Worldwide Guide to Rapid Prototyping Printing the Future
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Introduction

Low-cost 3D Printers
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Additive fabrication processes have become important tools for mechanical design, manufacturing, surgery, art and architecture and many other fields over the last twenty years. These methods are also known by several other names, including: 3D printing, additive manufacturing (AM), rapid prototyping (RP), solid freeform fabrication (SFF), or sometimes by the names of the technologies themselves such as stereolithography.

Additive fabrication is used to make physical objects directly from data. The method is quite similar to a printer producing a paper document from data, except in this case the item printed is a three dimensional part or other tangible item.

The processes are unique in that they add and bond materials together in layers to form the objects, rather than cut away material as in traditional manufacturing methods such as milling or turning. Adding materials together offers powerful advantages in many applications compared to these classical subtractive fabrication methods:

  • objects can be formed with any geometric complexity or intricacy without the need for elaborate machine setup or final assembly;

  • objects can be made from multiple materials, or as composites, or materials can even be varied in a controlled fashion at any location in an object;

  • the fabrication of complex objects is reduced to a manageable, straightforward, and relatively fast process.

Starting in 2009 it became possible to acquire a 3D printer kit for considerably less than US$1,000, and today fully-assembled machines are available for an introductory price of as little as US$499. That's just 5% of the cost of the least expensive professional-level machine available today based on similar technology. This certainly places additive fabrication within reach of a much wider range of individuals and small companies than ever before. Over 15,000 of these machines have already been sold world-wide.

There has been a lot of publicity surrounding these inexpensive machines and their applications. Apparently this decades-old field is being discovered for the first time by a lot of people. The discussion usually centers around a future where every home will have a 3D printer popping out almost anything needed at virtually no cost from plans that are available for free on the Internet. Not only will we be making the plates we eat from using these machines, but generating the food that goes in them, the cooking appliances, and even the roof over our heads with them, too. There's an implicit assumption that this will all be quite soon now. Maybe not next year, but certainly right around the corner.

The intent here is to place these developments in perspective. How the machines work is explained and the organizations involved are described. The capabilities of these low-cost 3D printers are compared to existing professional-level equipment. The path of their future development using the open-source method is discussed and compared to traditional engineering development.

We conclude with predictions about where open-source 3D printers will fit within the entire range of additive fabrication equipment, how their capabilities may change over time - and how they're most likely to affect our lives.

 
 



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