Printing the Future with Online Metals

What is 3D printing?
It seems as though every day, the phrase “3D Printing” is heard more and more, whether on the news, social media, or in the office. Everything from buildings, car parts, reproductions of historic artifacts, spacecraft components, toys, and even replacement human organs are being made with 3D Printing these days! Considering how much digital ink and air time have been spent on the subject, you might be wondering what 3D printing actually is and how it will impact your work, as well as what OnlineMetals is doing about it.

What is 3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing and where did it come from?

In the most basic sense, 3D printing is the process of adding layers of material from a computer controlled device to build an object. This process is also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM) to differentiate it from traditional “subtractive manufacturing” where you remove material until it’s the size and shape you want. With AM, you start with nothing and add until it has become what you want. The phrase “3D Printing” is more common with the media, whereas “Additive Manufacturing” or “AM” are more common in industrial settings.

Though it seems like the idea of AM has sprung into the public consciousness out of nowhere within the last few years, that’s not the case. People had been tinkering with such technology since the 1970s. Although It wasn’t until the 1980s that many of the modern technologies were developed, being further developed and becoming more widespread throughout the 1990s. It has really been post-2010 that 3D Printing / AM have become household terms and really taken off.

1980's 3D Printer

A picture of one of the first 3D printer’s – 1983 by Chuck Hull.

There are also different types of AM, the most common in use today is known as Fused Deposition Modeling. In this method, plastics, polymers, or even cement, is very carefully ejected from a nozzle to build a layer of the object. As each layer dries, a new layer is placed on top of the previous one, building up the three-dimensional shape one very thin layer at a time. This method of AM was developed in 1988 by S. Scott Crump and his company Stratasys.

Fused Deposition Modeling

Visual example of fused deposition modeling

Another common method of printing, and actually the oldest, is known as Stereolithography, a process by which a vat full of liquid polymer or resin is hit by very precise beams of ultraviolet light. The UV energy causes the polymers to bond to each other and form a solid, and the device uses this method to create thin layers of solid polymer built upon one another to create the desired object. Modern Stereolithography was invented in 1981 by Japanese researcher Hideo Kodama though the process was further refined by researchers in France and the US. It was American researcher Chuck Hull who coined the word Stereolithography when he filed for a patent in 1984 for his device that uses that technology.


Visual example of Stereolithography

The term 3D Printing originally referred to a single type of AM that utilized powder beds and inkjet print heads that resembled regular printers, hence the name. This is now referred to as a “Dot-on-Dot.” A bed is filled with a layer of powdered plastics or polymers. Precision inkjet nozzles with a binding agent sprays a pattern into the bed, which binds the powder into a solid. A new layer of powder is added and the process is repeated until the object is finished. This process was developed by MIT in 1993 and later commercialized.

The newest process is for metal sintering, that is, using AM to manufacture metal objects. There are various methods of sintering that are too long for this blog post, but the end result is creating metal objects in a similar fashion to the other methods discussed here. These processes were developed in the 1990s by researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, but it wasn’t until the 2010 onward that metal components created using AM processes were used in high stress parts like engines, brackets, and large nuts.

3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing and You

How does all of this impact you and your work? Well, it largely depends upon what exactly you want to do. At the moment, AM excels at creating low-cost prototypes, replica pieces, and some lower strength custom components. However, it is worth noting that the strength of these components is increasing constantly as the technology improves. As stated in the previous section, we are already reaching the point where AM fabricated metal components are being used in high-stress applications. As the technology continues to evolve, this will result in stronger and cheaper components that can be created with less material waste and less time used.

3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing and OnlineMetals

As you may have guessed, all of this is leading to the exciting announcement that OnlineMetals will now be supplying material for AM! We will be getting into this expanding field by carrying two products, both are 3D filament, which is used in the aforementioned Fused Deposition method of AM, and made from PLA plastic.
Our first products include a white filament (1.75mm dia) sold in vacuum packed 1 kg spools and a black filament (3mm dia) also sold in vacuum packed 1 kg spools.
Verbatim-PLA-3D-Filament-1.75mm-White Verbatim-PLA-3D-Filament-3mm-Black
This material was selected as it provides a consistent and easy feeding from the machine, is less prone to warping, and allows very tight tolerances for the items being manufactured. Also, this particular filament is strong, uniform, it can be cut, filed, or glued post printing, and it is compatible with most commercially available non-cartridge based printers. It is also worth noting that this material cannot be used with acetone, as it will melt the filament. Lastly, in an effort to be greener, the PLA filament is biodegradable and derived from plant matter, resulting in a lower impact on the environment.

We are pleased to offer this new product, and look forward to the creations that you will devise!

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