Welcome to the future: A 3D printer that can build objects on demand is now available and affordable. This new world of technology offers a lot of potential, but also many pitfalls. 3D printing is an area that’s developing very quickly, but the 3D printer you can buy now are not perfect replicators of any object. They currently print slowly, often taking many hours to produce a single object, offer a limited range of materials and even the best consumer 3D printers can only build objects up to the size of a loaf of bread.
However, these printers can create objects of surprising strength, smoothness and clarity that can be very useful around the home or business. The potential is there for 3D printing to become a revolution for modern society, but like all early technologies – speed, ease of use and usefulness need to make great strides.
What is 3D Printing
In the 1980’s Charles Hull invented 3D printing which he described as sterolithography (STL) or the ‘printing’ of successive layers of materials on top of each other to create a 3D object. Charles Hull went on to found 3D Systems, which became one of the leading companies in 3D printing.
The next 20 plus years saw increasing levels of innovation. New technology, diverse materials, but the high costs of 3D printer kept the technology exclusively in the business sector. In 2005, Adrian Bowyer started the RepRap project. This was a movement based on the challenge of building a selfreplicating machine. In this case, lowcost 3D printers that could produce copies of themselves.
While these printers made it possible to cheaply make a 3D printer, they required significant technical knowledge. New companies like Maker Bot, started making kits to appeal to the less technical consumer. Over the next few years, the number of companies producing 3D printers skyrocketed and so did the diversity.
How the 3D Printing Process Works
3D printing, especially for private consumers, is a shockingly new technology. It can be a bit shocking to see in action, especially if you aren’t aware of what’s really going on while your hot end pours plastic onto the plate. If you’re looking for a more in-depth awareness of what’s going on, you’re in the right place.
There are two commonly available types of 3D printer which are available to the end-consumer, these processes are quite a bit different. The first of these is FDM or fused deposition modeling and if you’re looking for a cheap printer this simple process is what you’re going to end up with. More advanced consumer-level printers might employ SLA or stereolithography which is an interesting process in and of itself.
Read on, and we’ll educate you on these processes and briefly discuss materials.
Fused Deposition Modeling
FDM printers are the most commonly available on the market, and they can be shockingly cheap compared to the amount of function you’ll get out of them. The FDM process works by laying down thin layers (generally ranging from 1mm to 50µm) of a thermosetting plastic in “slices” from an extruder to build the object from the bottom up.
In general, you’ll find that these printers are a bit easier to use and there’s a ton of different materials available for them. You’ll usually be feeding them with a filament from a roll, which comes in a wide variety of colors.
Another advantage of this type of printer is that most of them will accept generic materials within a couple of different sizes which can save you some money on plastic in the long run.
The finish on the models produced will generally require a little bit of post-processing, especially if you’re using a model without a heated build plate. The surfaces might be a bit rough, but in general, they produce satisfactory models and components as long as extreme precision isn’t required. Some sandpaper and a little bit of time can sort out most issues you’ll encounter, though.
They’re not suited for super intricate work either due to these issues, but they will have an easier time building items with a smaller z-axis than most printer types. This is an advantage if you’re frequently creating thin models for your projects.
- Lots of different types of materials can be used
- Open source software
- Not as accurate
- Layer lines are evident
- Slow to turn around large quantities of prints
There’s a ton of different software that can be used with the majority of these printers, and quite often they’ll be able to handle designs created for stereolithography by converting them to “slices” which allows for a surprising amount of versatility in the build.
FDM printers can also run in a variety of conditions, which is something which will cause trouble with an SLA printer which should be run in a place with more controlled environmental conditions.
Overall, FDM printers are available on a budget and they’re quite useful for most projects you might want to do around the house as well as rapid prototyping for designs, but you’ll want to keep in mind that they can have a rough surface.
Anatomy of a 3D Printer
- Filament - In the Taz 6 model FDM printer a gear will guide the unmelted filament off the spool and into the extruder nozzle
- Extruder Nozzle - The filament material is extruded from this metal nozzle. The nozzle will move around on the X and Y axes to complete the layer and will move up the Z axes to begin a new layer. The Taz 6 allows for multiple nozzles so that you may build models with multiple materials and colors.
- Self-Leveling Heated Print Bed - The printe bed on which the models are made. Depending on the printer print beds can be self-leveling, heated and coated to prevent models from sticking to the bed. It's very important that the print bed is level throughout the printing process or your print could be malformed.
- Print Display - The print display shows the progress of the build and allows you to adjust the print settings.
The SLA variety of 3D printing is quite different from that used in FDM processing. In this case, a vat of resin that is formulated to cure under ultraviolet light is treated in thin slices as the build plate is lowered into the resin. This layer-by-layer construction generally has a quite high resolution and the final build quality of the products will require virtually no manual labor to get the surface to the quality you desire upon removal.
There’s actually quite a bit of post-processing that will go into making models using an SLA printer though since the medium is a liquid. You’ll need to chemically bathe your model, and possibly “cook” it in a UV oven in order to remove the remaining liquid resin on your finished product. They’re also significantly more expensive than pretty much any other type of consumer-level printer.
One of the primary advantages of a 3D printer using stereolithography is that it can produce complex “overhangs” quite easily. Without the need for you to include a support which will have to be removed after your model is finished. This can come in quite handy if you’re making something such as a gear or statue.
If you’re considering one for your more artistic projects, you’ll definitely want to keep in mind that the resin is quite expensive. Your tank will also need occasional replacing as they can become clouded and the laser will begin to distort which will greatly affect your end model.
You’ll also want to note that the liquid resin is usually proprietary to the printer’s manufacturer, which can result in different end properties of the material as well as meaning that you may be quite limited in the number and color of the materials you can utilize for your finished projects.
- Can capture very fine detail
- Layers are very small so overall surface finish is much improved
- Can produce parts very quickly
- Support material is used that needs to be removed with chemicals
- Resin is expensive
The most apt comparison between these types of printers is that SLA printers produce objects which can be quite nice to look at while FDM printers will generally produce objects which are more functional. If you’re looking to invest in one, make sure that the material used can support what you want to do.
Materials: PLA vs ABS vs Resin
PLA and ABS are two of the most common filament types used in FDM 3D printers, these two types of plastics might look similar but they have mildly different qualities which can make them more or less suited depending on what you’re looking to do.
PLA, or polylactic acid, is a bit harder than ABS which can make post-processing a bit harder. It’s naturally translucent, and can be rendered opaque as well. It doesn’t have quite the heat resistance of ABS, despite being more structurally sound so it shouldn’t be used in areas where it’s bound to get really hot. For rigid applications that won’t be exposed to excessive heat, it’s a good material, but if you’re sure it will be exposed to temperatures over 100°F or so for extended periods it’s definitely not ideal.
ABS or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is much more flexible and heat-resistant compared to PLA which makes it ideal for both interlocking pieces and those which might be exposed to higher temperatures. It’s an ideal plastic for a wide variety of uses, but it causes some pretty bad fumes while being printed with so make sure your workshop is well ventilated.
The resins used in SLA processes, on the other hand, create a hard and smooth final product which is generally quite resilient although it doesn’t have much flex. It’ll require safety equipment to handle in the liquid form, however, and you’ll find that the products produced will grow brittle if exposed to too much sunlight.
As you can see, these printers types are quite different from each other, and the final products are quite different despite both being 3D printers. If you’re looking into the market, it’s a good idea to decide on what you’ll be using your printer for, since this can help to guide you in your purchase.
SLA printers are certainly more expensive, but they allow for a wider range of objects to be created, while FDM printers are less expensive but not quite as accurate but they do allow for a much wider variety of materials. The choice depends on what you want to do, so consider carefully before you take your first step into the world of 3D printing.
The Future of 3D Printing
As 3D printers become more advanced and consumer friendly they will continue to find themselves in more and more homes, schools and businesses. Picture a future where you will be able to walk down to the corner 3D printshop where you can copy objects or pick up things your brother 3D faxed to you using complex, multimaterial machines that don’t fit in homes.
3D printed food is made from combining pastes that an extruder layers into an edible object. Many of the current forms of 3D printed food still need to be heated, but the future of fully edible 3D printed meals isn’t that far away.
There will be entire industries created around 3D printed spare parts. Someone damaged your side view mirror, but the car manufacturer has been out of business for years and no longer creates the parts? No problem. Just order the part on your app and go down to pick it up in an hour or download the STL file and print it in your garage.
Photo albums? Out. 3D portraits of your kids on your mantle? In! Tired from a long day at work and don’t feel like cooking? No problem. Just set the toppings you want on your pizza and in 20 minutes your food 3D printer will have your custom made 3D pizza printed and ready to eat. The future sounds great doesn’t it!?!
Whether obsolete, expensive or just too far away, a replacement component can be difficult to come by, but one of the most practical applications for 3D printing is the use of the technology to replace parts. The idea is pretty simple; if you need a spare part, go to Kazzata, send them the broken part, they will 3D print it and send it back to you.