‘3D printing’ or ‘additive manufacturing’ is the process of building a 3 dimensional object by laying down successive, thin layers of one material. The materials used can vary from plastics to gold depending on the type of machine used to do the printing.
In a similar process to CNC (Computer Numeric Control) used to automate manufacturing, 3D printing requires a computer model of the finished item in order to work out the complex geometry. Once a model has been created the computer can export this information into a file such as an STL (STereoLithography). This is effectively a list of coordinates of all the surfaces and shapes within the model. The 3D printer can interpret this into a solid 3D object.
The technology was invented in the 1980s and has been steadily developed. It was around 2001 that the progress in the technology allowed the cost of the machinery to lower and 3D printing to become more widely available.
As the machinery became smaller it became practical for small business and even private users to buy their own printers. Today, you can buy a desktop 3D printer and produce models at home. However, as with all things like this, there is a difference between home use and professional use. Although the desktop 3D printers are very good, the finish and level of detail they achieve is not comparable to the professional machines which cost 30 to 70 times as much.
There are companies that can 3D print my models to such a high standard that they rival current injection molded designs. Each model or part is printed on its own and the models are orientated in the printer to ensure the best finish on surfaces. The run time for prints like this is very slow and that means the cost per print is so high it is not practical at this time.
Companies like Shapeways fill the gap between home printing and the printing services that are financially impractical. They are on the forefront of the technology and are able to offer printing services in their high end machines and lower costs because of the way they print in bulk. Each print run will have several models, maximizing the efficiency of the machines and thus reducing the operating costs. The savings are then passed on to the customer. Shapeways is also a global company which makes it very easy for designers like myself to reach customers everywhere, with a cost-effective and reliable service.
The preferred material for my prints is FUD, or Frosted Ultra Detail, which is a UV cured acrylic polymer (a plastic). This means that a layer of acrylic polymer is printed or sprayed onto a surface, usually a print tray, using something similar to an ink printer cartridge head. Then a UV light is passed over the top and this causes the acrylic polymer instantly harden. Then the print tray will drop by the thickness of the layer of acrylic polymer and the process repeats itself. Eventually you are left with a complete 3D model.
Here is a video by Shapeways showing their first FUD printer working in their New York factory.