At its most simple form, the way a 3D printer works is by parsing a CAD file (which is a 3D type of design file) like a pattern, then synthesizing raw materials in small amounts, into a solid product. The design of the product is one of the most complex parts of the 3D printing process. Additionally, selecting the right raw materials can influence the outcomes of the design and the right printer that should be used to produce your product.
While one of the oldest types of 3D printing, called Selective Laser Sintering, is best used for plastics, glass and ceramics, it is one of the most efficient methods as it doesn’t generally require a lot of sanding or manipulation once the product is generated. Innovations that build off of the SLS technology have recently added wax and carbon as potential raw materials that can be printed, and the age of the technology means that this is a very low cost and low overhead option for 3D printing. SLS printing is slated to flow into the home and consumer market in the near future.
There are other types of 3D printing that are used for similar materials, included Fused Deposition Modeling (which is sometimes called fused filament fabrication or FFF) which can be used with plastics and metals. Delivery of the raw materials is through a coil that is unwound to provide the materials needed to generate the model, prototype or end product. Like SLS, the process was developed and commercialized in the late 1980s, and brought to the larger marketplace in the 1990s. Most closely associated with the company Stratsys, Inc., FDM is sometimes called Plastic Jet Printing, and its current open source status has been one of the main reasons 3D printing has been propelled into the innovative and important resource it is today. In fact, the majority of home and consumer 3D printers use a variation of FFF technology. Although new iterations may leverage SLS printing in the home and consumer markets, and there will probably be continued reductions in the overall cost and variability of materials used in SLS, fused deposition modeling technology is the bedrock of 3D printing technology in the consumer marketplace.
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