3D Printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has recently spawned a high level of interest in the hobbyist and DIY industry because of the affordability of very capable equipment. This process has been available since the late 1980’s, but it’s adoption was limited due to the high price tag associated with the materials and the machines.
The process is sometimes referred to as rapid prototyping but initially required the use of toxic chemicals and produced models that were fairly fragile. The earliest method, called stereo lithography, has since evolved into other technologies such as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM was introduced in the early 1990’s and lays down successive layers of thermoplastics that yield durable models. Most commercially available machines use the FDM process which produces models that are both accurate and robust. The printer deposits extremely fine layers of a plastic modeling material combined with a support material that can range in thickness from 0.005 inch to 0.013 inch. The print head heats the material and forces it through an extrusion tip while moving in the X, Y, and Z axis in response to commands from CAD software.
Small, professional quality, 3D printers are now available for less than $10,000.00 are small enough and clean enough to be used in a small office or home workshop. The ability to go from conception to a physical model in a matter of hours is intriguing to designers. Reducing the time-to-market hurdle in a new product developments life cycle can significantly increase the profit margin and maintain an advantage in business competition.