To science fiction writers this was just a dream, but if we look at most of our technology today, we first learned about these wondrous ideas from science fiction writers, such as Jules Verne. I remember reading about moving sidewalks and doors that automatically opened as you approached them when I was growing up. Today, we take this technology for granted.

Well, today these replicators actually exist. They are called 3D printers and the process is called “additive manufacturing.” In existing manufacturing, the process usually takes material away to produce an object, using machinery such as a milling machine, which holds raw material as the milling cutter removes material shavings to reach a final specification. CNC machines are programmed to make exact cuts from simple operations, such as slot and keyway cutting to complex designs, such as contouring.

Additive manufacturing takes virtual designs from CAD drawings or modeling software and transforms them into thin, virtual horizontal cross-sections and creates successive layers until the object is completed. In this process, the virtual object and the original item are almost identical.

A 3D printer is computer driven and utilizes the additive process, building one layer at a time using thousands of layers, ranging from a millimeter to less than 1/1000th of an inch. Both metal and plastic parts can be created from CAD drawings. The building material can be a liquid, powder or sheet metal. The binding process cures the material by heat, UV light or chemical reaction. The 3D process is less costly than milling, but production milling is much faster in the long run.

3D printing includes rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing. The term 3D printer refers primarily to a small, inexpensive office based machine that uses a photopolymer or binder, but is increasingly being used to indicate any machine using additive binding, either in the office or shop floor.

Additive fabrication is often referred to as layered manufacturing, direct digital manufacturing, or solid freeform fabrication. No matter what you call additive manufacturing, it has several advantages. Speed is one advantage, as the process has a short build time, as molds and custom tooling are unnecessary. Complexity does not slow the process, as it would in normal manufacturing, since special molds or casting development is not necessary. Special molds and castings can take weeks to develop.

3Dsystems Zprinter® 150

3D printers can work with many materials, such as plastics, metals, ceramics, and composites. 3D printing is also very cost effective for low volume production once the CAD drawing is prepared. A piece can be created in small volume whereas the cost would be prohibitive using conventional manufacturing processes.3D printing sometimes refers to objects made using ink jet technology in three dimensions. These printers work by layering a powder substrate and binding it with pigmented glue. This technology is the only technique that can print in full color. 

SLS using powder sinter  

A SLS (selective laser sintering) printer spreads out a powder, while a laser hardens the powder in a layer that comprises the bottom slice of the part. A new layer of powder is spread and the laser hardens that slice, which is joined to the first layer. The powder remains loose and supports the part as it is built. When the part is complete, it is removed from the powder and the powder is blown from the part.SLS is used to make a rapid metal prototype that utilizes A6 metal (high carbon steel) to build a prototype up in very thin layers with a minimum wall thickness of .040.” 

Stereolithography 3D printing process

Stereolithography uses a beam of UV light over a photosensitive pool of liquid. The printer positions a perforated platform just below the surface of a pool of liquid photocurable polymer. A UV laser beam then traces the first slice of an object on the surface of this liquid, causing a very thin layer of photopolymer to harden. The perforated platform is then lowered very slightly and another slice is traced out and hardened by the laser. Another slice is then created, and then another, until a complete object has been printed and can be removed from the vat of photopolymer, drained of excess liquid, and cured.

Fused Deposition Modeling creates parts by heating and extruding a filament of plastic material. It is a less expensive form of 3D printing. Model material is extruded from one nozzle and a support material is extruded from a second nozzle. The model material is what a part is made of, while the support material supports the part while it is being made. Once finished, the support material is broken away from the part.
Here are some of the 3d printer manufacturers:

Arcam, Sweden provides a unique additive manufacturing technology for production of fully dense metal parts, called Electron Beam Melting (EBM). The EBM® technology builds parts layer-by-layer from metal powder using a powerful electron beam. The EBM process is carried out in vacuum at an elevated temperature allowing for first-class material properties, mechanically and chemically.

3D Systems is a leading provider of 3-D printing, rapid prototyping and manufacturing parts, systems and complete solutions that reduce the time and cost of product design and development; and facilitates direct and indirect manufacturing by creating quality three-dimensional parts directly from a digital input.

3D Systems’ products and services are utilized by a wide variety of industries; from automotive, aerospace and defense to Consumer Goods, architecture, medical and dental devices, plus numerous other industries for fast, precise design communication and prototyping as well as for the production of functional end-use parts.

EOS, Germany is the world leader in laser sintering. Laser-sintering is an additive layer manufacturing technology and the key technology for e-Manufacturing. It enables the fast, flexible and cost-effective production of products, patterns or tools directly from electronic data. The process accelerates product development and optimizes production processes. Their customer base includes diverse industries such as automotive, aerospace, medical, tooling and consumer goods.

Makerbot Thingomatic

MakerBot Industries’ products are designed to be built by anyone with basic technical skills, and are frequently described as being about as complicated as assembling IKEA furniture. The current printers are sold as do-it-yourself kits, requiring only minor soldering. MakerBot printers currently print with acrylonitrite butadiene styrene (ABS), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polyactic acid (PLA), and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

Objet leads the market for high-resolution 3D inkjet printing systems. They are committed to making highly accurate 3D printing for rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing applications. Time-to-market is a key success factor for manufacturers and designers in virtually every industry who have to quickly and cost effectively create high-quality 3-dimensional models of their designs. This new kind of rapid prototyping can dramatically cut the time and cost required to move from concept to saleable product.

Stratasys’ Dimension offers CAD users a low-cost, networked alternative for printing functional 3D models from the desktop. The printers build models layer-by-layer using ABS plastic, one of the most widely used thermoplastics in today’s injection-molded products. Dimension 3D printers allow users to evaluate design concepts and test models for form, fit and functionality.

Z-Corp color 3D prints are a fast and inexpensive way to simple model making. This additive manufacturing technology is the easiest way to quickly turn 3D CAD data into real colored parts. Parts are created with powdered plaster composite material coupled with a 4 color printing process, allowing for 390,000 possible color combinations. Color is printed directly into the part during the build process, not merely on the surface. This type of color finish eliminates the need for paint during post-processing. Z-Corp 3D Color Prints are ideal for users looking for a cost-effective 3D printing solution for projects not requiring high accuracy or durability.

3D printers come in all shapes and sizes, and now support a variety of raw materials. This enables goods to be imagined and designed on a personal computer, then just as you hit “file” and “print” to print documents, you will be able to almost as easily mass produce physical objects right from a printer. This even includes items with moving parts, says Autodesk’s CTO, Jeff Kowalsky in a recent Forbes interview.

Z-Corp 3D Color Print

Three-dimensional printing technology is being used to create medical implants; jewelry; football boots designed for an individual’s foot; lampshades; racing-car parts; solid-state batteries, and customized mobile phones. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Peter Schmitt, a PhD student, has been printing something that resembles the workings of a grandfather clock. It took him a few attempts to get it right, but eventually he removed the plastic clock from a 3D printer, hung it on the wall and pulled down the counterweight. It started ticking.

3D printers are being used to develop plastic prototypes that are durable and depending on the material, flexible, thus eliminating the expense of creating and injecting molds. Hinges, snap fit components, functioning springs, as well as prototypes that can be drilled and tapped can be modeled.
Because of 3D printing technology, we could see a return of overseas manufacturing to the U.S. Manufacturing will become incredibly cheap. In the future, we will see the manufacture of human replacement organs, glassware, toys and even house parts. Anything that can be conceived and converted by scanning or CAD drawings can be made.

Suppose you break a cabinet handle and need a replacement. You will not have to wait for the manufacturer to mail a replacement to you, or take that drive to the hardware store in hopes of finding a matching handle. You just log on to the manufacturers website, download a 3D file of the handle and print it yourself. Stratasys is contemplating making an inexpensive toy that would let kids manufacture objects of their own design, said Jon Cobb, a vice-president at the company. About 40 percent of Stratasys’s sales currently come from schools and colleges, which use the gear to teach science.

Remember the Easy Bake oven?

The market for 3D printer toys alone could be worth $10 billion a year—many times more than the existing 3D printing market. Total 3D printing sales are expected to reach $3 billion by 2016, up from $1.4 billion in 2011, according to Los Angeles-based research firm IBISWorld. The market could end up being larger if new applications, such as toys take off.

3D Systems is coming out with its first consumer 3D printer, named “the Cube.” It is expected to sell for $1,299.00, and be out-of-the-box ready to use. Color 3D creations can be made at home. The printer weighs only nine pounds and comes with a color easy-load cartridge. The consumer will also receive 50 printable creations. Instead of sitting in front of the gaming console, our kids will be making toys and other unimaginable creations.

A 3D Systems competitor, Makerbot, notes that its Replicator™ is advanced enough to build most of the components necessary to reproduce itself. The Makerbot unit will sell for $1,749.00 for one color and $1,949.00 for two colors. The Replicator has a touch screen LCD, and has game-like controllers to allow the user the ability to control the printer without a computer. Using the controller, models can be made from information on SD cards.

Casio is experimenting with a 3D printer that can take a 2D photograph, extrapolate a 3D image from the photo and print a three-dimensional version. The image stands out from the background, giving the appearance of depth. This might not be the same process as other 3D printers, but could be interesting if Casio goes forward.

3D Systems has created Cubify,™ a web site where you can create 3D models, using a mobile device, tablet or Kinects into a digital canvas. The site has libraries of items that can be created on your 3D printer. You can design and create your own projects or use an existing App.

Check out the following video to see this amazing technology in use:


I guess I will have to look at all of those old Star Trek shows to see what else will be coming in our future.