Also known as rapid prototyping, 3-D printing is a technology that allows users to create three-dimensional physical products from a digital file.
Each product is created one layer at a time, using an inkjet-like process that sprays a bonding agent onto a very thin layer of fixable powder. The bonding agent can be applied very accurately to build an object from the bottom up, layer by layer. The process even accommodates moving parts within the object. Using different powders and bonding agents, color can be applied, and prototype parts can be rendered in plastic, resin, or metal. In fact, this technology is commonly used in manufacturing to build prototypes of almost any object (scaled to fit the printer, of course)—models, plastic and metal parts, or any object that can be described in three dimensions.
The first working 3-D printer was created in 1984 by Charles W. Hull of 3-D Systems Corp. Hull published a number of patents on the concept of 3-D printing, many of which are used in today’s additive manufacturing processes. Since becoming mainstream, 3-D printing has worked its way into a number of markets. The technology is now used in architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive design, aerospace, military, engineering, medical technology, fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, and more.
Educational institutions are still in the early stages of adopting this groundbreaking new technology, but a few early pioneers have shown us just how feasible–and useful–it can become.