What are 5 things to know about 3D printing? A look into the future.

With our first instructional series in the books, we now turn to our second series, Business-to-Business Office Equipment 102. Our first topic is 3D printing. When you hear those words, what comes to mind? Hollywood? 3D printed objects of your choice? 3D printing would seem to be all the rage, but not too well-understood. Here are five things to know about how this cool process actually works.

1. How does 3D printing work?

What is 3D printing, really? Fri Rieder, owner of FreeDimension LLC, suggested that we call it something else entirely.

“The terminology is actually very wrong,” he said. “I don’t like it, but we’re stuck with it because everybody calls it 3D printing now. It’s additive manufacturing. It has nothing to do with printing.”

Rieder explained that in additive manufacturing, users add only what they need. Here’s a definition from 3DPrinting.com:

In an additive process[,] an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

Rieder said that there are three major kinds of 3D printing technologies: stereo lithography, selective laser sintering and fused deposition modeling.

2. 3D printing has limitations

A 3D printer isn’t some magical fix for any and every object you want to be printed. It’s not a cure-all.

“People think there’s [some] kind of magic involved here,” Rieder said. “They see, ‘Oh, you have a 3D printer. Oh, you can print human organs. Or you can print a pizza’…What goes in the machine comes out of the machine.”

Mo Eppley, founder of MityMo Creative and Tangible Labs, takes a practical approach to the technology.

“We definitely have a lot of people who come to us expecting 3D printing to solve the world, [to be] the answer for everything, and it definitely isn’t,” she said. “There are limitations. Some of our bigger projects we’ve done, people came just thinking 3D was the answer. And it actually wasn’t.”

3. What are some common uses for 3D printing?

Airplane companies are using 3D printers to make systems that reduce noise in turbine engines, Rieder said.

Comic book and science-fiction enthusiasts are using 3D printers for cosplay (costume play) to dress up as their favorite fictional characters at comic book and entertainment conventions like Comic-Con.

Bakers are planning and creating cakes using digital files – like a photo of a child – displayed on a cake. 

3D printing can also improve lives in the dental and medical industries. Healthcare professionals, Rieder said, “can basically print the prosthetics right there. And you can ask the customer to try them, and then actually send them in for production.”

4. 3D printing is versatile

Like a five-tool baseball player or LeBron James (who can play all five positions on the basketball court), 3D printers are versatile.

“3D printing is a very versatile technology because it can be used in so many cases,” said Grant Posner, president and CEO of 3D Musketeers. “We’ve made parts for the US military, for fighter jets, for the Smithsonian. We 3D printed…many…celebrities. Every aspect of life can utilize this technology to make things better.”

Eppley is impressed by everything that 3D printers can do. 

“The 3D printer itself is just a tool for whatever people’s ideas are,” she said.

5. Popular misconceptions about 3D printing

Besides the fact that 3D printing isn’t some magical cure-all for any business need, you should be aware of these other common misconceptions about its capabilities:

  • It’s not meant for final use

3D printing is designed for prototypes, not for the final product. That being said, it can produce some pretty impressive final products, such as Pac-Man ghosts, or a vase with flowers (each of which can be individually printed), Eppley said.

Eppley suggested that early-stage entrepreneurs use 3D printing to show off their products as they make pitches for funding.

  • 3D printers don’t have to break the bank

Although higher-end 3D printers will be more expensive, “you can get a very reasonable 3D printer for less than $1,000,” Posner said. “The cheaper you go, you trade your physical time for money. So if you’re buying a $200 3D printer, you’re going to put probably $400 to $500 of your time into it before it’s comparable to an $800-printer.”

  • Know before you buy

Just like with other industries, in the 3D printing industry, not all companies are the same. Rather than merely performing a Google search of 3D printers, Posner suggested that you check out the 3D printing forum (subreddit) on Reddit and other online fora to do a deep dive into the 3D printing world.

  • 3D printing’s not as fast as you might think

If you think that you can 3D print something in just a few minutes, you’d be mistaken.

“While 3D printing…is fast compared to other methods…it is not fast in the sense of instantaneous,” said Posner. “So you have to have some patience. We routinely run prints that go over a day.”

The future of 3D printing 

Like with any new technology, you should know what you’re doing before you get into it. That becomes even more important as 3D printing becomes more accessible to more users. Eppley noted that these days, 3D printing novices can teach themselves how to use a 3D printer by watching YouTube videos and easily learning how to use Fusion 360. Fusion 360 is computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing software.

3D printing meetups

For those seeking to learn more about 3D printing, there are local meetups to find community and fellowship with fellow 3D printing enthusiasts. In the Tampa Bay area, Eppley suggested organizations such as St. Pete Makers and Tampa Hackerspace, the former of which hosts Open Make Nights.

As you can see, 3D printing is a fast-growing, sometimes misunderstood technology. Whether you’re just learning about it for the first time or trying to start a business based on it, you should know that 3D printing is a powerful, versatile tool that can print everything from small collectibles to a full-size boat. If you’re getting into 3D printing, do so wisely with the help of this article.

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