James O'Neil, Project Manager - 07 - 04 - 16

Let’s Talk: 3D Printing

If you believe the hype (which we certainly do) 3D printing will change the way we manufacture everything on the planet. The process itself is nothing new - 3D printing has (incredibly) been around for some 30 years - but it's only now that the technology is really coming to the forefont. Indeed, some futurologists believe that the arrival of 3D printing heralds the beginning of a third industrial revolution - it puts the power to create in the hands of individuals while also allowing for mass building on an industrial scale.

What is 3D Printing?

With chatter almost constant about how 3D printing is going to turn industry as we know it on its head, it's not hard to find a bitterly fought debate about the technology online. For every devotee gushing about future consumers printing their own products there is a sceptic pointing to the cost of decent materials. For every casual observer whose jaw dropped at the news of printable human organs there is an anxious onlooker bringing up the awkward issue of 3D rifles.

The debates surrounding 3D printing are, in many ways, essential to its development. Yet, before you pick a side and dive into the affray, it is worth knowing what the technology is actually all about. In other words, you need an answer to the question: what is 3D printing?

3D printing is one of the few examples of a successful additive manufacturing process. Traditionally, manufacturing products is a subtractive procedure – you begin with a piece of material, say a large sheet of metal, then reduce its size and alter its shape by slicing away parts of it in order to create a finished item. For example, the frame of an automobile.

Additive manufacturing works the opposite way: you begin with nothing then add the material in the specific shape until you have your intended product.

Though machines vary, the basic 3D printer will consist of an extruder, through which the heated material is transferred to a platform below. The extruder will make a series of passes, adding layer upon layer until the object is created. Those passes will match a blueprinted image of the object, usually created using computer aided design (CAD) or some other form of digital modelling software.

The 3D Printing Industry

At present around 30 companies have established themselves as manufacturers of industrial level 3D printers, while the number of manufacturers of smaller desktop models is also growing. On the whole, the industry is looking extremely healthy, as stock prices increase with steady pace for most of the big players. Perhaps one of the most interesting developments so far, was the release of the Velleman K8200, the very first 3D printer to be made available from a store on the UK high street. At just a few hundred pounds it’s an extremely affordable piece of kit - good for a hobbyist although too small to satisfy someone with industrial or professional ambitions.

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Over the past year, 3D print services seem to have been locked in a battle to see who could put the technology to the most headline-worthy use. The result has been a year of quite remarkable tech news, with tales of lunar rocks, replacement jaw and hip bones, prosthetic animal limbs, marching bio-bots, musical instruments, designer clothes and firearms all appearing, as if from thin air, on a 3D printer’s building plate.

NASA, in particular, has been at the centre of many of the most interesting developments in the area, from the lunar rocks that might one day make the building of a space station on the moon a possibility, to the printing of food for astronauts and the creation of rocket engine parts.

The ability to create personalised products for the consumer makes the technology a very exciting one for the medical community, as anything from hearing aids to replacement body parts can be created to precisely fit a specific person’s body.

The prospect of such deep customisation has been jumped upon by big name brands such as Nokia, who are offering their customers made-to-order 3D printed phone cases.

Still Not Convinced?

How about 3D printed edible chocolate? Seriously.

These designs can be as complex (or as simple) as you like as long as they are self-supporting. Imagine chocolate printed in the shape of your brand logo or bestselling product? What a fantastic giveaway to use at an exhibition or event.

So is it ready yet?

So what does all this mean for the signage industry? We predict that 2016 will continue to be the year for development – the technology is still maturing and techniques are still a work in progress for some applications. However, there are a number of projects planned for the industry which will come to fruition in the next 12-18 months, and we can't wait to see where 3D printing will lead!