3D printing is still very much an emerging technology, and many people these days may not even have heard of it. The truth of the matter is that 3D printing is fast becoming one of the next great inventions and has the potential to change vast sections of our society. It was initially invented for the purposes of rapidly and inexpensively producing prototype components; a company bringing a product to market or an engineer needing to make sure a component would fit into a system they were designing could quickly and cheaply produce a physical model of a computer-generated 3D design so they could use it to interact in the physical world. This technology has since been seized upon by artists, model-makers, jewellery designers, architects and even aerospace manufacturing to bring CG designs into the real world.
But still many people can't quite get their head round it....
To illustrate all this here's a video of one of our products, the Cable Chain Conduit, being 3D printed during the design and prototyping phase. Unfortunately in real life the process is very much slower (although 3D printing technology is improving all the time), the video is a timelapse movie created by taking one frame every second. In real life the printing of these components took about 40 minutes, but according to the information generated by the slicer program for my computer the most complex of our designs would take around 37 hours to print completely.
Why is it called 'printing' when there's no paper?
That's a good question. The original term for a 3D printer was a 'rapid-prototyping machine', but when they became available to the general public (who were more familiar with desktop paper printers) the term '3D printer' just stuck.
So go on, make me a gun then...
While it's true that experiments carried out by many 3D printing enthusiasts have generated designs for magazine receivers, optic rails and many other firearm components, and also while working 3D-printed one-shot guns have been made in the past, we will NOT under any circumstances make you any form of functioning weapon. If you want a model design of a famous weapon, such as Judge Dredd's Lawgiver handgun, we'll be happy to help. But under the UN Arms-Trade Treaty the manufacturing of unlicenced firearms is very very illegal, and sorry but we're not prepared to violate international law!
Fair enough. So how does it work then, this 3D printing of yours?
There are several different methods of 3D printing, each with their own strengths and weaknesses and quality of output. The most popular (and the method used by the vast majority of home desktop 3D printers) is known as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) or Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). Essentially a plastic filament (usually either ABS or PLA plastic) is fed from a spool into the into the print-head of the machine (also known as the extruder) where it is heated to over 200 degrees celsius and becomes fluid. The printer then, under the direction of a computer, extrudes the plastic onto a heated print-bed and builds up the model layer by layer. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to many hours, depending on how complex the model to be printed is.
So how does the computer know what to print?
3D printable models are available to download from many sites on the internet such as MyMiniFactory, Pinshape and Thingiverse, or you can produce your own with freely available software (although to get the best results you'll need professional-quality 3D design software and a powerful-enough computer to run it on). However the model is obtained the method for preparing it for 3D printing is the same.
The model is prepared using a slicer program (such as Slic3r, which is also available freely on the internet), which takes the raw 3D data produced by software such as AutoCAD, Blender, SolidWorks etc and 'slices' it into individual layers of the correct height for the resolution of the printer. This is known as 'G-code', which all commercially available 3D printers are able to accept and use to create their various models. This G-code is used by the printer's on-board computer to guide the print head and produce the final physical model from that original 3D information.
If you have any more questions about 3D printing, or have something you would like designed and/or printed for you, please contact us by clicking the email link below. We would love to hear from you!