Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP
A MakerBot 3d Printer
3D printing also known as additive manufacturing is any of various processes used to make a three-dimensional object. In 3D printing, additive processes are used, in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. These objects can be of almost any shape or geometry, and are produced from a 3D model or other electronic data source. A 3D printer is a type of industrial robot.
3D printing in the term’s original sense refers to processes that sequentially deposit material onto a powder bed with inkjet printer heads. More recently the meaning of the term has expanded to encompass a wider variety of techniques such as extrusion and sintering based processes. Technical standards generally use the term additive manufacturing for this broader sense.
Earlier Additive Manufacturing (AM) equipment and materials were developed in the 1980s. In 1981, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute invented two AM fabricating methods of a three-dimensional plastic model with photo-hardening polymer, where the UV exposure area is controlled by a mask pattern or the scanning fiber transmitter. Then in 1984, Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation developed a prototype system based on this process known as stereolithography, in which layers are added by curing photopolymers with ultraviolet light lasers. Hull defined the process as a “system for generating three-dimensional objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed,” but this had been already invented by Kodama. Hull’s contribution is the design of the STL (STereoLithography) file format widely accepted by 3D printing software as well as the digital slicing and infill strategies common to many processes today. The term 3D printing originally referred to a process employing standard and custom inkjet print heads. The technology used by most 3D printers to date—especially hobbyist and consumer-oriented models—is fused deposition modeling, a special application of plastic extrusion.
AM processes for metal sintering or melting (such as selective laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, and selective laser melting) usually went by their own individual names in the 1980s and 1990s. Nearly all metalworking production at the time was by casting, fabrication, stamping, and machining; even though plenty of automation was applied to those technologies (such as by robot welding and CNC), the idea of a tool or head moving through a 3D work envelope transforming a mass of raw material into a desired shape layer by layer was associated by most people only with processes that removed metal (rather than adding it), such as CNC milling, CNC EDM, and many others. But AM-type sintering was beginning to challenge that assumption. By the mid 1990s, new techniques for material deposition were developed at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University, including microcasting and sprayed materials. Sacrificial and support materials had also become more common, enabling new object geometries.
The umbrella term additive manufacturing gained wider currency in the decade of the 2000s as the various additive processes matured and it became clear that soon metal removal would no longer be the only metalworking process done under that type of control (a tool or head moving through a 3D work envelope transforming a mass of raw material into a desired shape layer by layer). It was during this decade that the term subtractive manufacturing appeared as a retronym for the large family of machining processes with metal removal as their common theme. However, at the time, the term 3D printing still referred only to the polymer technologies in most minds, and the term AM was likelier to be used in metalworking contexts than among polymer/inkjet/stereolithography enthusiasts. The term subtractive has not replaced the termmachining, instead complementing it when a term that covers any removal method is needed.
By the early 2010s, the terms 3D printing and additive manufacturing developed senses in which they were synonymous umbrella terms for all AM technologies. Although this was a departure from their earlier technically narrower senses, it reflects the simple fact that the technologies all share the common theme of sequential-layer material addition/joining throughout a 3D work envelope under automated control. (Other terms that have appeared, which are usually used as AM synonyms (although sometimes as hypernyms), have been desktop manufacturing, rapid manufacturing [as the logical production-level successor to rapid prototyping], and on-demand manufacturing [which echoes on-demand printing in the 2D sense of printing].) The 2010s were the first decade in which metal parts such as engine brackets and large nuts would be grown (either before or instead of machining) in job production rather than obligately being machined from bar stock or plate.
Modeling: 3D modeling
The manual modeling process of preparing geometric data for 3D computer graphics is similar to plastic arts such as sculpting. 3D scanning is a process of analysing and collecting digital data on the shape and appearance of a real object. Based on this data, three-dimensional models of the scanned object can then be produced.
Regardless of the 3D modeling software used, the 3D model (often in .skp, .dae, .3ds or some other format) then needs to be converted to either a .STL or a .OBJ format, to allow the printing (a.k.a. “CAM”) software to be able to read it.