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A Peek into 3D Printing

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3D printing has exploded recently with introductions of many sub-$1000 3D printers targeting homes and schools. 3D printing has migrated from relatively high-cost machines that were geared towards manufacturing prototyping to very low-cost desktop printers that print virtually anything one can imagine – plastic toys, food, prototypes, medical devices and even an automobile body.

In the 1980’s, it became easy for everyday users to draw and print 2D objects and documents accurately with the introduction of WYSIWYG and PostScript 2D printing language. Now, we are seeing a similar evolution in the computing space geared towards bringing similar capabilities in the 3D realm. 3D printing is no longer a niche market for specialized prototyping using expensive equipment.

The most common technology used for desktop 3D printers is called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). The technology works by progressively adding material in layers to form the shape of a part. Thermoplastic materials, such as PLA and ABS, are pushed through a heated nozzle onto a bed that can be moved in X and Y axes. Once a thin layer of the part is formed, the nozzle is raised slightly and another layer of the part is laid down. By repeating this layering process hundreds of times, complex 3D parts can be formed. This process is referred to as additive manufacturing.

Although somewhat more expensive, a second type of additive manufacturing called Stereolithography (SLA) is gaining popularity in desktop printers. This technology works by exposing a reservoir of liquid photo-reactive resin to a UV light source, causing a thin layer of the resin to solidify into the shape of the part. The solidified portion of the resin is moved slightly upwards in the reservoir to allow the exposure process to repeat, building a 3D part over a series of successive exposures. Because this process involves far less mechanical movement than FDM printing, more precise and detailed 3D parts can be formed.

Current news on the 3D printing industry includes:

So, what do you think about the future of 3D printing?

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