3-D Printing in the eyes of Joe Everyman

Those of you who have read our bios know that we each hold degrees in various engineering disciplines.  We’ve also each held jobs with defense contractors and/or Fortune 500 companies.  This can only mean one thing…. 


Because acronyms and abbreviations are extremely commonplace in our workplace, it is easy to forget that the world is not comprised entirely of graphing calculator toting geeks.  Of the four of us, I’m probably the weakest technically.  That makes me the one most likely to speak out on behalf of the “normal guy” and make sure that we make decisions that help to further our credibility in the eyes of the general public, not just the tech-literate elite. 

I will be writing a series of posts that try to cut through the technical mumbo-jumbo of engineer speak to parlay what 3D printing means to the family man who is more apt to know how long to set the microwave to cook dinner rather than how the microwave actually works. 

This post will be constrained to a 30,000-foot overview of 3D printing, familiarizing everyone with some basic concepts and a few definitions laying a basic foundation for future posts.  Without further ado, let’s jump in! 

By now, most people have computer printers in their homes and/or their offices.  While very few of us care to really understand the intricacies of how they work, we’ve come to rely on them as a consistent and efficient way to reproduce information.  We use them to print birthday invitations.  We use them to print out directions to a relative’s home.  We use them to print out coupons for a local sale.  We don’t give them much thought.  They are just there and they just work (at least, most of the time).  The function they serve is to make our life easier by being able to pick up a sheet of paper that has whatever necessary information we want printed on it, rather than having to spend the time jotting down the information by hand.  There are multiple approaches to getting the information desired to end up on a sheet of paper – dot matrix, inkjet, laser – each has specific strengths and weaknesses.  All provide the same end result; they just take a different approach to getting there. 

Computer printers have made tremendous strides since their initial introduction.  The print speeds have increased dramatically.  The prices have dropped significantly.  The options and features have exceeded all expectations.  In short, printers aren’t what they used to be…and the innovations will continue to add marked improvements to something that we have adopted and begun to take for granted. 

The world of 3D industry is in a stage of infancy now similar to the beginnings of the computer printing industry more than four decades ago.   Prices for components have dropped enough that technology previously afforded only to large tech companies has begun to trickle into the realm of hobbyists and tinkerers.  With this greater reach, adoption is gaining traction at a much greater rate.  As adoption increases, more manufacturers will enter the sector, providing their own unique solutions and improvements to previous limitations (similar to the introduction of inkjet and laser printers to improve upon the dot matrix model).  With the increase in consumer product offerings, a greater array of capabilities will begin to make their way into the machines, resulting in even greater demand from the public, again mirroring the success of the desktop computer printer. 

Presently, the 3D printing world is still finding its way.  There are a glut of 3D printer manufacturers (a large portion of which are setting up shop in backyard shops and garages) that will consolidate when the general public begins to define the needs and desires of what is expected from a consumer grade 3D printer.  Printing mediums are still being widely explored, and software for modeling and reproducing items is still being written and simplified.  In other words, the 3D industry is a big mess!  Like all nascent industries, it takes time, research, and dedication to determine where things will shake out.  In the meantime, it helps to understand the basics of 3D printing in order to really get a feel for how this burgeoning industry might benefit everyone on a personal level. 

The term 3D printing stems from the notion that printing can take place in all three axes (forward/backward, left/right, up/down) – a standard inkjet printer only prints left/right while the paper is fed through in a forward/backward direction.  Adding the variable of up and down allows for full-fledged “objects” to be printed. 

The term ‘printing’ is used somewhat loosely, as it really has nothing to do with the traditional sense of the word as we’ve come to understand it with desktop printers.  In 3D printing, the material used to “print” is typically some form of plastic.  The plastic comes delivered to you on a spool – similar to how fishing line can be purchased on a spool.  The spool of plastic is fed into a heating and delivery system referred to as an “extruder”.  The extruder is the crucial part of the 3D printer.  It is responsible for heating the plastic up to the point where it melts and making sure that the desired amount of plastic is released when and where instructed.  When the plastic is heated to a melting point, the extruder moves around (forward/backward, left/right) as instructed by the software, depositing drops of molten plastic as needed on the object being printed.  The plastic cools quickly, forming a solid glob of plastic.  As the extruder moves, the individually dispensed drops of plastic form into a large mass, with each layer (up/down) adding more to the structure as a whole.  When the appropriate amount of plastic has been dispensed to the appropriate locations, the “print job” is completed, and the extruder cools off and moves to a homebase.  The object can then be removed from the print surface and the printing process can begin all over again. 

Again, this is a very simplistic, 30,000-foot overview, but for those of us who don’t know the difference between a micron and a neuron, this should help you to understand the overall process. 

In my next post, I’ll delve into how to get a project modeled and ready to be printed by a 3D printer such as the DeltaMaker.  In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact myself (or any of the crew at DeltaMaker) with any questions, ideas or suggestions.

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