3D printing is all the rage these days. The technology passed the hobbyist phase several years ago and is now being used to create parts for cars and aircraft. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printers can use materials ranging from plastic to resin to metallic alloys. It is poised to change the face of manufacturing.

There are several types of 3D printers. They may look different and use different materials, but all involve the same basic approach for “printing” an object: extruding or otherwise transferring a substance in multiple layers onto a base surface. The process starts on the base layer and then builds up from there. It’s actually kind of simple, it builds an object in 3 dimensions just like standard printers “build” in 2 dimensions.

It all starts with a 3D image of the item they want printed using a computer-assisted design (CAD) software program. That 3D object is then sliced into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers, which are placed one on top of the other until the completed object emerges. The all the printer has to do is lay down all horizontal layers one by one. With some printers this can be a time consuming process but printers are getting faster.

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The inexpensive printers deposit a material that is a polymer, sort of like an automated glue gun. The polymer comes in spools and are a wide variety of types and colors. Metal parts are made by selective laser sintering which involves heating and solidifying granular material with a laser in a specific pattern for each slice before repeating with new layers.

Although entry-level hobbyist machines can be found in the $200 range, most printers are quite a bit more and commercial printers run in the $100,000 and up range.

Some business observers are pinning high hopes on 3D printing, believing that the technology could enable thousands of small manufacturing businesses to sprout again in the US. Basically it would be the return of small time machine and fabrication shops but involve a great deal less capital equipment.

Thanks to: Covert Chrysler