Although 3D printing is becoming more and more popular, many individuals still do not understand how it works or the possibilities for use. We’re providing some of the basics here.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is a process of creating solid three-dimensional objects by adding successive tiny layers of material. This process is radically different from machining – which humans have done for thousands of years – which is a subtractive process. 3D printing builds up material; the machining process removes material by drilling, cutting, shaving, sanding, etc., to form the desired shape.
The additive process of 3D printing has distinct advantages over machining because it can create highly intricate 3D objects with both detailed exteriors and interiors, while using less material. While subtractive processes result in leftover material, the additive process only uses the material necessary to build up the product and is therefore a more cost-effective and sustainable method of printing compared to traditional prototyping methods.
Three-dimensional (3D) printing almost seems futuristic, but it holds incredible possibilities for the future of every industry. Today, experts are envisioning how to “print” a bionic human ear or a racecar. Used by scientists, designers, manufacturers and engineers, 3D printing could radically change technology, and the world, at a rapid pace.2 For designers, creating a looks-like, works-like model through 3D printing is a fairly inexpensive way to speed the design-to-prototype process.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
The 3D print process begins with the creation of a computer aided design (CAD) file, which digitally represents the final object being created. After the CAD file information is imported into computer language used by the 3D printer, it is used to create the 3D item – in our case, a model of the product or package we are designing for a client. As each layer of the model is printed, the “build tray” (on which the model rests) lowers by a fraction of a millimeter to allow for the next layer. When the model is finished, you can see the very thin cross-sectional build layers.3
The model can be used as is, an unfinished representation of the desired product, or it can go through a labor-intensive (and more traditional) process of sanding, priming and painting. This results in a model that is physically and visually representational of the desired future product.
How Does 3D Printing Fit Within the Design Process?
At Kaleidoscope, we have a team of industrial designers and model makers who can process client-created CAD files through the 3D system or create our own data. Limited only by the size constraints of the printer, we can take a rough and rudimentary CAD file and change it into functional data while also incorporating material types and tolerances.
Often, multiple CAD models are created during the preliminary stages of a design initiative in order to work out specific design and functionality questions. These various models can then be printed to realize the designer’s intent.
What’s Next for 3D Printing?
There are a variety of manufacturers selling 3D printers for the consumer market at a cheaper price and for industrial use at a far higher cost. In fact, 3D printing increasingly is creating final products rather than just prototypes for industrial businesses. More than 20% of 3D production consists of final products, and that percentage is expected to expand to 50% by 20203.
Where Does 3D Printing Fit Into the Design Modeling Toolkit?
During the early stages of the design process, we often start out creating many lesser expensive, low-fidelity models. We make these from a variety of materials, such as foam, foam-core, clay, wood, or corrugated flute, and the objective is to design, realize and produce a large number of ideas at a low cost. It’s a brainstorming session of the object’s basic form and function, and the product design intent and specifications, such as material and color. After these sessions are completed, we often narrow down the number of designs create higher-fidelity pieces. These final pieces will show extreme detail, functionality, and precision to the client. Depending on the complexity of the design, 3D printing could be used in any of these steps and finished to the level needed to illustrate the required intent.
3D printing is pretty exciting, and new uses are found every day. If you’ve got any examples to share, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.
1 Foley, Helen. “15 of the Best 3D-Printed Items From 2013.” The Next Web. N.p., 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 July 2014.
2 Federico-O’Murchu, Linda. “How 3-D Printing Will Radically Change the World.” CNBC.com. CNBC, 11 May 2014.
Web. 11 July 2014.
3 “The Printed World.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 12 Feb. 2011. Web. 13 July 2014.