Tuesday, 15 July 2014

3D Printing - Beyond reprinting the past.

It is sometimes useful when trying to get a guide as to where a technology is heading to get back to basics and take a look at the core principles of what we are dealing with.

What is 3D printing? 

One answer is that it is an umbrella term sheltering a wide variety of technologies applied in a wide range of markets.  At this level it is at its most confusing and least easy to pin down. 3D printing is allegedly being used to build living tissue, fabrics, electronics, prosthetics, it is being test in space, there are projects to print using moon dust on the moon and on it goes. 

So what is 3D printing? It is not a specific manufacturing process. It would seem reasonable to say that 3D printing is a system made up of two elements that are needed to justify its name tag. Firstly it is an additive process and this usually means building up one layer at a time and secondly the object made is defined by a 3D software model or slice file.

Neither of these conditions are unique to 3D printing. Stone masons and brick layers have been manually building walls and arches layer by layer for thousands of years. CNC milling requires a 3D software model to define the cut. Putting the two together though is new and does make up a new manufacturing system.

So when we talk of 3D printing we are using the word printing in its modern computerised sense. Until a few years ago printing would have meant physically pressing ink laden typeface to leave an imprint on paper. Each impression would be the same unless the plate was reconfigured manually. It is an important point to consider when talking of 3D printing that the word printing is entirely based on a technology that is little older than additive manufacturing. Inkjet printers were developed for computers in the late 70s and the first 3D printers were built in the mid 80s. 

It is worth asking the question what we would have called 3D printing in the unlikely event that computerised printing had never been invented. For may years 3D printing was known as rapid prototyping which for many years adequately described what the technologies were used for. More recently the term additive manufacturing has been coined to describe a new era of using the technologies to actually manufacture usable parts.

We used the term 3D printing in the early days of making mainly architectural models using the ZPrinter process that use inkjets to literally print binding fluid on to layers of plaster powder. We used the term 3D printing to distinguish the process from rapid prototyping which was then used to refer to high end production machines like SLS and SLA making functional or semi functional prototypes. It was a useful distinction to make commercially and also adequately described how the ZPrinter worked.

The term 3D printing has been useful helping the public identify the 3D version of the process with its already widely known 2D "equivalent". However the term is loaded with expectations and limitations. 2D inkjet printing has not surpassed the quality of lithographic printing and does not offer a complete rethink of what printing could be.

3D printing on the other hand has all of the potential to go much further than its namesake in disrupting the established order of the things humans make. 

So again what is 3D printing? A question arises if a machine is created and optimised to make single parts or materials, additively and from a 3D slice file. I raise the question because as 3D printing is incorporated into other industrial processes, new hybridised process will emerge with some of the characteristics that we are familiar with but with very different outcomes. In short 3D printing offers us the opportunity to redesign existing processes to incorporate the level of complexity that 3D printing offers.

It would seem that 3D printing may become as much about a process for making materials as it is for making objects at the moment. A hybrid or multi material 3D printer could create a sophisticated matrix of materials with different properties and behaviours. And these intelligent materials may be in sheet form just as it might be in the complex geometries that we know we can produce using 3D printers today.

The future of 3D printing may well be not the revolution in finding novel ways of reprinting the past and manufacturing reproductions of existing products but a revolution in making entirely new products with entirely new capabilities. This would signify a new industrial revolution but it seems likely that the 3D printer will not be found in the home but rather they will be hybrid manufacturing lines found in the lab and in the hi-tech factories of the future. 

Lee 3D specialise in 3D printing architectural models and colour 3D printing for the creative community. For further information please visit www.lee3d.co.uk

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