Brief introduction to 3D printing

How were the first 3D printers developed?  Why has there been an exponential growth in its domestic use? What printer types do we have at our reach to make or assemble them ourselves? And what are the necessary steps to fabricate an object using a 3D printer? What kind of pieces and objects can we print with a 3D printer?

Published: Jun 26, 2013
Brief introduction to 3D printing

FfabLAB Asturias's 3D printer at LABoral. Photo: LABoral

by Román Torre ( @RTorre )

To venture briefly into the history of recent 3D printing, we may go more or less to 1984, the year in which Charles Hull, co-founder of the US company 3D Systems, put his first 3D stereolithography printer or SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) on the market.

At this stage all types of companies started to have access to the prototype of their products quickly but not cheaply, a substantial change in the way of developing small pieces in pre-production. Below we can see an example of the process that is still given now, although logically in today’s much more evolved machines

We still find ourselves at the beginnings of 3D printers but their domestic use is a long way off, mainly due to stereolithography being a relatively complex process which additionally requires an ultraviolet laser to compact the liquid mixture. It is difficult to transfer this method to machines nearer our desktops and its cost is not easily affordable for domestic use. The same applies to a series of subsequent methods, such as printers that print by compaction, of which we have various types including ones that use ink and those which also use a laser to cure the material. I won’t go into detail about these other sorts to avoid a never-ending post, and instead I prefer to focus on the techniques leading to "Domesticate".

It was only later when they started to release the first prototypes of layer-by- layer additive-type materials printing (additive manufacturing), with a direct injection of material in very thin layers, usually a polymer. A much cheaper and more direct method, with a size in line with domestic production and responsible for its exponential development as we shall see below.

Making another quantum leap forward to go back again, from today’s media we all know of many examples of 3D printing with considerable coverage, such as that of the famous "Wiki Gun", the media project by Defense Distributed to develop weapons directly printed in 3D at home at an approx cost of 25 dollars. Yet before reaching these extremes or abuses of this technology, and by contrast, in the health field at the end of the ‘90s, scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed the first human organ, providing as material the cells themselves of the patient with zero risk of rejection. It is precisely this field of regenerative medicine which finds itself among those that have most benefitted from this technology, becoming commonplace now and even standard practice in areas such as dentistry, with machines capable of printing new dental pieces in a matter of minutes.

It’s interesting because in spite of the large amounts of money and materials invested in the organ printer of which I will show you a promotional video below, a desktop 3D printer like those displayed later are not far removed in terms of their mechanical and technological foundations.

Some years later and in line with the exponential growth of Open Source culture, 3D printer projects started to develop which allowed you to assemble, improve or replicate the printers yourself in your own house at a low cost, such as the Repap project, where Dr. Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath started research into building auto-replicant printers (you can print again and again almost all your components) with totally open development and designed so that the community could contribute its own research. Today in the world there are countless communities working on this project, with many different varieties or branches. In Barcelona, we have various active groups, such as the blablablalab Collective or the members of RepRap Bcn, a project by the Foundation CIM of the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya [Polytechnic University of Catalonia] which, according to its statutes, aims to promote the presence of open source 3D printing in Spain and Europe. In its workshops we can build ourselves and learn about printing with this type of printer, working directly on your own model that can be taken home afterwards. The model is called BCN3D, based on one of the most well known initial branches of this type of printer, that of Prusa-Mendel typology.  In this interesting time lapse video of its workshops, we can see the development and assemblage of some of its models.

Another well known example of an open-source printer which has been developed in parallel to the RepRap project is that by the company MarketBot Industries (one of its models is available in FabLab at LABoral) which has been evolving in a similar way, distributing the first kilts of its model Cupcake CNC, later called Thing-O-Matic, for making your very own at home. They are also in charge of Thingiverse, one of the major online repositories of ready-to-print objects which you can download yourself or share the objects you need or have created.

Media coverage also featured this printing firm when a South African and an American got together to create the ROBOHAND Project and print a prosthesis for Liam, a South African child without the full function of his hand due to a genetic defect. For this project a Marketbot printer called Replicator was used.

This firm was not exempt from controversy when it decided to bring out its powerful model Replicator2 and refused to make available to the community the opportunity to acquire the printer dismantled for its assemblage, nor even the plans nor the source code. You can read more on this subject here.

In the following video on you can see a replicator2 in action:

In broad terms… What would be the usual and necessary steps to fabricate an object with a 3D printer?

In the first place we will need to design and draw our object in three dimensions by means of any CAD software with the most common extensions which include .3ds, .stl or .vrml if it is the case of objects with colour information. On pages like those mentioned previously, you will be able to download some of these models to test out, such as telephone cases or another series of objects you consider interesting for testing.

Secondly, you could upload this file to one of the many printing services available on the internet if you do not have a 3D printer, or go to a place nearby where you can use one, as is the case with fabLAB at LABoral Centro de Arte. Printing can last anything from a few hours to a whole day, depending on the complexity and density of the object.

Of course, this is a brief outline of the steps due to the fact that domestic or professional printing is very knowledgeable in terms of the possible printing problems and results, bearing in mind the need for an adequate calibration of the machine and many other details on the materials and the type of designed piece. At this series of spaces where you have these types of machines at your disposal, there is usually specialist staff to help you achieve the expected results of the printed piece.

As previously commented, there are very few limits on the size and material type for what we choose to print - everything will depend on the machine and material with which we intend to carry out the project. As explained before in other examples, the similarities between printing a piece for building a house or a biscuit or any other type of food are quite close, and no, it isn´t a silly example: there are now projects designed to print or fabricate fairly big parts for the construction of buildings as well as others equally developed which focus on the task of printing food - here you have a couple of examples of the two cases:



GGlab + Deniz Manisali with Luis Fraguada

To keep from extending this entry further, I hope that anyone who has spent a little time reading this article has been able to get an overall picture of the possibilities encompassed by the use and enjoyment of this technology at any level. Until the next time.


Bonus track:

The future of 3D printing?.....The future of 3D printing is now and it also sometimes appears in the form of visual pleasure - there is nothing as enjoyable as watching this sample.

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