3D Printing: What’s All The Fuss About?

Source: The University of Nottingham’s Official Student Magazine
By:Joanne Blunt

3D printing seems to be the new ‘buzz’ word in science. In fact, much of the ground breaking research advancing this new technology is being done in Nottingham by the Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Research Group.

How does it work?
3D printers break down a 3D model into thousands of horizontal layers. The printer head then builds up the object layer by layer fusing each one together. To make moving parts, the machine simply leaves gaps in the right places in each layer until the object is complete. The process could be compared to making a corkscrew out of a stack of paper, some glue and some scissors. If you cut each piece of paper to the exact shape needed and stacked them on top of each other you would have the correct shape. All you would need to do is stick them together.

Materials such as plastic, metal and even chocolate have been used in the printers. The materials are ejected in powder form and fused together using lasers. Alternatively, the material can be melted in the printer nozzle, then cools and solidifies once ejected. This method allows more than one material to be used at once which enables objects like hearing aids, which need metal circuits and a specifically shaped plastic casing, to be made in one process.

How useful is 3D printing?
Mass production is always going to be cheaper and quicker than 3D printing when it comes to making thousands of identical objects. However, 3D printing is incredibly useful for making unique objects which need a very specific shape, some of which cannot be made by regular manufacturing techniques. It also has the advantage of being portable. This means that very precise objects can be designed and manufactured in remote places.

The benefits of being able to print a correctly sized prosthetic limb for a child in the middle of Africa or a small mechanical part for a space craft on Mars are obvious. This technology also opens up manufacturing to the masses in the same way the 2D printer made the printing of newspapers and leaflets possible for everyone only a few decades ago.

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