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3D printing or additive manufacturing refers to the process of ‘printing’ an object in three dimensions. It differs from older subtractive processes of manufacture as it prints an object layer by layer as opposed to removing material from a block. This process requires fewer raw materials and produces fewer by-products, meaning a more efficient process.

As 3D printing technology develops and becomes more accessible so does the range of its uses. Today it is for an array of purposes, form prototyping to medical implants, dental fixtures, jewellery, clothes, musical instruments, food and even human tissue. Although adoption of the technology on a mass scale is yet to happen, it is certainly aiding innovations in many different fields.

3D printers are capable of printing in multiple materials, similar to colour ink jet printers. A huge leap forward for the technology as it encourages the manufacture of items in their final form, ready to be used once printed.

As 3D printing continues to break into the mainstream there have recently been national initiatives across the globe to boost development of the technology. The European Commission wants to revive a dwindling manufacturing industry in Europe by incorporating the use of 3D printers to lower costs and boost output. The Chinese government have announced a $6.5 million grant for research into the technology. The Obama administration has pledged to give $60 million to a national additive manufacturing initiative as part of its plan to develop other US based manufacturing institutes.

3D printers can print in a variety of materials ranging from silver, bronze and titanium to wood, plastics and biological matter. Materials development is considered to be one of the main areas of the technology that keep it from wider adoption. However new materials are continually being developed with over ten released this year including the first fully flexible printed material. There is also research into the use of Graphene within 3D printing, a new super-material set to change technology in the future.

The most common types of 3D printing are;

Stereolithography traces UV light over a photosensitive pool of liquid, hardening the layers designated by a computer map. This process allows a high level of detail and finishes and has a dramatic ‘reveal’ of the object as it is lifted out of the liquid upon completion.

SLS or Selective Laser Sintering is a similar process to Stereolithography but uses powder instead of liquid and a laser to heat and solidify the powder instead of a UV light. SLS is widely used as its benefits include the use of a variety of materials such as plastics, ceramics and metals.

FDM or Fused Deposition modelling is one of the cheapest forms of 3D printing. Patented in 1983 it has been used in the creation of prototypes in manufacturing ever since. It creates a 3D object by heating up and extruding plastic material from an ink jet style nozzle layer by layer.

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