3D Printing Technology

How New 3D Printing Technology Improves YOUR Product

Additive manufacturing (better known as 3D printing) is a modern marvel that even in its youth is changing the face of manufacturing and product development.

The first 3D printer was a Star Trek fantasy. In the show, “matter synthesizers” called Replicators condensed energy into food, clothing, weapons, etc for the characters. Then they’d put their dirty dishes back into the replicator and it would unravel the quantum particles back into potential energy. Can’t one dream of a future without dish duty?

But the first real 3D printers were the Rapid Prototyping machines that appeared in the mid-1980s—though it was some time before industrial interest was piqued. As for who did first spot the utility of 3D printing for rapid prototyping…?

You guessed it: product developers like SPARK.

How basic 3D printing works

Current 3D printing isn’t quite as complex or magical as the fictional version—but the technology has come a long way in the past several years since 2009, when the technology patent expired for fused deposition modeling (FDM). With the floodgates open, the price fell dramatically. Now you can get a home 3D printer kit for a few hundred dollars.

Basic FDM 3D printing is a pretty simple process:
1. Designers upload a CAD file which the computer divides into horizontal cross-sections.
2. A nozzle moves back and forth according to the cross-section, extruding polymer from a spool or reservoir running through a heating element.
3. It lays down layer by stacked layer until the model is complete.
4. Sometimes lasers, chemicals, or other methods cure and/or fuse material between the layers

It has its place, but FDM is generally pretty low quality—basically a hot glue gun moved around by a computer to make a model.

Fortunately filament extrusion isn’t the only way to get the job done. A number of parallel technologies use dramatically different methods for 3D printing. Instead of extruding polymer in layers, some use lasers to harden loose material in layers. Or there’s Hewlett Packard’s new Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) process which is becoming our favorite method at SPARK for general use (see video below).

Inventors and 3D printing

What some people don’t realize is that even basic 3D printing requires a properly formatted CAD file—which means at some point a designer must enter the ring.

We welcome a lot of business from inventors who want to see their idea in hand but aren’t necessarily ready for the full development process. Basic 3D printing is a fast, cost-effective way to get a tangible prototype—because the only expense is CAD time and 3D print-on-demand service. Once an inventor has a CAD file from our designers, they can shop around the many service bureaus that provide 3D printing.

3D printing on demand

One of the early major players in democratizing 3D printing was Shapeways. Users can easily upload their CAD file, select their material and method, and wait for their item. Perfect for one-off projects or investor presentations.

Universities also offered some of the first 3D printing services for students and instructors building models for education. Funded by the schools, people could access the technology who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

And in 2009 a startup called MakerBot started selling 3D printers as DIY kits, which busted the extruded filament game wide open. Now it’s an established hobbyist industry.

What materials can be used for 3D printing?

Short answer: just about any material that can be liquified, extruded, and cured.

The full answer is much more complex and depends on what you need it for. You might use wax for casting precious metals. Concrete for building construction. Various plastics for attributes like flexibility, durability, or UV resistance.

Some resins have other materials mixed in—like glass, metal, or ceramics—for strength, weight, or conductivity. Some, like the popular polylactic acid (PLA) are derived from biodegradable material, which has positive implications for the future of our planet.

Some processes like Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) start with a layer of powder which is melted or sintered by lasers in the cross-section pattern of the design, adding subsequent layers of powdered material for each sintering pass.

With metallic powders, lasers can actually melt parts into shapes of solid metal rather than fused layers, which means you can create a solid metal piece with internal passages and spaces that would otherwise be impossible to machine.

3D printing on a human hair

For the finest detail and precision, we must turn again to lasers. One of the earliest methods of 3D printing, Stereolithography (SLA) uses lasers shining through a transparent reservoir of photo-reactive resin that hardens at microscopic focal points in layers.

Because it uses lasers in an unmoving medium, SLA is precise enough to print on a human hair. Think of the possibilities for the future of medical product design! But on a more macro level, SLA can produce more complex designs and component parts than other methods. That’s why it’s our preferred process for precise designs like injection-molded parts.

The downside of the SLA printing process is that models can be brittle and it can also be very expensive.

New multi jet 3D printing technology

Hewlett Packard has poured their heart and soul—and millions of dollars—into pushing the envelope of printing technology. Their Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) printers measure a design in voxels (like pixels with volume) and spray each layer in a continuous horizontal pass, rather than pinpoint extrusion. It’s similar to how your office inkjet works, except the ink is thicker and it gets sandwiched between layers of nylon powder.

In their video they explain that future iterations of the technology will be able to lay down material and agents to control the properties of each voxel. So one model could feature multiple colors, textures, and even transparency.

Imagine if you will, a contact lens with a microscopic circuit board.

Yes, it’s giddily cool—and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine multi-jet technology in every home just like sci-fi. But what makes MJF really exciting is that it lets you print multiple parts simultaneously, which drives down the cost and hints at a possible future of 3D printing for manufacturing.

Though MJF can’t print as high-resolution as SLA, it costs less and takes less time to finish a model. At SPARK we use MJF to create fully functional prototypes that aren’t as brittle as alternative methods. Meaning we can better test real-world use and stressors before sending a product to manufacturing.

What advances in 3D printing mean for you

At SPARK we use our own FDM printers for inexpensive prototyping at the roughest level. Sometimes it’s helpful to hold a design in your hands to see what’s working and what isn’t before you invest in more valuable prototypes. But because FDM models are essentially stacked strings of plastic, they don’t reflect attributes like the multi-directional structural integrity of an injection molded part—sometimes they can peel apart.

When it’s time for a more functional, full-scale prototype, we typically outsource to 3D printing specialists who can produce exactly what we need for a more reasonable price. That’s good news for our clients, because if we bought our own MJF printer, we’d have to use it all the time to justify the price tag—even if another method might make more sense. And running machines isn’t a good use of our clients’ money.

The future of 3D printing

The leaps and bounds we’ve seen in recent years leave no doubt that the future of 3D printing is wide open for pioneers with the vision to see the potential. From prototyping to extrusion-construction, from custom dental parts to cheap, biodegradable plasticware… The path leads forward in all directions.

Though it’s not yet efficient enough for scale manufacturing, 3D printing is indispensable in product development. The amount of money we’ve saved clients by catching flaws pre-manufacturing via advanced prototyping—well we have better things to do than count our successes.

At SPARK we’re always on the lookout for advances and technologies that will help us serve our clients. We’ve been using 3D printing since it became available, and each evolution of the technology helps us to develop even better products.

When 3D printing does become viable for manufacturing, everything will change. No more cutting expensive injection molds… No more centralized fabrication… No more designing around draft, part thickness, pull direction, etc… It will be a total gamechanger. And when that breakthrough happens, we’ll be sure to let you know!


Have an idea you’d like to prototype?
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Produced with Quillpower