An Introduction to 3D Printing

The year was 1983. Return of the Jedi fittingly concluded the Star Wars series. It was also introduced under the name Multi-Tool Word and revolutionized text editing. the year the word processor we’re all using (mostly) was It was around the same time that the world was introduced to a machine that behaved in a manner that was completely unlike Microsoft Word, but the change is brought about in the manufacturing process was as big as Microsoft Word’s impact in its field.


With 3D printing industry being called the second industrial revolution and expected to grow a by 75% in 2014, let’s get acquainted.

A star is born

The year was 1983. Return of the Jedi fittingly concluded the Star Wars series. It was also introduced under the name Multi-Tool Word and revolutionized text editing. the year the word processor we’re all using (mostly) was It was around the same time that the world was introduced to a machine that behaved in a manner that was completely unlike Microsoft Word, but the change is brought about in the manufacturing process was as big as Microsoft Word’s impact in its field.

Whether you call it desktop fabrication or rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing what’s being referred to is the process of 3D printing. Layer upon layer of a material is printed to create a finished product ready for sale that required no clay modelling didn’t come from a plaster negative and wasn’t molded. It merely moved from the mock-up on your computer screen to the finished object on your desk.

But ‘why all the hype?’ you might wonder

Before we address the ‘why’ let’s talk about the ‘when’. While the 3D printing landscape seemed awfully quiet in the in the first decade of the new millennium, the number of 3D printer start-ups, their rate of innovation and the number of products that are currently offered saw a sudden jump. This is attributed entirely to the expiration of key patents to what is known as Fused Deposition Modelling or FDM where a plastic is melted and layered on itself to produce an object.

It is with the expiry of this patent and a few others that start-ups like Makerbot began making waves and 3D printing began to take off. Start-ups like Makerbot, Printbot and even DIY projects like RepRap began offering 3D printers that took the quality of output to the level of industrial and commercial printers at a fraction of the cost. With this, in poured a whole bunch of ‘Me Too’ companies in to the 3D printing space.

A lot having been developed by the open source route too worked. The hardware, the software and the printable objects were free to be modified and improved by developers around the world this making more accessible to the masses kicking in to gear the 3D printing industrial revolution. 3D printing is a big deal because simply put, it has the potential to revolutionise mass production. Specialization of work and assembly lines could be completely phased out and one 3D printer could churn out item out after item.

3D printing could even phase out delivery of some products. Rather than having your latest product shipped, you could purchase or even download for free a three dimensional digital copy of the object and print it at home. The fact that virtually any substance in a power form can be melted and fused to take on any shape or size could phase out moulding and casting processes of manufacturing.

With 3D printing, manufacturers can produce completely build products. This would not only reduce costs be minimising human intervention, it would also cut down on the time and energy required in assembling the product.

Further, as the part is produced by adding layer by layer as opposed to traditional machining methods where one is required to cut away material, the amount of wastage is almost negligible thus greatly reducing material costs.

I don’t remember reading about it in the 90s

If you are wondering why a revolution in 3D printing is picking up just now and remained quiet through the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, it is because only in the second decade of the 21st century, that 3D printing became more accessible due to the fact that a lot of the technology is patented and are expiring one by one.

With 3D printing now in the hands of the general public, the entire DIY community embraced it like a long lost twin. It allowed the average Joe to tackle problems both at work and at home and also allowed these ‘makers’ to create new things.

A model designed using CAD ready for print

3D printing is also a tool of empowerment for start-up design and engineering firms. Instead of spending years working on a product, developing it and getting it production ready, with the help of a 3D printer, the same product could be brought in to the market in a matter of days.

Another reason why 3D printing didn’t really catch on in the early days was due to the fact that the quality of raw materials was really bad. The finished prototype that the designer would print after designing the object using computer aided  design (CAD), was not nearly as robust enough to be proud of the results.

With time, the quality of the raw materials improved and blends of different plastics began to be used, yielding truly impressive results.

So how did this all begin?

Back in the mid 80s, Charles Hull was getting annoyed by the amount of time it took for him to make prototypes of his designs. While the original work flow involved the design being sent to a tool maker who would make the design in a material of your choice, he or she would seldom get it right the first time.

Since he was working with UV curable materials, he decided to develop a printer that would fire a beam of UV light in to a bath of UV curable resin and voila, he had three dimensionally printed a cup.

The father of 3D printing, Charles Hull

Now, to fully understand the why this was revolutionary, we have to understand that back in the day, virtually every manufacturing company, from the field of automobile engineering to manufacturers of diecast materials, spent more money developing the product than actually manufacturing it.

With this need addressed, Charles Hull set up the 3D Systems Corp. and rewrote the rulebook on how new products are developed. Now, 30 years since, 3D printing has not only changed the way manufactures plan their product launches, due to the expiry of key patents, the sudden surge in the number of start-ups providing low cost DIY kits for hobbyists and enthusiasts has driven the popularity up and the 3D printer could one day be as commonplace as a USB thumb drive.

While Charles Hull’s Stereo lithographic 3D printing is only one style of printing there more. A popular style which was additive printing in the truest sense was developed in 1988 by S. Scott Crump who called it Fused Deposition Modelling. Here, the 3D printer would extrude layer after layer of molten plastic to produce an object. When the patent for FDM expired in 2007, it sparked the revolution in 3D printing leading to several start-ups developing open source models and DIY kits adding 3D printing to the average geek’s list of hobbies.

A year before that, in 1987 Drs. Carl Deckard and Joe Beam an developed yet another style known as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). Here a laser would melt a layer of powder in the shape of the object over which a new layer of power would be applied and melted again.

A fourth system of 3D printing was inspired by the way an inkjet printer works, Ely Sachs and Mike Cima from MIT developed a system known as Binder Jetting. Here the raw material presented in a powder form is stuck together, layer by layer that is jetted on to the powder.

The advantage SLS has over FDM is the fact that any substances that can be released in a powder form can be used as raw material for printing. When you add to this the fact that the quality of finish one can expect from an SLS printer is far better than what one can expect from an FDM printer, it only sweetens the deal. Finally, the icing on this cake is the fact that the patent for SLS 3D printing expired in January 2014, many experts say that the 3D printing industry just might see a second revolution.


Is this the future of 3D printing?

Add to that the fact that more major patents would expire over the course of the year, 3D printing is well on its way towards becoming an industry in its own right and has come a long way from industrial use to finding a place on our desks. Let’s find out what happened along the way.

So what happened along the way?

The 80s may have been the decade when the 3D printer was invented, the world didn’t really get a chance to take a bite till about the early 90s when Charles Hull’s company 3D Systems produced the first SLA printer that enabled the manufacture of prototype parts overnight.

While along the way, several companies including apple began to use 3D printers for make prototypes and companies like Hull’s 3D Systems continued to develop the 3D printer, the real action began towards the end of the 90s when in 1999, scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine used a 3D synthetic scaffold coated with the patient’s cells. The cells are allowed to grow and the organ is transplanted in to the patient’s body. As the cells are entirely the patient’s the chances of the organ being rejected by the body are significantly reduced. While the organ may not exactly be 3 dimensionally printed, it paved the way for several other developments in the use of 3D printers in medicine.

In 2002, scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine successfully printed a working kidney. The kidney when implanted in test animals actually filtered blood and produced diluted urine. In less than ten years, scientists have managed to print other parts of the body too. Skin, ears, bones, noses and even blood vessels have been printed by scientists across the world through 3D bio-printers that use a gel like substance made up of human cells extracted from the patient and grown in cell cultures. These cells are mixed with hydro-gel and used to print complete organs layer by layer thus spawning a whole new Bio-printing industry.

While there may be huge potential in this industry and could potentially save millions of lives and eliminate the long waiting lists one must endure to find a match, concerns have been raised about the who will regulate and set a standard of quality. Others claim that bio printing takes the topic of playing god to whole new level.

Embraced by medical technology

The ability to print parts of the body using cells from the patient’s body means that the chances of rejection are significantly reduced. This has lead to 3D printing being used in reconstructive surgery as well. In the case of Eric Moger of the UK who had lost almost the entire left side of his face to cancer, doctors were able to develop a nylon skull that served as prosthesis.

The same is the story of an 83 year old woman who had a new jaw bone printed out of a titanium powder. The jaw bone was given a bio-ceramic coating and has all the grooves and indentations required for the muscles to reattach themselves to the prosthetic bone.

Breast cancer survivors with partial mastectomies too have benefited from 3D bio-printing as scientists at the University of Texas at El Paso have managed to use the patient’s own fat cells to create a custom fitted breast implant.

Post the medical revolution that the 3D printer kicked off, open source 3D printers made their first appearing. The brainchild of Dr. Adrian Bower from the University of Bath, RepRap aimed to give the common man access to the world of 3D printing. With the ability to manufacture its own parts, the RepRap was a pioneer when it came to the field of DIY 3D printing.

Technology for the Masses

In less than a year, in 2006, the SLS or Selective Layered Sintering style of 3D printing comes of age and while the costs are still high, with viability snapping at their heels and the ability to print from a variety of substances including glass, carbon fibre and substances of different varieties based on application. In January 2014, the patent keeping SLS printing away from being used by others expired opening a whole range of possibilities.

Fast forward two more years to 2008 and the same organization that aimed to bring 3D printing to the masses developed a new model- the RepRap Darwin which becomes the first self-replicating 3D printer as a majority of its parts are made of plastic and can be 3D printed.

The ability to change lives

While 3D printed organs are slowly becoming a reality, 2008 also saw major breakthroughs in 3D printed prosthetics. Scott Summit developed an artificial limb complete with a thigh, knee, shin and foot all made as a single piece requiring no assemble opening up new avenues in the field of 3D printed prosthetics. Scott went on to start Bespoke Innovations, a company that manufactures custom fairings for prosthetic limbs in 2009.

2009 also marked the year of Makerbot, a start-up that allowed users to build and assemble their own 3D printers are home at a fraction of the cost of commercial printers. With the support from Makerbot, Richard Van As from South Africa who had lost fingers in his left hand to a carpentry accident collaborated with a Ivan Over, puppeteer from the US were able to 3D print a prosthetic hand that provided dexterity to people who were either born without fingers or lost them in accidents.

3D printed prosthetics would go on to become a viable alternative to expensive ones made from carbon fiber and titanium alloys. The same technology is currently giving over 50,000 war refugees in Sudan a new lease on life at a cost of about $100 each.

More recently, 3D printing also gave Dudley, the duckling a new lease on life too. After being attacked by a chicken that left him with just one foot, Doug Nelson, the owner of the shelter where Dudley was brought, in consultation with Terence Loring, founder of a design firm 3 Pillar Designs designed a prosthetic leg. As Dudley would outgrow each limb, Terence would improve the design each time.

The security risk

With the dawning of a new decade in the 21st century, the limits of 3D printing were further stretched. Security, now a growing concern spawned the unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as the drone. They were used in Operation Neptune Spear which led to Osama bin Laden’s demise and China has been using them to spy on us for quite a while. But what half a dozen aeronautical engineers did with a 3D printer proved that the potential that lies hidden inside 3D printing is infinite.

The medical industry was not the only one to embrace 3D printing. Manufacturers of aircrafts and aircraft parts embraced 3D printing to build parts of an unprecedented standard. United Technologies’ Part & Whitney engine uses vanes and compressors inside its engines made from 3D printed parts. Honeywell 3D prints the heat exchangers for their jet engines and Boeing already make about 300 3D printed parts. Of these parts, some are ducts designed to carry cool air to electronic equipment and because they were had complicated shapes, manufacturing and assembling them were labour intensive. Now those costs have been cut down and more efficient designs are being implemented.

In 2011, with a budget of 5000 pounds, they designed SULSA, a drone and because it was 3D printed, they were able to give it a far more complicated aerodynamic structure that would have cost a fortune to build using conventional methods. Thus 3D printing, only on a larger scale could allow the execution of certain designs that would have been overlooked due to cost and manufacturing methods.

Just like the SULSA, 2011 marked out to be the year of 3D printed firsts with funny names as the next innovation was titled the Urbee. Urbee is the greenest car on earth and with figures of over 200 miles to the gallon, gives the Tata Nano a run for its money. Since conventional methods of manufacture were too labour and time intensive. So they split the car in to 10 printable parts and soon, the world’s first 3D printed car was ready once again questioning how relevant traditional supply chains models and assembly lines will be in the future.

With 2011 and 2012 being productive years that were more or less non-controversial, 2013 however saw the design, production of the world’s first 3d printed gun. Dubbed the Liberator, it paid homage to the one shot guns that were designed to be air dropped over Nazi occupied France during the Second World War.

Are we there yet?

But the similarities stopped there because the Liberator of 2013 had a total of 16 working parts out of which 15 were made of plastic. The brainchild of Cody Wilson, a 25 year old law student from the University of Texas envisioned that the gun’s schematics would be freely available to download off the internet promising anybody with a 3D printer and an internet connection with a gun.

Cody Wilson didn’t just stop there. Through his company – Defence Distributed, Cody applied for a firearms manufacturing license. His next project was the 3D printed ‘lower’ of an AR-15 assault rifle, the part which actually meets the requirements of an object to be classified as a gun. This means that the stock, barrel and all other parts could be ordered online by anybody. While Cody Wilson has been included in Wired’s list of the 15 most dangerous people in the world, it only goes to show that there can be such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Cody Wilson’s Liberator

2014 finally is the most promising. Not only will several landmark patents expire this year, it also marks the year when the 3D printing processes rewrote yet another age old industry. The person in question behind this revolution is Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California. With the help of a super-sized 3D printer that spits out concrete, Professor Khoshnevis and his team managed to build a 2,500 square foot house in 24 hours.

The process is called contour crafting and it involves the laying down of two rails on either side of the site. The contour crafting system would move back and forth on these rails and lay concrete layer by layer. The design would make provisions for wiring and plumbing which would be assembled by hand along with the doors and windows.

While at the surface this technology makes that unaffordable dream home of yours a little more tangible, Contour Crafting has the potential to make construction sites safer and could prove to be of great use in disaster relief measures, with the potential of getting entire countries back on its feet. Khoshnevis claims that his invention won’t take away jobs but in fact create more and contour crafting is being considered to be a feasible means of colonising the moon. Hmmm…

Dream home anyone?

If we were to say 3D printing has come a long way, we’d be really underplaying the way the future is shaping up to be. Let’s now turn towards the future of 3D printing.

As it is with all technology, with time and research would come a drop in costs. What this implies is the fact that the traditional model where production was centralised and the goods were distributed to location where they are needed might become redundant. With advancements in technology, the production centres could be localised and production could even take place is people’s homes. You pay for the raw materials and the product’s schematics and make it yourself. Even if the per unit cost of manufacturing is more when compared to traditional means, it would definitely be offset by the fact that the costs incurred due to middlemen, distribution, storage and warehousing, buffer stocks and inventory would all be eliminated. If the product’s schematics are freely available on the web, the costs are reduced further.

What happens next?

The localised production could also result in the manufacturers producing products tailored to the preferences of a particular community. For example, an Alaskan production unit of an automobile company would be able to produce versions of the product that would do better in that particular market and not worry about the economies of scale for the same reasons mentioned above. With localised production units, the manufacturer would also find it feasible to produce faster iterations of a product and get the customer’s feedback Another implication is that while quality control ensured that all products produced are the same, 3D printing would lead to more personalised products reflecting the tastes of the individual thus promoting uniqueness.

While the first two implications would only result in manufacturers rethinking their strategies, the next implication might lead to a shift in power and ‘global dominance’. Over the years, China has used its labour force to its advantage and has become the global leader in manufacturing.

With 3D printing taking a hold, China may no longer be the first name a manufacturer looks up when they decide to start production.
Add to this the fact that the Chinese authorities have accommodated the producer’s every need and have developed a highly specialised labour force, there just might be a situation where the tables could turn.

Even though these implications don’t exactly spell doom for the Chinese economy considering the scale at which it operates at the domestic level, and the fact that not every manufacturer will end up adopting localised 3D printing, the respect the Chinese command at present as the manufacturing powerhouse of the world might not help them in the future.

While some feel that 3D printing is going to close down shops across the world, what the 3d printer lacks is the fact that the production of moveable parts is still yet to be made possible and the process followed for printing an object.

Back to reality

While 3D printing may be the future, it still has a way to go before the kinks are ironed out. For starters, the idea of one day being able to print out large replacement parts for home appliances is still an idea and experts feel that it would at least be a decade before such technology enters the market let alone becomes cost effective.

The time taken to print a ring or a pair of dog tags may be short but the amount of time a professional grade 3D printer would take to make say the chassis of a DSLR or any other complex item for that matter would run into days.

While the 3D printer you have at home makes objects that are almost ready for use, it would still require a certain amount of work before it’s ready. Add to this the fact that a 3D printer can print objects on only one colour; the translucent red dog tags don’t look enticing anymore.

It’s beautiful!

Add to this the fact that conventional production methods can handle a variety of raw materials and the size of the print area isn’t much either, 3D printing will still need some time to come of age.

Furthermore our reliance on a lot of natural products would actually keep the traditional means of production alive and in attempts to go green; we would be embracing bamboo and fungi as viable materials and not 3D printers. Unless somebody figures out a way to print them.