Innovation

3D printing: The smart person's guide

This comprehensive guide covers the rise of 3D printing, common use cases, and what organizations adopting this technology need to know.

3D printing is a revolutionary advancement in the way industries design and manufacture products. For decades, 3D printing has been used for industrial purposes, to quickly produce parts for rapid prototyping before employing traditional manufacturing techniques. Now, with the increased precision of 3D printers, and a dramatic increase in the lifetime durability of 3D printed parts, many industries are adopting 3D printing as a form of just-in-time manufacturing to reduce design complexity, warehousing costs, and simplify supply chains.

For hobbyists, 3D printing allows for the custom creation of parts to meet the needs of their projects, such as a plastic housing for a circuit board. Websites like Thingiverse feature crowdsourced designs for replacement car parts to 3D printed art.

This guide to 3D printing is both an easily digestible introduction to a new paradigm, as well as a "living" guide that will be updated periodically to keep IT leaders in the loop on new 3D printing technologies and ways in which they can be leveraged.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

    • What is 3D printing? 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a catchall term for a variety of technologies that allow for the creation of individual three-dimensional objects.
    • Why does 3D printing matter? 3D printing allows for rapid prototyping of industrial parts without the costs of one-off prototype manufacturing. 3D printing can also be leveraged to create production-quality parts on demand, reducing the need for warehouses.
    • Who does 3D printing affect? While additive manufacturing has been in use in industrial settings for decades, the rapidly decreasing cost of printers and various types of materials that can be used make 3D printers an economical solution for hobbyists.
    • When is 3D printing happening? 3D printers have seen increasing popularity since 2010, as prices for printer hardware have fallen.
    • How do I get a 3D printer? 3D printers are now ubiquitous enough that users can purchase one in big box electronic or hardware stores, and can be used with computers running Windows 10, OS X, or any modern Linux distribution.

      Additional resources:

      m3d-pro-with-filament.jpg

      M3D Pro

      Image: M3D

      SEE: DIY-IT Project: 3D printing discovery series (ZDNet)

      What is 3D printing?

      3D printing is a catchall term that refers to a variety of additive manufacturing technologies first introduced in Japan in 1981. Different 3D printing technologies are used depending on the type of printer in use, and the type of material being printed.

      Extrusion printing such as fused deposition modeling (FDM) or fused filament fabrication (FFF) is the most common type of printer, due in large part to the low cost of printing hardware and thermoplastic materials.

      Photopolymer printers, which use a liquid resin cured by ultraviolet light, are increasingly affordable for small projects and hobbyists. Printers such as LittleRP and mUVe are attractive options, and they can use resin from third-party vendors such as MakerJuice at a reduced price. B9Creations is a high-precision photopolymer printer that is accurate to 30 micrometers, though the increased precision comes with a higher price.

      Powder bed printing allows for the printing of metal alloys, polymers, and other materials such as plaster and calcium carbonate. Various types of powder bed printers exist, including powder bed / inkjet head (3DP), electron-beam melting (EBM), selective laser melting (SLM), and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS).

      For thermoplastics, selective heat sintering (SHS) and selective laser sintering (SLS) printers are available. These types of printers are generally rarer and reserved for industrial applications, with printer prices starting at $50,000 and exceeding $1 million depending on the type of printing, material used, and maximum printable area. Due to the cost of printers that work directly with metals, you may choose to use 3D printers to create a plastic mold for the traditional fabrication of metal parts.

      Additional resources:

      Why does 3D printing matter?

      Various industries can benefit from the increased speed and reduced costs of 3D printing compared to traditional methods of rapid prototyping.

      For engineering firms, having the ability to create an object using an onsite 3D printer (rather than sending the design to a manufacturing facility, perhaps on a different continent) can speed up a given workflow by weeks and save substantial amounts in courier fees alone. With in-house prototype manufacturing, worries of IP theft by a third-party facility are nonexistent. For finalized designs, 3D printing in manufacturing can reduce warehousing costs by moving to a just-in-time production model. This is particularly helpful for niche products with low install bases.

      SEE: Learn 3D Modelling and Texturing from Scratch with Blender (TechRepublic Academy)

      Volkswagen Autoeuropa estimates that the organization saved $160,000 in parts in 2016, while reducing project lead time from 40 to 90% by using Ultimaker 3D printers rather than external vendors for tools, jigs, and fixtures used for assembling automobiles.

      For creative works such as custom jewelry, 3D printed samples for design and fit are quick and cost-efficient demonstrations.

      Additional resources:

      Who does 3D printing affect?

      In addition to the aforementioned industrial uses, 3D printing allows hobbyists to create unique items in their homes or local makerspaces, and share those designs as parts in larger projects. Designers can share their designs on websites such as Thingiverse. This is particularly helpful for hardware projects, like a blade server-esque rack for Raspberry Pi units.

      For car enthusiasts, 3D printing is an increasingly popular solution for replacement car parts, as stocks of original parts may be depleted or significantly marked up. The global nature of design sharing, combined with the relative speed with which 3D printers can produce items, is a significant advantage over waiting weeks for parts ordered from overseas to clear customs. Seemingly, no car or part is too obscure—users on Thingiverse have shared designs for things as small as replacement keyfob buttons for a 2003 Citroën Xsara Picasso, and a steering column bearing sleeve for the original Volkswagen Scirocco.

      As 3D printing allows for the rapid, low-cost creation of single use objects, it has been used to great success in biotech. Doctors have used 3D printers to treat children with tracheobronchomalacia, a medical condition which causes the windpipe to occasionally collapse, preventing normal breathing. With a customized splint designed to change shape and be absorbed into the body, patients diagnosed with this terminal disease have been cured. 3D printing has been used in veterinary biotech, used to create orthopedic knee implants which fix common injuries in dogs' hind leg ligaments.

      Additional resources:

      When is 3D printing happening?

      3D printing is rapidly reaching the level of being a social phenomenon, in much the same way that previous advances in technology (such as smartphones) have been. The first Jolla Phone had official resources for users to print their own phone covers. Various other strange uses for 3D printing have been devised. 3D printing has made headway into the art world, with a 3D printed version of the Mona Lisa produced as part of a project for blind people to appreciate famous paintings.

      As internet-connected printers are becoming more ubiquitous, the security practices of 3D printer designs, among other Internet of Things (IoT) systems are coming under increased scrutiny.

      Additional resources:

      How do I get a 3D printer?

      3D printers are increasingly ubiquitous. In the US, standard FDM printers can be purchased in various big box electronics and hardware stores for under $1,000. For the DIY crowd, you can build a 3D printer yourself with instructions from RepRap. Mattel and Autodesk are collaborated on the ThingMaker, a $299 3D printer targeted to kids and teens that is expected to debut in time for the 2017 gift-giving season.

      Before you decide which 3D printer to purchase, look to our sister site CNET for reviews of popular 3D printers to decide which one is right for you.

      Additional resources:

      About James Sanders

      James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

      Editor's Picks

      Free Newsletters, In your Inbox