The Future of 3D Printing

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Imagine printing a new valve for a broken water faucet or a new plate when your five-year-old drops the good dishes. Imagine not being limited by commercial pipe sizes or designs requiring individual pieces that can be fit together by current commercial equipment. Imagine custom creating every gift giThe Future of 3D Printing

ven to each friend or family member to incorporate favorite song lyrics, literary quotations, inside jokes, or photographs. This world isn’t yet a reality, but it’s getting closer every day thanks to advancements in the field of rapid prototyping and 3-dimensional printing.


Traditional fabrication methods involve a great deal of effort, expense, and time. Specialists often have to create individualized molds, assemble multiple components, and construct items from multiple pieces. The process can involve many different materials, a wide variety of highly trained workers, and several expensive trials before the perfect object is finally created.

Rapid prototyping and 3-dimensional printing remove some of the time and expense from the process of creating new commercial and industrial objects. Instead of utilitizing a factory to create a sample for testing, self-contained printers create items from three-dimensional CAD drawings. These items are printed one layer at a time, permitting more creativity and control over the final shape than any other construction method. Printing is also faster, cutting the creation process down from days or weeks to mere hours for most items.


Rapid prototyping is not a new technology. Professor Herbert Voelker (then at the University of Rochester, now at Cornell University) began considering ways to take the output from computer designs and use them in some of the automated machinist tools just starting to appear in factories in the late 1960s. His efforts resulted in the first real mathematical models and algorithms for describing three dimensional parts. His work is the basis for most design tools used today and made rapid prototyping possible.

The next step involved a series of tools and machines that tried to automate object creation by cutting away at a solid mass of metal or other material based on a preset 3-dimensional design. This method continued to be popular (with mixed results) through the 1970s and early 1980s. Then in the mid-80s. University of Texas researcher Carl Deckard came up with the idea of printing objects layer by layer. The first commercial rapid prototyping machines using this layering technique were produced in 1987 by 3D Systems and unveiled to the public at the AUTOFACT trade show in Detroit in November of that year. This technique is still in use today, although it has been refined considerably.

How Does 3-D Printing Work?

The basic concept behind all 3-D printers is the same. 3-dimensional CAD drawings are sliced into layers ranging from approximately 0.09 to 0.25 millimeters thick depending on the machine being used. Each slice represents a single layer of the constructed object. Different printers use different materials and different binding processes, but generally a powder of ceramic, nylon, or even metal is used as the base material and fused together into the pattern for the layer currently being created. After the completion of a layer, the machine moves on to the next layer until it is completed.

For example, Z Corporation printers lay down a full layer of a composite powder then use an inkjet printer to print the binding agent and any color dyes onto the powder. The powder treated with binding agent solidifies, the rest of the powder remains loose. Two to four layers are printed per minute and the excess powder just falls off and can be reused in the next print job.

Desktop Factory printers use a slightly different approach. Powder is applied to a roller and a halogen lamp etches the pattern for a single layer onto this coating. When the layer is complete, it’s rolled off into a build area, the roller is cleaned, and the process begins again for the next layer. Layers are joined in the build area using heat and pressure.

Shapeways, an on-demand 3-D printing service aimed more at consumers than manufacturers, supports several different types of printing processes. Some of their parts are built using selective laser sintering (also called SLS), a process similar to the one used by Z Corporation but using lasers to fuse powders together rather than binder applied by inkjet technology. Other objects are built using fused deposition modeling (also called FDM) which involves extruding material through a nozzle onto a support structure that is later removed or dissolved. They also use a third printing method called Objet. Objet is a proprietary process; its details are not publicly available but Shapewaysdoes reveal that it involves lasers and a photo polymer.

There are several other methods of this type of layer-by-layer rapid prototyping, and more are being developed all the time.

Regardless of the physical printing process, 3-D printing generally begin from CAD drawings that are sliced into layers that act as templates for printing. Depending on the printer or service used, there may be software that does this slicing automatically or the user may be responsible for creating each layer (generally speaking, the process is automated in higher end models and manually performed for open source or less expensive printers).

Some printers or on-demand services incorporate more user-friendly design interfaces that don’t require extensive knowledge of CAD drawing systems. This is often accomplished by restricting the design elements or feeding user chosen options into basic designs created for them by experts. For example, Shapeways creates its Lightpoems with one basic design adjusted for specific text input by each customer. Specialty printers lower the bar further by getting data from outside sources such as a gaming world or geographic databases requiring little input from the customer beyond a simple definition of the desired data (the name of a character, the coordinates of a location, selecting a location from a provided map, etc.).