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How does a 3D printer work

How does a 3D printer work

3D printers have infiltrated design culture in a profound way in recent years. However, while many of us might be aware of the basics, few designers are actually aware of how 3D printers work. Even many of the designers who use them only have a cursoryknowledge. That’s why we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on what happens inside a typical 3D printer, from design and planning, through to printing and finishing.

What does it do?

As the name suggests, 3D printers take either a design file or a scanned image and replicate it in three dimensions in a variety of materials, depending on the complexity of the machine. From simple design models and toys to machine parts, food and even human organs, there are very few conventional objects that can’t potentially be 3D printed.

Of course, the vast majority of 3D printers could never hope to replicate the speed of a bespoke production line - at least not yet. Instead, 3D printing is generally used for small batch items, or for printing prototype components. Think of it as you would a conventional home printer. You wouldn’t print a thousand copies of a magazine with it, but for printing a one-off document, it’s more than capable. It might be many more years before 3D printing becomes standard amongst typical home users, but for designers and engineers, it is already proving revolutionary.

Printing in layers

In basic terms, a 3D printer works by building layers of material on top of one another until a solid model is formed. It can be a rather slow process (particularly with older or budget models), but it is exceptionally accurate and flexible.

How do I start?

In the last few years, the choice of 3D printer design software has blossomed to keep up with consumer demand. The best news? The vast majority of this software is completely free and open source. Think of this software as a far more advanced version of Microsoft Paint. You use it to design a model and then press print. The machine does the rest for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve scanned an object into your computer using a 3D scanner, you can convert this object into a CAD file and print a scaled down (or scaled up) version just as easily.

How does the printer work?

As with any inkjet printer, a 3D printer takes an image file from a computer and makes it into something physical. The ‘ink’ used by a typical 3D printer is known as the filament. This will generally be stocked as a thin, plastic cable, which is fed into the printer at one end and leaves the printer’s nozzle as molten plastic. This liquid dries (a process quickened significantly by the use of ultraviolet light) and forms one layer, then the next layer is built up on top of it and they are fused together.

This process is repeated again and again until the final model emerges. This is a process known as FDM (fused deposition modelling) and is an entirely automatic process, which means you can feel quite comfortable leaving your 3D printer to its own devices after you’ve hit print.

Unlimited potential

The fact that each 3D printed model is made up of thousands of individual slices means there is a great scope for complexity. As such, 3D printers are capable of printing separate moving parts, which can then be assembled by the user. This potential has been leveraged by countless engineers and designers, who have used the technology to build bikes, cars and even complete homes.

Of course, these projects are generally undertaken using industrial 3D printers, not home models. The potential, however, is genuinely exciting and the boundaries are being pushed further every day.

Open source

The 3D printing community is vast indeed. It is also stocked by thousands of designers and creatives eager to share their work. There are countless sites dedicated to sharing CAD files of everything from toy models to musical instruments and (regrettably) even automatic weapons.

The future is bright

3D printing has many applications in medicine (printing replacement 3D body parts and organs) and in the aerospace/defence sector, so it’s not just niche concerns that are going to be revolutionised by the technology in the coming years.

Many have heralded 3D printing as the dawn of a new age of manufacturing, but there is still a limit to what you’ll be able to print at home. The economic benefits will undoubtedly follow later, when big business finally accepts 3D printing as a viable alternative that lowers manufacturing costs and boosts product innovation.

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