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An Intern's Look At 3D Printing

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Over the past decade, 3D printing has skyrocketed in both advancement and use. 3D printing has a variety of processes, although they all begin the same way. Initially you need a design. In most cases that design would be a 3D model of the part you want to create. Then, that 3D model file is uploaded to a mathematical slicer that dissects the part into thousands of layers that can be as thin as 0.005.” Each 3D printer then renders the model with these slices and begins to print the part, slice by slice. Some of the most common types of 3D printing processes are:

  • FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling)
  • SLA (Stereolithography)
  • SLS (Selective Laser Sintering)

FDM is your typical desktop 3D printing. This is both the most common and (usually) the cheapest print method. FDM extrudes plastic filament, layer by layer . The plastic filament is heated through a nozzle extruder where the plastic is then melted onto the base plate. There are many different plastic filament types that can be used, depending on the application of the model or prototype. Common plastics are: ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), polycarbonate, HIPS (high impact polystyrene), PLA (polylactic acid), etc. Sometimes people use two filament types within one 3D printed model. Some printers offer dual extruders where one filament may be used as supporting material while the other is the base material.

SLA shares the layer by layer slicing style of printing, but is a little different from FDM. SLA works with a resin-based plastic instead of a heated plastic filament. The resin is liquid plastic that is hardened through the 3D printing process. In SLA, an ultraviolet laser is projected onto an XY-axis plane. The laser fuses molecules to harden each payer of resin. This is repeated over and over till the model is formed.

The final common 3D printing process is SLS which is very similar to SLA. This process also involves an ultraviolet laser, but a powdered material is used instead of a plastic resin. The same layer-by-layer method is still used, but applied to the material powder. The material powder can be known as sinter powder and is typically a metal-based powder. This 3D process can create parts on the more durable side of the spectrum. These metal powders can include titanium, steel, and aluminum.

Today, 3D printing is widely used in almost every industry including automotive, medicine, architecture, education, and much more.  3D printing can also be used on almost any scale, down to 100nm or up to full-sized vehicles. Microprinting has recently been developed, causing M.I.T. to announce (2014), in “10 Breakthrough Technologies,” that microscale 3D printing was considered a technological advancement. Scientists are currently working on the possibility of printing living cells using a bio-print substance to print tissue. Once that is possible, doctors will print tissue to replace burned skin or even to address skin diseases.

3D printing has come a long way since it was introduced in 1984. I look forward to seeing the capabilities that 3D printing will offer in the near future.

Until Next Time,

John