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What is 3D Printing?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 17, 2024
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3D printing, otherwise known as rapid prototyping, is a manufacturing method whereby 3D objects are quickly made on a reasonably-sized machine connected to a computer containing blueprints for the object. The basic principles are like that of a 2D printer: materials cartridges, flexibility of output, and translation of code into a visible pattern. Enthusiasts hope that home "fabbers" will usher in a custom manufacturing revolution, and eliminate (or greatly reduce) the need for centralized manufacturing. Instead of going to a store to pick up a set of dishes, a person could buy the plans online and print them out from simple materials.

The technology that allows 3D printers to work appeared in the mid-1990s. After their arrival, futurists immediately predicted that people would soon see them in every home. The expense of the parts, which includes numerous flexible manufacturing tools, has kept the cost too high for most people to afford, however. Current models are pricy machines for use by professional product designers or engineers, who use them to make models to use in presentations to clients, for example. Present-day devices work using various feedstocks, such as sawdust and glue, which can be pressed into 3D structures as long as the design allows layers to be applied incrementally.

The newest 3D printing devices use a laser and metallic dust to make 3D objects out of metal, making the technology more appealing. These machines have already been used by Israel and the United States to manufacture UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles. The United States military is researching a battlefield-ready printer that could be used to manufacture communications devices as they are necessary.

Early projections suggested that these machines would probably use a combination of lasers and special polymers to manufacture products. There are certain polymers that solidify only under a certain mixture of light, and this property can be exploited by using a duo of lasers that, independently, fail to fulfill these optical conditions, but do fulfill them when used together. When the two lasers cross in the solution, it solidifies. By building a structure from the ground up, a stable product can be created when the liquid polymer is drained away. This method turned out to be rather expensive, however, and less technically demanding techniques are in use today.

One day, there may be 3D printers that use nanotechnology to create products by depositing them atom by atom. Preliminary work with atomic tooltips suggests that this is scientifically feasible. Simple machinery has been created at the atomic scale, such as small wheels, transistors, and "walking DNA." These could be the precursors to more advanced custom manufacturing systems.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon322123 — On Feb 26, 2013

Thanks for this article. Talking about 3D printing I can say that this is the best innovation for now, because it opens wider opportunities to all of us. Now 3D printing may cost too much, but in the future, after about three or four years, this thing will be available for everyone. I think people will not fix their broken things, but they will create another one.

The side that everyone can use different materials to print models shows us that it is really universal thing. We now can create real guns just from a 3D weapons model, that some time ago was a 2D model, to cookies for Christmas, or clothes.

Now we are more and more talking about the medical uses of 3D printing. I think this is extremely important to our lives, to change them or make easier. I think that in the near future we will create how to print a real heart and use it for people like an implant. Or are these printed yet? Hope this innovation goes far.

By pastanaga — On Aug 26, 2012

@bythewell - Well, it takes a long time to make things at the moment, so you wouldn't be able to just buy things instantly, off the shelf, like you can at the moment. And you would need an enormous machine to deal with large items like furniture. Not the kind of thing most people would like in their house. I mean, you could have a knitting machine in your house, but why bother when buying the materials to run it is so much more expensive for an individual and also you wouldn't need it that often.

Not to mention, I think you'd need an extremely expensive and complex machine to make something with multiple components of different substances, like furniture.

By bythewell — On Aug 26, 2012

@KoiwiGal - It's going to be interesting, that's for sure. I mean, I know they think they'll be able to sell the blueprints for dish sets and so forth, but at the moment it seems like most 3D blueprints are available for free online, because it's relatively easy to make your own patterns once you know the basics.

So, if everyone can make their own dishes and their own silverware and their own furniture and so forth, what will happen to the manufacturing industry? I think that crafts will still be around, because there's no substitute for a handmade item, but mass manufacturing will cease to exist.

At the most, you'd get 3D printing services popping up everywhere, but if you can have a printer at home, why would you get things elsewhere?

By KoiwiGal — On Aug 25, 2012

The 3D printing process is so amazing. I'm really excited about where it is going to go in the future. I just saw a TV program where they went over a few of the things that are possible with 3D printing and I just can't believe that we can even do this. It's so close to have a replicator from Star Trek, where you just ask the computer for something and it makes it for you.

I mean, I think you can only do it with plastic and metal at the moment, but when you come right down to it, a lot of things are made of the same components as plastic. We might get to the point where we can feed our rubbish into a machine and it will spit out whatever we want afterwards. I want to live in a world where that is possible.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated About Mechanics contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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