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No Matter How You Slice It, Printing Objects is Really Nifty

3D printers are revolutionizing the way we make things. The technology is fairly new — most of the technology has been designed and built in the last ten years, though the first 3D printer was built in the mid 1980’s — and is still in it’s infancy. While it’s not generally cost effective to use a 3D printer to make many ordinary items, the technology is very useful for repeatably creating very precise objects, like machine parts. Due to the 3D printer’s flexibility, it may be able to replace a variety of machining tools needed to create parts to maintain industrial machines.

3D printers work much the same way that ordinary printers work: they take digital information of a pattern to be printed, and deposit material on a surface in that pattern. Conventional printers take text and image information and deposit ink on a page, while 3D printers have an extra step. They take a three dimensional digital rendering of the object to be printed (via a computer-assisted design, or CAD, software program), slice it very thinly into parallel sheets, and reproduce the full design sheet by sheet. 3D printers typically use one of two methods: either a thin tube of polymer is used as an ink, or a powdered medium is fused together with a glue that’s distributed like an ink.

The “tube of polymer” method was the first type of 3D printer to be developed, and the analogy between it and 2D printers is very clear. Instead of a liquid ink deposited on a page in thin rows, a nozzle pipes a very thin wire of polymer across the printing bin in parallel rows. The polymer is hot, so it fuses together, creating a three dimensional object.

Schematic of a vertical cross section of a 3D printer output.

A vertical cross section of a 3D printer in action. The green nozzle head moves into (or out of) the page, piping pinkish-red material in lines. The piped material stacks on top of each other, creating a complex shape.

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