After Benny Landa and the introduction of the nanographic printing process, the biggest attraction circling the print industry is arguably 3D printing. At the recent Graphics Canada tradeshow, I found it quite interesting to see 3D printers for the first time with my own eyes and being able to hold products in my hands after they were made on the devices at the show. The 3D printers on display included a small single colour device retailing for about $2,500 and a two-colour device for around $4,000. As with the aging path of any new technology, prices will most likely come down as more devices find their way into the market.
The arrival of 3D printing spread across the public’s consciousness earlier this year when the plans for producing a gun using 3D technology were made available on the Internet. The only metal part was the pin used to fire the bullet. Frightening scenarios were painted about the consequences of allowing anyone with access to a 3D printer to produce such a gun, because – among a raft of grizzly schemes – the plastic parts would not be detected by conventional airport security scans. After a deluge of online protest, the person who posted the plans for the gun removed the files, but as we all know they were probably copied countless times and still readily available.
The technology of 3D printing, however, is touted as the next great thing in customer service. If you need a part for anything, just 3D print it and you can repair whatever is broken. It has also been suggested that 3D printers will make extensive toolkits obsolete, since you can produce the tool that you need right there, assuming you have a 3D printer in your home or workshop. The relatively inexpensive 3D printers use molten plastic to create the objects, others, more expensive ones, employ metal powder which will be hardened through the application of a laser beam or electron beam.
High-quality 3D printing is achieved with stereolithography. It is a polymer-based process. A laser beam is directed at a bed of liquid resin and the energy from the laser causes a thin layer to harden. The laser is directed by a small movable mirror across the whole manufacturing table. The hardened material is attached to a platform that moves away from the bed of molten resin. A good animation of this process can be seen at formlabs.com/products/our-printer. 3D printers using this technology will come down in price, because some patents in regards to the technology will expire in 2014. This technology deposits layers that are 25 micrometres thick, while the molten plastic deposit method creates layers of about 100 micrometers.
It was also suggested that 3D printers should be on board of future space explorations to lower the weight of items, i.e. toolboxes, that need to be brought on the trip into space for any kind of repairs. That would leave more room for the payload that is transported into space. Artists have also discovered 3D printing as an art form. One of them is using a special technique to 3D print objects into sand, by injecting it with a special polymer, which bonds the sand particles together and hardens when it comes in contact with air. Once the printing process is complete the object gets carefully dug out of the sand. Any remaining loose sand is washed away with water.
The possibilities for printing 3D objects are endless. At the Graphics Canada trade show I had a soft silicone model of a human heart in my hands and it was printed from actual MRI images of someone’s heart. I found this simply amazing. Aside from all the great and astounding things that can be established using 3D print technology one still needs to ask oneself the following question: Is 3D printing printing or is it manufacturing?
You could make the argument that printing also deposits something, although a rather thin film of ink, onto a substrate. 3D printing also deposits material, but in much thicker layers. Printing is also quite often called highly customized manufacturing. Each job is unique and sometimes very intricate techniques are used to create the product the customer desires. This was clearly visible in some of the pieces that were entered into the Canadian Printing Awards competition. Printing is quite often used to create many copies of the same product, just like in mass manufacturing. So you can twist and turn it anyway but it starts to get a bit difficult and not very well defined.
Let’s have a look at Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary for the definition of printing: The process of producing books, magazines, etc. by using machinery the act or process of printing a set number of copies of a book at one time handwriting that uses separate letters that do not join together.
Now let’s have a look at manufacturing in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: The process of making products especially with machines in factories.
The definition of manufacturing might need some updating in regards to the word factories, when 3D printers are more and more available to the general public.
I thought about this discussion for some time and what could be the distinguishing factor to call 3D printing a printing process or more traditional manufacturing process. In my opinion the distinction comes in regards to the fact the printing always involves images and text and in the conveying of information, regardless of what the information is.
3D printing, in my opinion, resembles a more traditional manufacturing process. The reason for this conclusion came in the form of an air nozzle that was shown to me at Graphics Canada. It is the nozzle that is above every seat in an airplane. These nozzles are now made using 3D printing and 3D printing has simplified the process, since no molds are needed to create the separate parts and then have them assembled. The nozzle is manufactured in one step with a 3D printer.
A recent article from InkWorld by Rodman Publishing states that Messe Düsseldorf, the organization that hosts the drupa and Interpack and many other tradeshows on the Düsseldorf fairgrounds, launched the 3D fab+print during the K 2013 trade show, the tradeshow for plastics and rubber. Shows and exhibitions related to 3D fab+print will be co-located with seven tradeshows and one of is drupa, which will run from May 31 to June 10, 2016.
There are many manufacturers of 3D printing equipment and, just as in the printing world, there are devices for home use, professionals and industrial scale applications. MakerBot is a well-known American manufacturer of 3D printing. A visit to the company’s Website shows that they have three stores in the United States and all 48 Microsoft stores in the U.S. have MakerBot systems installed. The next time you travel to the U.S., look up if there is a Microsoft store in the city you are visiting. You can have a look at the MakerBot 3D printing and probably for a minimal fee have a product made right there on the spot.
3D Systems is a leader in the consumer sector and Stratasys is, according to InkWorld magazine, the world leader in the professional sector. Stratasys offers up to 150 different types of photopolymers and thermoplastics – the largest selection of materials for 3D printing.
The leader for industrial applications using laser-sintering technology is EOS GmbH from Germany and its customers include well-know names like MTU (a manufacturer of large diesel engines and complete propulsion system), EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company), Daimler and BMW. These companies already use 3D printing in their production lines.
Regardless of the material and fusing technology being used in 3D printing, it must be considered as additive manufacturing. The object is built layer upon layer and the thickness of the layer varies with the deposit and fusing method that is used. The fusing method can incorporate chemical and/or physical processes, precipitation curing and/or melting. These fusing methods currently allow the use of materials like artificial resins, plastics, metals and ceramics in powder form and paper. They use methods like selective laser melting, electron beam melting of metals, selective laser sintering for plastics, stereolithography, digital light processing, polyjet modeling for photopolymers and fused deposition modeling for thermoplastics (FDM). FDM is most popular method for 3D printing.
3D printing is already used a lot more than one would think in a range of production and manufacturing environments. I think this alone settles the debate whether it is akin to printing or a more traditional production process. Malcom Keif from CalPoly University in San Louis Obispo predicts that 3D printers will invade the office like the copy machine has.
Over time, these devices will become more sophisticated and there will be different levels of sophistication with machines, again depending on if the end-use is for consumers, professionals or industrial companies. 3D printing will be part of the manufacturing world and we have not seen the end of the development yet. Au contraire, we are at the beginning of this oddly quiet manufacturing revolution.