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Written by: Kyle Randolph
Written on: April 6th, 2011
Tags: material science, mechanical engineering, computer science
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About the Author
Kyle Randolph is a Senior Mechanical Engineering Major at USC. When he isn’t studying he can be found mountain biking and running.
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Volume XIII Issue III > If You Can Think It, You Can Print It: Exploring the Possibilities of 3D Printing
Utilizing precision computer control and harnessing advances in materials science, the development of the three-dimensional (3D) printer has opened up a new realm of manufacturing possibilities. The 3D printer is a device which can create three dimensional objects from plastics and metals. Complex geometries and surfaces are now reproducible. While initially developed for the manufacturing industry, 3D printing has ancillary applications in a variety of other fields. Architecture, biotechnology, forensic pathology, and even food production stand to benefit from this technology.

Introduction

Bart Dring/BuildLog.net
Fi​gure 1: Image of a 3D printer.
Still largely in its technical infancy, the three dimensional (3D) printer represents the evolution of the digital bridge which began with the desktop printer. Look into any home, dormitory, or business and more likely than not, you will find a digital desktop printer. The ability to span the digital realm and produce tangible documents was created by technology that has been available since the 1960s, using only one medium and two dimensions. The future lies in adding one more dimension to the equation, one dimension which opens up a world of possibilities.
A three 3D printer is a device that reproduces a 3D design using polymers and metals (see Fig. 1). Three dimensional objects are built up slowly by the printer layer by layer. First, the printer prints, or deposits, material in the shape of a “slice” of the 3D model. The “slice” then solidifies, and the next slice is printed on top of it. These slices add together and, after many slices have been deposited, the combined layers take on the shape of the finished 3D model (see Fig. 2).
Materialgeeza/Wikime​dia Commons
Figure 2: The 3D printer scans in three dimensions..

What exactly is 3D Printing?

Printing in 3 dimensions requires a variety of technologies which, until recent technological advances, have been mostly considered unfeasible. At its heart, 3D printing is CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Milling in reverse. Both are computer controlled, 3-dimensional methods for creating real objects from digital designs. However, whereas milling is a subtractive method (material is removed to produce an object), 3D printing is additive, meaning the object is created layer-by-layer [1]. This additive method has several benefits: virtually no material is wasted, objects can be produced relatively quickly, and several materials can be combined into one object in one process.
Such a versatile device provides promising potential for application in a variety of fields, ranging from manufacturing and prototyping to architecture, tissue engineering and forensic pathology [2, 3]. Three-dimensional printing realizes the potential of digital design while harnessing mechanical principles with the precision control and mathematical power of the modern computer.