With so many different 3D printers on the market, it can be hard to understand the whole landscape. The International Organization for Standardization saw the same problem, and in 2015 ISO/ASTM standard 52900 was created to standardize the exploding terminology around 3D printing.
Every different 3D printer can be categorised into one of seven types of processes:
- Vat Polymerization: liquid photopolymer is cured by light
- Material Extrusion: molten thermoplastic is deposited through a heated nozzle
- Powder Bed Fusion: powder particles are fused by a high-energy source
- Material Jetting: droplets of liquid photosensitive fusing agent are deposited on a powder bed and cured by light
- Binder Jetting: droplets of liquid binding agent are deposited on a bed of granulated materials, which are later sintered together
- Direct Energy Deposition: molten metal simultaneously deposited and fused
- Sheet Lamination: individual sheets of material are cut to shape and laminated together
Within each type of process, there are unique technologies, and for every unique technology, there are also many different brands selling similar printers. The most common 3D printing processes are vat photopolymerization (specifically SLA technology), material extrusion (usually called FDM), and powder bed fusion (specifically SLS technology).
The whole landscape of additive manufacturing technologies can be summarized in a simple tree-diagram:
Selecting the right 3D printing process
Selecting the optimal 3D printing service for a particular part can be difficult as there’s often more than one suitable process but each one will produce subtle variations in cost and output. Generally, there are three key aspects to consider:
- The required material properties: strength, hardness, impact strength, etc.
- The functional & visual design requirements: smooth surface, strength, heat resistance, etc.
- The capabilities of the 3D printing process: accuracy, build size, etc.
These correspond to the three most common methods for selecting the right process:
- By required material.
- By required functionality or visual appearance.
- By required accuracy or build size.
3D printing materials
The number of available 3D printing materials grows rapidly every year as market demand for specific material and mechanical properties spurs advancements in material science. This makes it impossible to give a complete overview of all 3D printing materials, but each 3D printing process is only compatible with certain materials so there are some easy generalizations to make.
Thermoplastic and thermoset polymers are by far the most common 3D printing materials, but metals, composites, and ceramics can also be 3D printed.
Another way of categorizing materials is by their properties: cheap, chemically resistant, dissolvable, flexible, durable, heat resistant, rigid, water-resistant, UV resistant. Many industrial applications require durable plastics such as Nylon 12, and most hobbyist applications use either PLA or ABS, which are the most common materials used in FDM 3D printing.
Benefits and limitations of 3D printing
3D printing is an exceptional tool for custom parts and rapid prototyping with a unique set of advantages but also lags behind traditional manufacturing in some ways. The key benefits and limitations can be summarized as follows:
- Benefits – Very low start-up costs – Very quick turnaround – Large range of available materials – Design freedom at no extra cost – Each and every part can easily be customized.
- Limitations – Less cost-competitive at higher volumes – Limited accuracy & tolerances – Lower strength & anisotropic material properties – Requires post-processing & support removal.
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