In Depth: 3D Printing

July 2, 2013

As we have seen in previous articles on this page, the emerging technology of 3D printing (or Additive Manufacturing) shows great promise as a means of helping manufacturers cut costs and virtually eliminate lead times, among numerous other benefits.

While it is easy to get swept up in the excitement surrounding this new development, we wanted to take a minute for a nuts-and-bolts lesson on this potentially game-changing process.


3D printing is not a new invention.  In fact, the first industrial 3D printers have existed since the early 1980s, and they have been used extensively for rapid prototyping and research purposes by universities and commercial entities alike.

In 1984, Charles Hull invented stereolithography, the printing process that enables a physical, 3D product to be created from a digital design. Between 1987 and 1988, Scott Crump, founder and CEO of Stratasys Inc., envisioned an easier way to create prototype components, which resulted in the invention of the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technique, itself a form of Additive Manufacturing.

Although the development of 3D prototyping technology generated considerable excitement, initially it was too expensive for any but the largest companies. But in the decades since, a variety of uses for 3D printing technology have developed across several industries, including automotive, aviation, aerospace, medical, and “do-it-yourself” applications.

How It Works

3D printers work much like inkjet printers, but instead of ink, they deposit the desired material in successive layers to create a physical object from a digital file. Additive Manufacturing takes virtual blueprints from animated modeling software and “slices” them into digital cross-sections for the machine to use as a guideline for printing.

To create a 3D product, the machine reads the design file and lays down successive layers of liquid, powder, paper, or sheet material by firing a laser to build the model from the series of cross sections.  An elevator raises and lowers a platform to enable the deposition of these layers, which correspond to the virtual cross sections from the CAD model.

These layers are joined together or automatically fused to create the final shape. Advanced 3D printers can use multiple materials, including plastic, resin, titanium, polymers, and even gold and silver.

Traditional techniques like injection molding can be less expensive for manufacturing polymer products in high quantities, but additive manufacturing offers faster, more flexible, less expensive alternatives when producing relatively small quantities of parts.

More importantly, 3D printers give designers and concept development teams the ability to produce parts and concept models using a desktop-size printer, with engineering changes coming to life immediately.

Biotechnology firms, meanwhile, are studying 3D printing technology for possible use in tissue engineering applications, in which organs and body parts can be built using additive techniques. In this process, layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium or sugar matrix and slowly built up to form three-dimensional structures, including vascular systems.

The opportunities extend to service-based business models as well. Numerous companies have created services in which consumers can customize objects using simplified, web-based customization software and order the resulting items as 3D printed, unique objects.

The Future

“I believe we are at a tipping point where [3D Printing] is now something we can’t avoid. This technology is really going to disrupt the landscape of manufacturing…and most certainly our lives, our businesses, and the lives of our children…and I believe cause a revolution in manufacturing…3D printing can break away barriers in design which challenge the constraints of mass production.” –Lisa Harouni, Co-Founder of Digital Forming, in her January 2012 TED Talk “A Primer on 3D Printing”

While the technology is not yet mainstream, 3D printing is set to gain retail traction in the very near future. This month, individuals will be able to buy a 3D Systems Cube printer at Staples for around $1,300.

Future applications for 3D printing might include creating open-source scientific equipment or other science-based applications, like reproducing fossils, reconstructing bones and body parts in forensic pathology, or even recreating heavily damaged evidence acquired from crime scene investigations.

Whatever the future holds for 3D printing, DVIRC will continue to monitor both the technology and the opportunities it presents for our region’s small and medium manufacturers.  If you would like to learn more about the ways you can begin exploring 3D printing, contact us today.