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How Does 3D Printing Work?

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a technology that creates 3-dimensional objects through the layering of materials sprayed, spread, etched or squeezed onto a platform. 3D printing can be used to create automotive parts, aircraft parts, custom-fitting medical implants and educational models. One Chinese company has even leveraged 3D printing technology to print 10 one-story houses in one day.

How Long Does 3D Printing Take?
3D printer speed is measured in vertical inches per hour. A 3D printed object could take as little as a few hours and as many as a few days to manufacture. The total 3D print time varies depending on the type of printing process used and layer thickness. The finer and thinner the layer, the longer it will take for the printer to build the object. Thinner layers allow for more detail and a smoother surface finish for printed parts.

What Are The Different 3D Printing Technologies?
The different types of 3D printing technologies include a variety of processes that use lasers, ultraviolet light and binder materials to harden liquids and powders to create solid layers.
  • Stereolithography (SLA) – SLA is the original 3D printing process. The SLA process uses an ultraviolet laser that traces patterns onto a vat of resin, laser-hardening the liquid plastic to create thin layers. As each layer is created, the platform is lowered into the vat so additional thin solid layers can be hardened on top of the previous layer. Once the part is finished, the platform raises from the vat so that the part can be immersed in a chemical for cleaning. 3D printing supports are then removed.   
  • MultiJet Printing (MJP) – The MJP process uses UV bulbs to cure plastic items made from photopolymer materials. MJP creates smooth surface models suitable for proof of concept prototyping and design appearance and evaluation modeling.
  • ColorJet Printing (CJP) – The CJP process uses a powder and binder material to create 3D objects. CJP first uses a roller to spread thin layers of gypsum powder material onto the printing platform. After the application of each layer, a color binder is sprayed onto the powder that sets the material.
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) – The SLS process uses a laser to fuse powdered materials together. As the laser creates the design from a bed of powder, traditional support structures needed for other additive processes are not required for SLS. This eliminates the post-print step of support removal and allows for increase part complexity.
  • Plastic Jet Printing (PJP) – The PJP, also known as extrusion printing or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), process uses thermoplastics to create 3D models by extruding material from a heated nozzle onto the printer platform in cross sections. After each layer hardens, the platform lowers so that the nozzle can extrude more plastic material to create the next layer. PJP technology is used in most consumer models of 3D printers.
  • Film Transfer Imaging (FTI) – During the FTI process, a material tray is first coated by a liquid resin from a material cartridge. The resin is then cured by the imager onto the previous layer on the tray and lifted up onto the printer platform. The scraper then recoats the material tray with resin and the process repeats.   
The 3D Printing Process
The additive process varies greatly from technology to technology. However, the 3D printing process generally always follows these basic steps:
1. 3D Modeling – Each 3D computer model either starts from zero using a computer-aided design (CAD) software or as a physical object that is then scanned and reverse engineered using the software. When a 3D scanner is used for reverse-engineering the point cloud originally generated from the scan is used for meshing.
2. File Export – The file of the 3D model is exported for verification and testing.
3. Model Verification – A 3D mesh is a true-to-life representation of a final 3D object that is used for testing. During this stage of the process, the 3D model is meshed and then tested for “water-tightness” to see if it will hold up to end-use requirements.
4. Slicing – The 3D modeling software slices the 3D model into layers to be printed, often right after the 3D modeling process. This step must be completed before printing.
5. Material Loading – 3D printing materials can be loaded into the 3D printer in a variety of ways. Some 3D printers use cartridges (MJP printers) or filament spools (PJP printers) as 3D material loading mechanisms. Stereolithography printers, on the other hand, laser-hardens objects straight into a liquid vat, while SLS technology does the same into a bed of material powder.
6. Printing – The 3D object is now ready to be printed onto the printer platform. This process can take anywhere from hours to several days, depending on the 3D printer technology and layer thickness.
7. Post-Processing – Almost all end-use 3D printed parts require some form of finishing or final processing after printing. The most common type of post-processing is the removal of supports printed as a part of more complex items with non-freestanding or overhanging parts during the manufacturing process. Many 3D printed parts are primed, painted or plated to achieve a desired aesthetic finish for the final product.

Are 3D Printed Parts As Strong As Parts Made Using Traditional Manufacturing?
3D printed layers are fused or cured for strength. While all 3D printed objects do not necessarily currently have the same physical properties of traditional machining methods, advancements in 3D technology are making 3D printing a strong contender for the manufacture of industrial end-use products.

General Electric (GE) Aviation is one pioneer that has adopted additive manufacturing for the manufacture of aircraft parts. GE found a 3D printed version of a fuel nozzle for its CRM LEAP engine to be even more reliable than the original machined part. For this nozzle, the traditional process involved manufacturing and fastening several parts together. The 3D printing process eliminates the steps associated with the traditional process, instead printing the nozzle as one whole part.

The success of GE in incorporating 3D printing into its manufacturing processes, in addition to many other businesses across a range of industries, indicates that the future of this exciting new technology in manufacturing and production is very bright.
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