At first it might be difficult to conceptualize 3D printing. We are used to looking at an image or document on the computer screen, hitting “print” and voila, you have your picture/document on a piece of paper. This is 2D printing. What, then is 3D printing?! How on earth is your printer going to pop out a 3 dimensional version of the objects you can see on a computer screen?
Start with this imagery: In traditional manufacturing, items are produced by means of “subtractive manufacturing.” Imagine crafting a sculpture: you would first take a block of stone and then chip away at it until you reach your desired shape. So you are “subtracting” some of the material from the original block. 3D printing uses “additive manufacturing” which does the opposite — in this process, you would add in layers small amounts of the material you are using until you have the final product.
Micro layer by micro layer a 3D printer builds up a three-dimensional object that has been pre-programed into the machine. The machines are not your traditional HP printer either, they are a technological marvel in their own right. Their price of these machines has dropped substantially but still run upwards of two thousand dollars for a hobby sized unit. (As seen in the videos below)
The ink too, is a sort of resin that is heated and melted as it’s printed, but dries almost immediately in place. Inks range from plastics, metals and highly specialized materials for specific purposes (like printing customized dental crowns!). Like any 2D printer companies, 3D printing companies make a fantastic margin on ink sales, and will admit most of their profits comes from ink.
How does it know what to print? Data data data. Designers, engineers and hobbyists create product designs from computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software. They can upload them to a server and the designs can be freely shared online, so anyone with the same model printer can produce exact replicas.
The best way to understand is probably to see it done, so here are some videos of objects being 3D printed:
Make your own iPhone case using a 3D printer:
Or if you are ever in desperate need of a giant wrench…
Uses: Unlimited. From toys and jewelry to healthcare and manufacturing, 3D printing is increasingly playing a role. Keep your eyes open for a 3D printing shop popping up near you.
Looking to invest in 3D Printing? The stock market is no stranger to the trend. Shares of leading companies 3D Systems (DDD) and Stratasys (SSYS) have done exceptionally well. In this chart we compare their performance to the Standard and Poor’s 500 index, which is considered a baseline for how the stock market is performing. As you can see, these 3D printing stocks have well outperformed:
Written by Fay Faatin and Rebecca Lipman