What is a 3-D Printer?

Back in June, the Wall Street Journal had a half-page article on 3-D printers. I had seen the term, and sort of somehow thought of it as a way to print things that one could look at with those goofy 3-D glasses we wear at the movies; somehow to make the object on the page jump out with depth perspective. Something like that.

But no, it's completely different. In an almost mind-bending manner, a 3-D printer actually is a system that combines a computer-aided-design capability along with a "build box" that is capable of constructing, thin laminated layer by thin laminated layer, a physical object. The computer instructs the printer head to move back and forth according to the pattern, spraying a mini-stratum of powder and/or binder as well as directing heat in a precise fashion to produce the designed shape.

Once that particular segmentation of the pattern is completed, the printer head makes another pass with small changes as programmed, and another is deposited and heated. This lamination process goes on, over and over—sometimes for hours—as subsequent vertical deposits of the design are added. The bottom of the "build box" is lowered to accommodate the object under construction to reach its designated size.

For some forms of material the process is completed at that time, while others undergo a heat treatment to harden and strengthen them them for industrial or medical usage. In the case of special metals that require high-temperature conditioning, a separate furnace is used for final finishing.

Two primary traditional methods have been used for centuries: the first a solid block of metal, wood, or other material that is cut, stamped, drilled, or shaved to create the desired shape; the second a process whereby liquefied plastic or metal is poured into a mold, then cooled into the final shape. The 3-D method adds a third option, and may be used not only for samples or prototypes, but also for small runs of production with a short cycle time.

The world market for these gizmos is estimated at between $2 and $3 billion in 2012, and is yet another new technology aimed at doing things faster, and in many cases less expensively.


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James Kennedy George, Jr (Jim George)
Author, Reunion, a novel about relationships.

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6 Responses

  1. jerry
    Bought stock in DDD some time back, look forward to 2012. It is being claimed this new technology will destroy the China economy that is based on cheap labor. I think it is wonderful that you can scan a coffee cup and get a plastic cup just like the one you scanned. I don't under stand how you get from the plastic cup to one that holds coffee and has use, or a plastic box wrench to one made of steel and has use ? There is more to this story than I understand at this point but it sounds interesting. jerry
  2. Joe Pontek
    I am glad to know that I am not the only one that had a misconception, and similar, of the 3D printers. After another friend had said he was going to try and make such and such at work on their 3D printer, I happened upon an article about making your own and learned what they actually were. My imagination runs wild with this concept. I hope this will enlighten more people, Jim.
  3. I've only seen reports showing items made of one solid material. Can they print with conductive material yet? Can they print a circuit board? Imagine going to your local Walmart and having a flat screen TV printed out while you wait.
  4. leon humbnle
    Hi Jim, I read the same WS article, technique has the potential to be a quick-turn prototyping vehicle. I am involved with the hearing aid industry and we have discussed using methodology for concept verification. Take care, Leon
  5. ST made the following observations in an email: Three-D printing is going real hi tech, you can now print transistors and other components on flexible surfaces and even do the AMOLED display on the same material. In a few years, you will be able to design/print your own phone to match your clothing for the day. 3-D printing is being targeted for factory automation where each product is unique. Clearly, it's the next wave of the technology world that will turn mass production into personal production. Many companies are in the start up phase of these printers and consolidation is already taking place in the industry. You can actually buy consumer versions for under 2K dollars now. One of the first applications is to design the case for your smartphone. How about going into a jeweler and having them design a custom back to fit your hand with embedded stones or metal sculptures. (My version of "I had a dream").....
  6. Comment to Kate's question. I doubt that we will see anything as complex as an LCD screen with 3-D printing, but as "ST" mentions in his email comments, apparently the technology now allows items such as transistors to be printed. So additional materials must be possible. Amazing! JG

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