What is 3D Printing and how does it work?

What is a 3D printer?

3D printers are a new generation of machines that can make everyday objects in a variety of different materials, including metal, resin and plastic. This creates a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model. The process has been widely regarded as revolutionary as it enables you to produce complex shapes, using less material than traditional manufacturing methods. As a result, it may transform a variety of industries, from construction through to healthcare.

How do 3D printers work?

To 3D print an object, you firstly need to design a 3D model on your computer or use a free template that already has a software license. Once you have created this digital file, you attach the computer to a 3D printer and press print.

To create the object, the 3D printing process turns a whole object into thousands of tiny little slices, then makes it from the bottom-up, slice by slice. A tiny nozzle on the printer moves around precisely under computer control and strands of plastic (or another material) are fed into a print head, which is heated up to melt the material. It prints one layer, waits for it to dry, and then prints the next layer on top. As the materials are built up, they are bonded together into the specified design.

To make 3D printed objects the material used must be easy to mould. For example, you couldn’t 3D print with diamond as you can’t put the material through a printer. Metals, plastic and resin are often chosen due to their ability to melt. But in the future more materials may be added.

What are the use cases?

In 2018, 1.4 million 3D printers were sold worldwide, a figure that is expected to rise to 8 million in 2027, according to Grand View Research. Most of these have been purchased by industrial groups with the purpose of aiding their business. For example, Boeing is using 3D-printed parts in its spacecraft, SQ4D is 3D printing houses and Adidas has even created the world’s first mass produced 3D printed shoes. If you wanted, you could even print a 3D printer with a 3D printer!

One of the many benefits of 3D printing is that it allows manufacturers to personalize their product to their buyers. A good example of this is with hearing aids. Since 2001 almost every hearing aid has been 3D printed. Prior to this, making one hearing aid required nine laborious steps involving hand sculpting and mold making, and the results were often ill-fitting.

With 3D printing, a technician uses silicone to take an impression of the ear canal, that impression is 3D scanned, and printed. The electronics are added and then it’s shipped to the user. Using this process, hundreds of thousands of hearing aids are 3D printed each year, each one customised just for its user. In the future this will also extend to other 3D printed prosthetics, which will be personalised for each individual patient.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the work being done to 3D print human organs. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US recently announced that they’d developed a way to 3D print living skin, complete with blood vessels, that could be used as a graft for burn victims.

With the technology becoming cheaper and more efficient the number of instances where the technology will be used in the future will only increase. However, until then, the technology remains expensive.

Can they be hacked?

3D printers are as susceptible to hacking as any other device. The key problem here is that a cybercriminal with access to an organization’s 3D printer, could insert an undetectable design change into a product and let the product go to market with a key malfunction, which only the hacker knows about. In high-risk printing applications, such as automobile components, industrial sabotage of this nature could be dangerous.

As such, to help protect against malicious actors, users must make sure they are operating on a secure network, have encrypted their files and are using a reputable device. With these principles applied, the risk of an attack is much lower.

Are you excited for the next generation of 3D printing? What other innovations do you think this technology could bring? Let us know in the comments below.

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