When undertaking the production of a book on three-dimensional (3D) printing, it behooves the authors to declare the causes that impel them to do this. The technology which enables printing in three dimensions, under one name or another, has been around since the 1980’s. Had this book been written at that time, its focus would have been on the novelty of 3D printing and, perhaps, a cloudy vision of its future. 3D printing was the topic of graduate theses and dissertations. Specialists in universities and a handful of commercial facilities experimented with 3D printers for rapid prototyping. Existing computer-aided-design (CAD) software was being adapted by specialists primarily to create models for 3D printers. A lot of the work was seat-of-the-pants engineering, developing the necessary hardware and making software adaptations as situations required them. In due course, fascination with the concept grew, 3D printer kits became available and a small army of hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers joined the field. So what has changed? Some 250 – 300 3D printers are currently available on the market. They range from industrial machines the size of moving trucks that can produce aircraft components and automotive parts with dimensions measured in tens of feet to desktop units for the home with build platforms measured in inches. Software packages are now readily available aimed at both engineers and artists. 3D printing has made dramatic, even life-saving, contributions to medicine. A 3D printer is now on board the International Space Station. Fashion designers use 3D printing to create jewelry of all descriptions, footwear and designer dresses. In the 1980’s, if you printed anything it was made of plastic, the only material available at the time. Today the range of materials that can be used includes plastics, metals, concrete, ceramics and even food. Today, because of technical improvements and lower costs, 3D technology is available to everyone, not just specialists. Accordingly, information about 3D print technology has also migrated from literature aimed at specialists to articles in the popular media aimed at and accessible to a curious reader whose first reaction to the mention of 3D printing might have been “What?” That question is now answered in the mass media – newspapers, magazines, television shows – as well as the social media – YouTube, Twitter, an assortment of blogs and newsletters devoted to 3D printing. Any curious individual can now learn about the technology and use it to satisfy their own needs. Because so much information is now available, the challenge is to find the subset that is useful to an individual or organization from the vast pool that has been generated. Without a little guidance, one can easily spend months looking for and making sense out that which is available in order to answer the questions one needs answered. The book is aimed at an audience consisting of two kinds of readers. The first is people who are curious about 3D printing and want more information without necessarily getting deeply into it. For this audience, the first two chapters will be of greatest interest. They provide an overview of 3D print technology. They also serve to take the confusion out of the jargon and make sense out of such shortcuts as SLA, FFM, FFF, FDM, DLP, LOM, SLM, DMLS, SLS, EBM, EBAM, CAD and other. They describe the basic processes, the materials used and the application of the technology in industry, space, medicine, housing, clothing and consumer-oriented products such as jewelry, video game figures, footwear, tools and what must now seem like an infinity of bunnies, eagles and busts of Star Wars and Star Trek figurines in a dazzling array of colors. The book also addresses the needs of people new to the field who require information in a hurry. Chapter 3 serves as a guide to the development of a numerical 3D model that printers require by reviewing scanning methodology, the various types of software available to generate a model and the steps needed to insure a useful printed object from the numerical model. The chapter has numerous references which, together with the information in the text, will help one find quickly any additional information available on the internet.
There is a steep learning curve associated with the software used to generate 3D models. Chapter 4 addresses the needs of people who are curious to try the technology but, if they use it only sparingly, may not want to make the investment in either the hardware or the time it would take to learn the software. We review some of the printing services available and the model repositories which provide the software that can be downloaded for a fee and sent on to a printing service. A discussion of the issues involved in deciding whether to buy a 3D printer or use the available services to do 3D printing without a 3D printer is included as well.
If you are brave enough to try to design your own object, Chapter 5 is an exercise which walks you through the characteristics of an available software package and the steps required to design a practical object, in this case a screwdriver. Doing this exercise – not just reading through it – will give you considerable insight into the capabilities of 3D software packages and, we hope, build your confidence and encourage you to try again with an object of your own choosing.
There is one aspect of 3D printing that we do not address. You will find no mention of building printers from kits or do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. It is our opinion that the 3D printing industry is, at this stage, sufficiently advanced beyond the hobby stage that this aspect is best left to those who enjoy the hands-on experience. If this is something that interests you, we suggest that a good starting point would be the various publications and activities of Maker Shed, a division of Maker Media, Inc. Check out MAKE magazine and subscribe to the newsletter to stay informed on the wide variety of activities they sponsor.