Three dimensional (3D) printers that have the capability of creating physical articles have been used for over three decades and may soon significantly alter the manufacturing world.
Amazingly enough, none of the big 2D printer companies have made an entrance the 3D printer market yet. This may change in 2014 as Hewlett-Packard (HP) has formally announced plans to make its debut in the 3D printer market although they have not yet stated what kind of product is in development. Generally, 3D printing involves additive technology that builds objects using a multitude of very thin layers. Different technologies are being used for object creation by 3D printers.
Stereolithography – This additive technology was created by Charles Hull in 1984 and involves a punctured platform located beneath liquid photopolymer. Ultraviolet (UV) lasers trace thin slices of the object on the liquid surface and an identical layer of photopolymer hardens. The platform incrementally lowers and the process is repeated until the entire object has been printed in hardened photopolymer. Stereolithography is an extremely accurate type of fabricated 3D output.
Digital Light Processing (DLP) – Instead of a laser, DLP technology uses a projector to harden article cross-section layers. EnvisionTEC has produced Perfactory 3D printer since 2002. Projectors launch cross-sectional data into liquid resin which triggers the resin to harden. Using their 3D technology, EnvisionTEC has had a great impact on both the hearing aid and jewelry markets.
Material Jetting or Polyjet Matrix – Similar to printing using inkjet cartridges, Polyjet 3D printers drop layer after layer of fluid photopolymer onto a tray, treat the layers with UV light to harden, and continue the process until the object is completed. Articles are ready for use immediately.
This technology has the advantages of speed, greater quality, fine precision, and can produce articles using multiple materials. 3D Printers produced by Objet Connex feature exclusive technology that can use numerous materials in one print run so that plastic objects may include rubber-like parts. More than 100 materials may be used with digital combinations that will produce the look, texture, and purpose of complex objects.
FDM printer hardware using material extrusion is only made by Stratasys, however similar processes called Thermoplastic Extrusion, Plastic Jet Printing, Fused Fiament Method, or Fused Filament Fabrication” are produced by other manufacturers. This process involves hardening photopolymer by melting and advancing thin ribbons of semi-liquid materials through an extrusion head that is controlled by a computer. A main advantage of FDM is that objects are created like those produced by injection molding. Material extrusion printers have innumerable, diverse application such as printing out cheese, chocolate, or parts of entire buildings.
Binder jetting printers create objects by sticking consecutive layers of powdered construction material together with glue or other binder. ExOne developed binder jetting metal printing using powder layers composed of bronze or stainless steel metal that are sprayed with a binder and dried with a heating lamp until the layers have created the completed article. The article is then placed in an oven to completely harden the glue and then heated in a kiln. The final article is 99.9% solid metal.
3D printers have a great potential for future applications in fast prototyping of plastic and metal manufacturing for medicine, the arts, outer space, and many other areas. HP has expressed interest in leading the 3D business by focusing on speed and cost.
Quarter sized prototypes take approximately an hour to be produced. 3D printer costs have been dropping but some have sacrificed quality and reliability. If HP can deliver on their promises, they should have a winner.