3D printing technology is nowadays growing in numerous fields of applications such as robotics, toy manufacturing, plastic engineering, medicine, biomedical engineering, automotive industry, aerospace, fashion, power industry, glass manufacturing and many more.
Let’s briefly understand what exactly is this technology, and how does it function.
What Exactly is 3D Printing?
3D printers add a new dimension to your projects, enabling you to create solid objects. It means that unlike conventional printers, which can only print in 2D (two dimensions), 3D printers can print in three dimensions.
3D printing is also termed as Additive Manufacturing because the printer successively adds layers of material until the desired object is obtained.
By using different 3D printing techniques, you virtually can create a robust 3D model of any object. For example, you can create toys for your children, design an entire dress for a theme party, build 3D models of objects for teaching students and many such things.
However, you require a 3D digital model of the desired object you wish to build.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
The 3D printing process involves making a three-dimensional object from a digital file or model. This object is a three-dimensional image created using computer software, and it acts as a guide for the whole process.
3D printing comes under the umbrella of additive manufacturing (AM) family. In additive manufacturing, the object that needs to be printed is created by adding material to the object progressively in the form of skinny microscopic layers.
For instance, if a toy such as a doll has to be created, the plastic material is added in restricted quantities to develop numerous layers until the final object is created.
3D Printing Process in Brief
The printing as a process broadly has three phases:
- Pre-processing Phase
- Production Phase
- Post-processing Phase
Let us now briefly browse through these three phases.
The blueprint of the object is created in this phase of the printing process. A computerised model of the object is created utilising either the computer-aided design (CAD) software or any other animation software. This file is fed to the printer in a .stl format.
The actual printing process takes place during this stage. A suitable material is added to the printer, and the printer sprays layers of this material to build the desired object.
The desired object, once created, is taken off the printer and further passed to the post-production process.
This stage includes the fine-tuning or refining of the 3D model that has been created. The remnants of additional material on the object are cleared, and the final 3D printed object is formed.
Intermediate Steps of 3D Printing Process
Creating the 3D object involves multiple steps. Let’s now see a detailed explanation of the intermediate steps in the printing process.
# 1 3D Model Preparation
First, you have to create the CAD file of the desired object. The digital file becomes the blueprint for the printing of the object. Also, CAD provides an extensive library of various materials.
You, as the designer, can select any material and analyse the behaviour of the 3D model under various conditions. Most 3D printers need a .stl file to commence the process.
Therefore, using one of the many software available such as RedEye, Stratasys, SolidWorks, and AutoCAD commands etc. one can convert the CAD file to the .stl file.
# 2 Conversion to .STL format file
Once you have converted the CAD file to STL format, the file is passed to the machine. The selection of the “Print” command permits the automatic transfer of the file.
At this juncture, the size and the orientation of the page (portrait or landscape) should also be selected. This option is almost similar to the one available in 2D printers.
# 3 Machine Setup
The material cartridges, along with support material, are inserted in the machine. The material that is to be used is fed to the machine. The support material holds the product until it is fully developed.
# 4 The Printing Function
Once the material cartridges are inserted in the machine, the internal machine process commences. Machine head comes to the printing position. The printer block swings to the “start” position and builds a microscopic thin layer.
The machine creates the object by mixing the material in varying proportions and thus making various textures and providing flexibility to different regions of the object body. The support material is used to create a foundation layer.
Now, the extrusion head swings in the XY direction to generate more layers. Once this motion completes, the gantry swings in the Z direction and sprays the object material. UV light or any such other modelling techniques are utilised to print successive layers.
The movement in the Z direction of the gantry is directly proportional to the desired thickness. The base or the tray that holds the object is lowered to achieve printing in this direction.
Next, the support material is sprayed, and it creates the base for printing. The continuous print by the machine in X, Y, and Z direction at a reasonably high speed differentiates 2D and 3D printing.
# 5 Extraction of the Part
The “Complete” command reflects that the printing process is over. Now, the printer is opened from its lid, and the base or the tray is moved out. The object is removed from the tray, and its post-processing phase commences.
# 6 The Refining of the Object
The final part is obtained after wiping the support material. This excess support material needs to be carefully separated from the object. It is removed by spraying water with high force on the object.
Alternatively, the object can be put into a tank where a soluble material is used to remove the excess content.
# 7 A Few Additional Optional Steps
These are a few additional optional steps. The part can be used once it is cleaned. Once the part is wiped off, the support material can be dipped in a special glue to make it stronger.
The glue-coated part is subjected to heating for even distribution of the glue and the strength of the final object. The surface of the desired object can be rough even after wiping off the remnants of the additional material that can be smoothened by manual processes.
You can also paint the object to give it a more winsome look.
The Bottom Line
The market has lots of 3D printers today that vary in their specifications, meaning that they cater to various emerging demands.
With the help of 3D printing, many useful products can be created, such as toys, archaeological fossil replicas, human tissues and much more.
Therefore, with the advancements in 3D printing technology, we can look forward to the creation of many new products within no time.