Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

What is 3D printing?

Only recently, the prestigious international newspaper "The Economist" described 3D printing as "a third industrial revolution". 3D printing is the process of printing out three-dimensional objects. Instead of the traditional processes used to mould, press, bend or cut products, 3D printing is a new technology that is expected to revolutionise our world as we know it. This new type of printer is capable of printing an extremely wide range of 3D objects. In the printhead, suitable materials such as ABS plastic are melted and the desired three-dimensional object is printed layer by layer. It is anticipated that entire national economies, industrial sectors and our way of life will be fundamentally changed by this innovative 3D printing technology.

Applications

Using 3D printers can help you to save a considerable amount of time and money. What's more, these devices allow you to create your own unique objects. 3D printers are used by companies that need to create designs and want to save time when constructing models. Such companies include those involved in medical science, architecture, and fashion and design, as well as those in the entertainment, gaming and film industries; users even include end consumers. 3D printers offer the capability of using digital data to create objects in a variety of colours and shapes. Artists and hobbyists also use them to allow their creations to take shape in a relatively short amount of time. From simple plastic cups, plates or puzzles to complex shapes — all manner of objects can be printed with great precision. You can print pieces of jewellery, finally replace that broken TV stand or make a mobile phone case based on your own design. These are just a few examples — in reality, the possibilities are endless.

3D printers

3D printers can print an extremely wide range of 3D objects. In the printhead, suitable materials such as ABS plastic are melted and the desired three-dimensional object is printed layer by layer. 3D printers use digital "constructional drawings" (computer files) as a basis for creating models and objects that are accurate down to the very last detail. Everything is perfectly dimensioned and customised — exactly as required. This is where 3D printers pick up where conventional inkjet and laser printers have left off — they give shape to your own designs. Depending on the printheads installed in the 3D printer, a design can be printed in a variety of colours at the same time. If using a single printhead, a 3D printer can print only one colour. If you wish to print your design in more than one colour, the filament needs to be replaced with the desired colour. If your 3D printer is equipped with two printheads, a 3D model can be printed in two colours — without having to change the filament first.

The filament

Just like a conventional printer, a 3D printer requires a consumable material. However, where an inkjet printer uses ink cartridges, a 3D printer uses filaments. All sorts of filaments are available in a range of sizes and colours.

The most commonly used materials for filaments are plastics (PLA and ABS) and wood. PLA (polylactide) is a plastic made from natural materials such as sugar. Due to its composition, PLA is a biological material that is, to a certain extent, better for the environment than alternative products. This plastic also gives off a sweet fragrance during printing — which is more pleasant than the smell of burnt plastic. PLA is a practical material that can be printed at a lower temperature than an ABS filament. It is very well suited for producing fine details and decorative prints. ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is made from petroleum products and is therefore not as environmentally friendly as PLA. ABS has a higher melting point and requires a stable base — without which the material would become wavy or collapse altogether. Accordingly, ABS is much stronger and harder than PLA plastic. These properties mean that ABS is suitable for applications such as musical instruments and LEGO bricks, for example.

In terms of dimensions, the difference between filaments is considerable, with diameters of 1.75 mm and 3 mm available. Which one you choose depends on your printer and your preferences. However, the trend is towards the 1.75-mm filament becoming standard.

Software & downloads

Using 3D software, you are able to create your own 3D print files, which is necessary if you wish to print out your own creations. Various drives and instructions for PP3DP printers can be downloaded for free at www.pp3dp.com. As you would expect, Internet services are also available and existing 3D designs are free to download. An online database containing more than 100,000 3D designs is available for you to use at www.thingiverse.com. The creative possibilities are virtually limitless!