What Is 3D Printing?

If you’ve watched the news lately, you’ve likely heard about 3D printing. With new claims coming out every day of how it will change our lives, it’s one of the most exciting technologies to hit the world of engineering in recent years. But what exactly is 3D printing and, perhaps more importantly, how can you make the most of it?

What Is 3D Printing?

Originally known by the vague term “additive manufacturing,” 3D printing is the process that can make a three-dimensional object from a digital model. The printed object can be solid or hollow, and it can be almost any shape that can be modeled. Unlike traditional machining techniques, which work by taking a block of material and cutting away pieces until the desired shape is achieved, 3D printing works by laying down successive layers of the material to build the object from the bottom up.

In more technical terms, the 3D printer uses a STL, or stereolithographic, file to lay down layers of liquid, powder, or sheet material to create the desired object. This type of file describes the surface geometry of the object but does not specify the color, texture, or other attributes. Depending on the size of the object and the type of machine used, construction typically takes several hours.

So How Is It Useful?

3D printing differs from conventional production methods, like injection molding, in that it can cost-effectively produce small quantities of parts, such as those needed for prototypes, parts for in-house repairs, and concept models. On-the-spot printing reduces transportation costs, and printing items as-needed cuts waste.

What Industries Will Be Affected by 3D Printing?

It might be easier to discuss what industries will not be affected by 3D printing, since some experts go so far as to claim that the technology could herald a new industrial revolution. Mass production is one of the mostly clearly affected areas, particularly for smaller items used in consumer electronics and certain automotive parts. Custom-made objects such as personalized jewelry or action figures are also on the rise.

Higher-tech industries such as healthcare are also being affected. 3D printing has future applications ranging from printing new organs with living cells as the medium to the use of CT scans to make models that physicians can manipulate before surgery. In fact, the technology was recently used to save a young boy’s life by making a model of his defective heart prior to surgery so that the surgeon would know exactly what had to be done.

Another strong market for 3D printing is in hard-to-reach areas such as developing countries, or even space. NASA has already announced plans to add a 3D printer to the International Space Station to print parts, and companies like Re3D have already developed plans for large but affordable 3D printers that will operate in poorer areas to provide necessary tools.

Making a Career in 3D Printing

Although 3D printing has been around for several decades, a recent drop in the cost of 3D printers has made them available on a large scale for the first time, and there is still a shortage of personnel who can effectively utilize them in a commercial setting.

The most practical way to take advantage of this is in 3D modeling:

The process of making the computer models from which real-life objects can be printed. While this used to be a job for engineers, new software programs such as Tinkercad and Blender make it accessible to anyone who has the drive to master it. Once you’ve got a handle on 3D modeling, you can simply add it to your resume to wow future employers or use sites like Shapeways to market your designs directly to consumers.

In our world of rapid technological change, the only way to be sure of a strong career is to keep up with the times. As one of the newest and most powerful manufacturing trends, 3D printing promises a strong future to anyone smart enough to get in on it while the field is still young.

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Zoe Chanel is a Colorado native and a lover of words. She is interested in travel, career development, and education.