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Manufacture Technology and Equipment

3D Printing 101

3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – is the process of making a 3D object from a digital file. The object is designed on a computer and then printed by laying down or printing successive layers of a material. The most popular material is plastic, but today’s 3D printers can also use metal, wood, resin, ceramic, wax and more. The range, however, is still fairly limited, which experts believe is one of the key obstacles preventing more widespread use of 3D printing, alongside issues such as limited speeds and ease of use (1).

A variety of different techniques can be used in 3D printing. The oldest is stereolithography, but the most popular technique used today is fused deposition modelling (FDM). In FDM, the printed part is produced by extruding small beads of material, which harden into layers.

Officially, an American called Chuck Hall is credited with the invention of the 3D printer. Hall received a patent in 1986 for the ‘Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography’ – which involved making solid, 3D objects by printing thin layers of UV-curable material. Today, Hall is the executive vice president and chief technology officer of 3D Systems, one of the largest producers of 3D printers in the world. However, the first published paper describing 3D printing was published in 1981. The author was Hideo Kodama, a researcher at Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in Japan. Kodama was inspired after seeing a new printing process – a device that used liquid resin applied to glass to create letters. It was intended for use in newspaper printing; letters made via the technique could be sprayed with ink for printing. To demonstrate the possibilities of layering resin to create 3D shapes, Kodama created a tiny house about the size of a hand – it had rooms, a spiral staircase and a dining table. Despite Kodama’s efforts, few people were excited by the technology and he never formally patented it.

According to an article from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the most common application for 3D printing right now is for rapid prototyping (2), but with technology advancing and the costs coming down, the possibilities in industry are expanding. But although 3D printing is taking off for industrial applications, few consumers are buying 3D printers – the cost and usability are still playing catch up to the technology.

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  1. Conner Forrest, “What’s holding back 3D printing from fulfilling its promise?”, ZDNet (August, 2014).
  2. Alan Earls and Vinod Baya, “The road ahead for 3-D printers,” PricewaterhouseCoopers (2014).
About the Author
Stephanie Vine

Making great scientific magazines isn’t just about delivering knowledge and high quality content; it’s also about packaging these in the right words to ensure that someone is truly inspired by a topic. My passion is ensuring that our authors’ expertise is presented as a seamless and enjoyable reading experience, whether in print, in digital or on social media. I’ve spent fourteen years writing and editing features for scientific and manufacturing publications, and in making this content engaging and accessible without sacrificing its scientific integrity. There is nothing better than a magazine with great content that feels great to read.

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