3D printing is the manufacture of a physical three-dimensional object by the layering of two-dimensional cross sections, one on top of the other. The layers are fabricated through the solidifying and binding of a build material – such as polylactic acid (PLA) – from a liquidised/powder state, with a series of heaters, nozzles and cooling units. The result of this cross-sectional layering is that solid and hollow items can be created by simply inputting the desired object’s dimensions into the 3D printer.
The design schematics for 3D printer models come from computer-aided design (CAD) files, with a virtual model parsed into thousands of cross sections, which become instructions for the printer’s control units. This data dictates exactly where to deposit the material in each layer, with the process taking place on a stable, non-stick surface called the build plate.
Uses for 3D printers are extremely varied, with applications in the military, medical, industrial and commercial spheres. A good example of this is the use of 3D printing in the prototyping of new machine components. Here complex designs for intricate parts can be quickly and cheaply constructed out of biodegradable plastic, trialled in a test machine and then tweaked if necessary.
While previously 3D printing has largely been confined to large-scale operations due to high cost, in the last five or so years desktop 3D printers aimed at enthusiasts have emerged. These allow anyone to feed a printer with designs from their PC – banks of online designs exist – or a memory card, and make models at home.