by the American inventor Charles W. Hull of 3D Systems Corporation. Hull is currently the Co-Founder, Executive VP and CTO of 3D Systems.He is credited with inventing stereolithography (3D Printing), the first commercial rapid prototyping technology, as well as the STL (Standard Tesselation Language/Stereolithography) file format. The STL format is the current industry standard, used in most domestic and commercial applications involving 3D printing.

3D printing can be used across a range of industries, with applications in rapid prototyping, distributed manufacturing, the AEC (Architecture, Engineering & Construction) fields, industrial design, biotechnology (tissue engineering), pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, automotive, aerospace, military use, engineering, civil engineering, dental and medical industries, fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, food and other specialised tasks.

With further development, other applications expected from 3D printing are rapid production capabilities, though they cannot and are not expected to match conventional manufacturing technologies.

As with any new technology, it will not displace conventional manufacturing technologies, but will instead complement it and fulfill niches that conventional manufacturing is unable to fulfill, especially in the area of specialist designs and customisation.

Some of the benefits of 3D printing are:

  • reduced costs

  • rapid production

  • on-demand production model

  • reduced material wastage

  • greater production quality of goods

The upsides of 3D printing revolve around customization of design. NASA, the US space agency, now uses 3D printers to make otherwise expensive rocket components, in order to provide a native ability to make prototypes and test them, as well as produce them on-site rather than outsource it to an external contractor, as well as to reduce costs. Doctors and biomedical engineers use 3D printers to produce custom titanium hip replacements that fit a patients unique anatomy.

“Complexity is free, so customisation is free”, as Duane Scott of Shapeways described one of the benefits of 3D printing. A roomful of identical chairs may cost much lesser than a roomful of custom-fit seats when using traditional manufacturing methods—but with 3D printing they would cost the same as their differently designed counterparts, as long as the materials are the same. This is because you can use different designs for each individual item the need to reset machinery or to fabricate new molds.

Another advantage of 3D printing is the increasing ease-of-use of CAD software, vital in object design. Standard CAD requires hundreds of hours of learning due to its complexity. But slowly, simpler CAD interfaces are evolving towards the point that casual users will be able to use them. At the same time, this will only allow for simple geometric designs, rather than the incredibly complex designs that CAD used for engineering work is capable of. This will get easier as time and development simplifies CAD software to the point of casual use.

Finally, in economic terms, 3D printing undermines economies of scale. With the ability to produce an object from an easily copied and disseminated digital file, three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands, by removing the traditional assembly line from the model. It thus undermines economies of scale. There is no need for transport, an entire supply chain or even a retail environment in some cases. It necessitates creating a new business model.

These are a summary of the direct and many more indirect benefits to 3D printing, but as with any emerging technology, it also has its limitations and challenges to overcome. And there are some tasks it can do but which existing technologies can do better.

Next article – Limitation on 3D printing

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