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Why 3D printing – What’s all the hype about ?

Wikipedia has a good basic description of 3D printing : Three-dimensional printing or 3D printing (also called additive manufacturing) is any of various processes used to make a three-dimensional object. In 3D printing, additive processes are used, in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. These objects can be of almost any shape or geometry, and are produced from a 3D model or other electronic data source. A 3D printer is a type of industrial robot.

3D printable models are usually created with a computer aided design (CAD) package, or using a 3D scanner.

The 3D object, designed, created and maniplated on the computer screen, is then saved in an .stl file format.

The 3D model ( the stl file ) is then converted into commands that the physical printer can understand. This is a process called ‘Slicing’.

The software will literally ‘slice’ the object in the stl file into many layers, with each layer representing 1 horizontal slice of the design.

This process creates a g-code file that is used by the 3D printer.

The 3D printer uses the G-code as its instructions to lay down each layer of material to build the model from a series of cross sections.

The most common material that is used for general 3D printing is ABS, a type of plastic that is extremely common in our household items.

How does 3D printing work?

It all starts with making a virtual design of the object you want to create.

This virtual design is made in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file using a 3D modelling program.

Processes and technologies

Not all 3D printers use the same technology. There are several ways to print and all those available are additive, differing mainly in the way layers are build to create the final object.

Material Extrusion

The most commonly used technology in this process is Fused deposition modeling (FDM)

The FDM technology works using a plastic filament or metal wire which is unwound from a coil and supplying material to an extrusion nozzle which can turn the flow on and off. The nozzle is heated to melt the material and can be moved in both horizontal and vertical directions by a numerically controlled mechanism, directly controlled by a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software package. The object is produced by extruding melted material to form layers as the material hardens immediately after extrusion from the nozzle. This technology is most widely used with two plastic filament material types: ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (Polylactic acid) but many other materials are available ranging in properties from wood filed, conductive, flexible etc.

3D printing has made significant contributions to various industries :

Medical industry


Aerospace & aviation industries

Automotive industry

Industrial printing

In the last couple of years the term 3D printing has become more known and the technology has reached a broader public. Still, most people haven’t even heard of the term while the technology has been in use for decades. Especially manufacturers have long used these printers in their design process to create prototypes for traditional manufacturing and research purposes. Using 3D printers for these purposes is called rapid prototyping.

Why use 3D printers in this process you might ask yourself. Now, fast 3D printers can be bought for tens of thousands of dollars and end up saving the companies many times that amount of money in the prototyping process. For example, Nike uses 3D printers to create multi-colored prototypes of shoes. They used to spend thousands of rands on a prototype and wait weeks for it. Now, the cost is only in the hundreds of dollars, and changes can be made instantly on the computer and the prototype reprinted on the same day.

Besides rapid prototyping, 3D printing is also used for rapid manufacturing. Rapid manufacturing is a new method of manufacturing where companies are using 3D printers for short run custom manufacturing. In this way of manufacturing the printed objects are not prototypes but the actual end user product. Here you can expect more availability of personally customized products.

Personal printing

Personal 3D printing or domestic 3D printing is mainly for hobbyists and enthusiasts.

Not everybody can afford or is willing to buy their own 3D printer. Does this mean you cannot enjoy the possibilities of 3D printing? No, not to worry. There are 3D printing service bureaus like Totilly3D, that can very inexpensively print and deliver an object from a digital file that you supply, or we can provide basic design services.

If you don’t design your own 3D models, you can still print some very nice objects. There are model repositories such as Thingiverse, 3D Warehouse and 3D Parts Database that have model files you can download for free.

When, for instance, you have an architecture practice and you need to build model scales, it is very time consuming doing this the old fashioned way. You can send your digital model to a 3D printing hub and they print the building on scale for you to use in client presentations. These kind of services can already be found in a lot of different industries like dental, medical, entertainment and art.

Some of the major benefits of 3D printing include :

Rapid Testing
3D printing allows you, the inventors, architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs to rapidly test ideas in days instead of months.

Cost Saving
3D printing lowers prototyping costs.

Design Freedom
Create multiple designs and test different ideas without risking large capital outlay.

Real Materials, Real Parts
With ABS and PLA materials, you can actually test different fits (ie. snap-fits, dove-tails, living hinges, clearance fits, etc.).

Made an error – Retry with minimal cost
Increase the learning aspect by trial and error.


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