3-D printing or ‘additive manufacturing’ happens when objects are created by a 3-D printer which lays down material in successive layers following the design from a digital file. It is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. A traditional printer prints on a flat surface while a 3-D printer adds depth. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material (using plastic, resin, metal, carbon fibre, graphite, nitinol for medical implants) until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.
In order for a 3D print to be realized in the form of a finished product, a detailed image of the design in question must first be submitted to the printer. The details are rendered in standard triangle language (STL), which conveys the intricacies and dimensions of a given design and allows a computerized 3D printer to see a design from all sides and angles.
Unlike regular printers, 3D printers work like plotters, moving a point along the X and Y axes. The printed material is typically drawn with plastic rather than ink. Once the object is drawn, the base moves up and down in an ongoing cycle, creating a layered effect until the product is completed in three-dimensional form. Products can be as simple as toys to as complex as medical tools used in hospitals. For example, surgeons can replicate patient-specific organs with the help of 3D printers, and they are even able to produce realistic skin for burn victims or prosthetic limbs for amputees.
Industrial 3-D printing is at a tipping point, about to go mainstream in a big way. This technology has moved well beyond prototyping, rapid tooling, trinkets, and toys. “Additive manufacturing” is creating durable and safe products for sale to real customers in moderate to large quantities.
HP has launched a few in India to print plastic parts like car panels and electric switches Gartner estimates that the $4-5 billion global 3-D printing market will grow by 10 times in the next decade. Other analysts are more bullish, expecting the market to be $300 billion by 2025.
Nike, Siemens, Philips, BMW and GE are advancing capabilities in 3-D manufacturing. Casca, a startup backed by Khosla Ventures, aims to make 3-D printed shoes on the spot for customers by 2029.