3D Printing is one of the latest technologies completely reinventing manufacturing. As an Additive Manufacturing (AM) technology, it creates Three Dimensional (3D) objects from a digital model by binding a liquid or powder, layer by layer, to achieve the desired shape. (1)
The process begins with creating a 3D model of the product using a design software-like AutoCAD. This model is then converted into a Gcode source file which contains the dimensions of the object in a language a 3D printer can understand.
Commercially there are a variety of 3D printers available, as well as a diversified range of materials they print in, including thermoplastics, ceramics, metals and glass. As the object is printed layer by layer there is almost no material wastage. And it is possible to achieve designs previously impossible. The application of 3D printers industrially has led to two revolutionary practices: Rapid Prototyping (RP) and Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM).
A 3D Printed Prosthetic Hand (P2)
Rapid Prototyping (RP) (2) is the practice of utilizing 3D printers to design and test product prototypes in much smaller time cycles than previously possible. Designers can go from a design to a physical prototype in 1-3 days, instead of weeks. This enables them to be more creative with their designs and validate assumptions at a much lower cost. Moreover, as designers are able to print in a variety of materials they can get a clearer understanding of how the end product will look, feel and respond in its real world application. This is certain to improve product ergonomics and overall design.
A 3D Printer in action (P3) Source: Subhashish Panigrahi
Direct to Digital Manufacturing
Direct to Digital Manufacturing (DDM) (3) is the practice of manufacturing end user products using 3D printers instead of a traditional assembly line. It is currently used in niche industries with small quantity requirements, and has brought back distributed, non-centralised manufacturing, i.e. cottage industries. It has been adopted by larger companies to manufacture spares and other parts to be used in house. Which enables them to reduce their inventory and avoid delays in production waiting on parts. As the technology matures you can expect more companies to embrace it in more aspects of their business.
A popular entry model: Fused filament fabrication (FFF) printer (P4)
A Changing Manufacturing Industry
Together, Rapid Prototyping (RP) and Direct to Digital Manufacturing (DDM) save companies from investing in tooling and moulds. They significantly reduce the time lag between design and production. This allows companies to commercialise new product ideas quicker than ever before.
Depending on what you wish to print, there are multiple types of 3D printers for both personal and industrial use. Industrially, two of the most popular types of 3D printing technologies are Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Fused Deposit Modelling (FDM). Their functionality can be seen in this article here.