How 3D Printing Recreates Reality

Thanks to the increasing affordability of 3D printing, manufacturing is moving out of the foundry and into the home. This technology allows both existing objects and imagined ones to be recreated. While it might seem to be very complicated, the process of turning computer files into real items is fairly simple. The following are the two basic steps involved:

  • Creating a Virtual Object
  • Creating a Solid Object with a Printer

Immaterial Creations

Before anything else, vital information about an item like its size and shape is entered into a computer. If Computer Aided Design software or CAD is being used to create an original virtual design, this information is automatically generated as part of the process. If the plan is to reproduce an existing item, it needs to be scanned with either a laser or structured light scanner. Structured light scanning can be done inexpensively with a digital phone camera and a patterned light source. With the digital copy in the computer, additional structures might have to be added to support any awkward features that could collapse when the object is being printed. After the computer has the necessary coordinates, it slices the digital copy into a series of at least hundreds of layers. Starting with the bottom layer, they’re sent to the printer to be reproduced in physical form.

Solid Printing

Whereas traditional printers lay down ink in two directions, 3D printers use other materials to establish two-dimensional sheets that are stacked in the third dimension to create a solid object. The cheapest and most common printing method for consumer-grade printers is called fused filament fabrication or FFF. This technique uses a strand of thermoplastic that’s fed into the application nozzle and partially melted. The applicator deposits the plastic as a series of dots in a similar way to how inkjet printers lay down specks of ink. Usually, the platform they’re placed on will drop down a fraction of a millimeter. Then the next layer can be applied. Since they’re hot when this occurs, they’ll fuse together.

Alternative Methods

If the finished product is made of metal, Powder Bed fabrication allows powdered metal to be melted into solid form by a laser. Another technique that works for metal is Lamination. Here, metal sheets are cut into individual layers that are assembled into the final item. Paper sheets can also be used with this method to build mock-ups.