Three-dimensional printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of using additives to form solid 3D objects of virtually any shape from a digital model. This is achieved using specially formulated additives, such as plastics, that are formed into successive layers of material typically laid down on a platform in different shapes. 3D printing is uniquely distinct from a more traditional 3D sculpting technique, which relies on the removal of layers (subtractive manufacturing) to produce a three-dimensional object.
While 3D printers have recently been thrust into the spotlight with several startups, such as MakerBot, producing printers capable of turning digital models into real-world objects, these have not been the first such tools to find their way to market.
The first published account of a printed solid model was made by Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in 1982. The first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Charles W. Hull of 3D Systems Corp. Hull published a number of patents on the concept of 3D printing, many of which are used in today’s additive manufacturing processes. Of course, 3D printing in the early days was very expensive and not feasible for the general market. As we moved into the 21st century, however, costs drastically dropped, allowing 3D printers to find their way to a more affordable market.
The cost of 3D printers has even decreased in the years from 2010 to 2013, with machines generally ranging in price from $20,000 just three years ago, to less than $1,000 in the current market. Some printers are even being developed for under $500, making the technology increasingly available to the average consumer.
Since becoming mainstream, 3D printing has worked its way into a number of markets. The technology is now used in prototyping and distributed manufacturing with applications in architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive design, aerospace, military, engineering, etc. It has also become popular in areas such as dental and medical technology, fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, and more. Interestingly, even food may one day be printed, which may help feed the ballooning population.
As the technology advances, more and more practical uses are expected to come about as a result of additive manufacturing. With the addition of 3D digitizers, 3D sensors and 3D scanners, the possibilities are almost endless.
Recently, NASA has been testing rocket parts built by 3D printing and may even use the technology to build habitats in space and on other worlds.
And along with the many useful everyday things that 3D printers can give us, medical researchers are now using 3D-printed technologies to save human lives.
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