What is 3D Printing?
3D Printing has actually been around a lot longer than you may realize. In 1986, the first U.S. Patent was granted for 3D Printing by Charles Hull for his new technology he dubbed Stereolithography. Hull’s patent (U.S. Patent 4,575,330) was entitled “Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography” and marked the creation of a new industry that would create an entirely new option for how things could be made that could be used by virtually anyone.
While Stereolithography was the first technology in the family of technologies we now call 3D Printing, there are actually a number of unique methods of 3D Printing, but they all share one common theme, an additive layered-based creation of physical objects, and that concept is the core of what makes 3D Printing different from everything else.
What does ‘an additive layered-based creation of physical objects’ mean? First it helps to understand the difference between Subtractive Manufacturing and Additive Manufacturing. Subtractive Manufacturing starts with a block of material and uses tools to remove sections bit by bit, as an artist would sculpting a statue from a block of stone. Whereas Additive Manufacturing starts with a totally empty work table, and adds material bit by bit, as you would building up a brick wall from scratch, from the bottom up.
The best way to describe this ‘additive layered-based creation of physical objects’ concept is to have you imagine a solid rubber ball and a deli slicer. Now, imagine putting the ball into the deli slicer and then slice by slice turning the ball into a stack of deli thin slices of rubber. Each slice would be its own circular disk. If you were to pick up all the slices and stack them in the correct order, you’d have the solid ball again. This is basically what is happening in a layered-based manufacturing process, commonly known as 3D Printing.
The ball in our example starts as a 3D CAD model created in a computer program by a CAD designer or engineer. Then specialized software slices the ball up into those very thin digital deli slices. The computer program then sends each slice to the 3D Printer to build each one consecutively one at a time. This works in a very similar fashion to how your home printer prints one page of document at time, each page can be thought of as a single slice. When the 3D Printer receives the first slice, it builds (or prints) the first tiny circular disk representing the very first slice of the ball. Then right on top of that first slice, it builds another slightly larger circular disk. Then on top of that one, another disk, and so on, disk by disk on top of one another until the ball has been fully re-created. This could take hundreds or thousands of disk slices depending on the size of the ball and thickness of the slice. Each different type of 3D Printing machine will allow for larger or smaller objects, and thicker or thinner layers depending on that 3D Printing technology’s unique characteristics.
Now we’ve just been talking about a ball and the resulting disks after slicing, but really any shape and lots of materials can go through this process. From a model of a house, a statue, a cell phone case, to at its limits, a human heart (yes, there are scientists and engineers actually working on that right now). One of the very best and unique aspects of 3D Printing is that because of this layered-based approach to building parts, extremely complex shapes can be created that other standard manufacturing technologies couldn’t even get close to. This aspect alone has really opened up the doors for producing very unique parts that were not possible before with traditional manufacturing technologies.
So now that you know that 3D Printing is actually a layered-based manufacturing process that creates objects slice by slice, layer by layer, in an additive fashion, you’re way ahead of the game when it comes time to learn about the details of each of the different 3D Printing technologies in our future articles to come.
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