What really is this 3D printing that some have claimed will put an end to traditional manufacturing as we know it, revolutionize design and impose geopolitical, economic, social, demographic, environmental and security implications to our every day lives?

Technology has affected recent human history probably more than any other field. Think of a light bulb, steam engine or, more latterly, cars and aeroplanes, not to mention the rise and rise of the world wide web. These technologies have made our lives better in many ways, opened up new avenues and possibilities, but usually it takes time, sometimes even decades, before the truly disruptive nature of the technology becomes apparent.

The term 3D printing covers a host of processes and technologies that offer a full spectrum of capabilities for the production of parts and products in different materials. It all starts with a concept. The first stage of 3D printing is laying out an original idea with digital modeling — that is, with computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software.

Whichever program you choose, you're able to create a virtual blueprint of the object you want to print. The program then divides the object into digital cross-sections so the printer is able to build it layer by layer. The cross-sections essentially act as guides for the printer, so that the object is the exact size and shape you want. Both CAD and animation modeling software are WYSIWYG graphics editors — "what you see is what you get."

If you're not particularly design-inclined, you can purchase, download free or request ready-made designs from sites on the internet.

Once you have a completed design, you send it to the 3D printer with the standard file extension .STL (for "stereolithography" or "Standard Tessellation Language"). STL files contain three-dimensional polygons that are sliced up so the printer can easily digest its information.

Essentially, what all of the #D Printing processes and technologies have in common is the manner in which production is carried out — layer by layer in an additive process — which is in contrast to traditional methods of production involving subtractive methods or moulding/casting processes.

For many applications traditional design and production processes impose a number of unacceptable constraints, including the expensive tooling as mentioned above, fixtures, and the need for assembly for complex parts. In addition, the subtractive manufacturing processes, such as machining, can result in up to 90% of the original block of material being wasted. In contrast, 3D printing is a process for creating objects directly, with substantially less wastage , by adding material layer by layer in a variety of ways, depending on the technology used.

It is widely believed that 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) has the vast potential to become one of these technologies, with industry leaders , futurists and technolgists joining the hype it . 3D printing has now been covered across many television channels, in mainstream newspapers and across online resources. The technology is being showcased not just in premier institutes in India, but also being taken up progressively by hobbyists , tinkerers and such with even national newspapers reporting on this excting new technology .

3D printing is an enabling technology that encourages and drives innovation encouraging a free run on one's creativivity leading to greater design freedom while being a tool-less process that reduces prohibitive costs and lead times both for mass manufacturing and prototyping . Components can be designed specifically to avoid assembly requirements with intricate geometry and complex features created at no extra cost.

3D printing is also emerging as an energy-efficient technology that can provide environmental efficiencies in terms of both the manufacturing process itself, utilising up to 90% of standard materials, and throughout the product’s operating life, through lighter and stronger design.

In recent years, 3D printing has gone beyond being an industrial prototyping and manufacturing process as the technology has become more accessible to small companies and even individuals. With the 3D Printing market is just warming up , as most patents expire in 2014 , a host of new startups and companies are believed to be on the verge of releasing exciting new 3D Printing devices that will revolutionize the way we make , design and manufacture .

This has also opened up the technology to a much wider audience, and as the exponential adoption rate continues apace on all fronts, more and more systems, materials, applications and services are emerging.It is also expected that 3D Printing market will reach around $3.7 billion by 2015.

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