You’ve probably heard of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. Could you explain in 30 seconds or less what it actually entails, though?
If not, don’t feel too bad. Additive manufacturing is an incredibly exciting technology, but it’s also quite new on the scene. Two decades ago, it was little more than a gleam in some tinkerers’ eyes.
Today, things are very different. Additive manufacturing is a vast, versatile domain with applications for hobbyists and business owners alike. Let’s take a closer look at five popular printing techniques and their most common applications.
1. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective laser sintering, also known as SLS, is a polymer-based process that’s ideal for producing functional prototypes and end-use products in small batches. Fabricators can achieve impressive degrees of detail using SLS, allowing for functional appurtenances such as hinges and snap sockets. The fabrication process itself is straightforward, and with no support structures required, impressive product geometries are well within reach.
2. Fusion Deposition Modeling (FDM)
FDM 3D printing technology is another highly versatile polymer-based process that’s ideal for producing low-run toolings and fixtures with high heat resistance and exceptional tensile strength. FDM is appropriate for a wide variety of thermoplastic media, including low-static materials for sensitive applications. The process can also accommodate nylon media for snap-fit and press-fit uses.
PolyJet 3D printing technology uses direct UV light to solidify and shape liquid resins into a stunning array of shapes. The fabrication process is aided by washable supports that achieve complex geometries, and the finished products are amenable to post-production, making PolyJet ideal for prototypes and display models for use in trade shows, outdoor advertising, and similar settings.
4. Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
Direct metal laser sintering, or DMLS, is a metal-based process that’s ideal for cosmetic and functional prototyping. As the name suggests, DMLS applies high-energy lasers directly to a powder or wire substrate, fully melting the material and allowing the construction of an impressive array of structures and shapes. DMLS is useful for specialized aerospace applications, such as engine welds, as well as more pedestrian applications like industrial tooling.
5. Electron Beam Melting (EBM)
This scary-sounding process is ideal for fabricating metal parts. The medium is metal powder or wire that’s completely melted by the electron beam, then fused into the desired shapes. EBM operates at extremely high temperatures, allowing fabricators to create incredibly strong alloys for use in medical and aerospace applications. EBM differs from DMLS primarily in the strength of the finished product and the energy source used in fabrication.
The 3D Printing Revolution Continues
Not long ago, the 3D printing industry was in its infancy — little more than a novelty pursuit for hobbyists and tinkerers.
Today, it’s a booming, multibillion-dollar business that’s changing faster than most casual observers appreciate. Anyone who predicts with confidence what the future holds for 3D printing is kidding themselves.
If the five 3D printing techniques outlined above seem beside the point right now, wait a few years. The brilliant minds behind this fast-growing sector’s next iteration are no doubt hard at work on something that strikes your fancy.