In this week’s tech feature, we explore a production process innovation that is completely upending the way in which we manufacture objects and products. From toys, tools, jewellery and décor, to houses and even artificial body parts – 3D printing is becoming an increasingly effective means of manufacturing and slowly but surely, replacing many traditional production processes. Not too sure what it’s all about? No problem! This post is designed to give you a crash course on how 3D printing works, what it can do, the pro’s and con’s of it, as well as the implications for a developing nation such as South Africa.
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process for creating any 3 dimensional object from a digital model or electronic data source. The process is guided by a computer, which moves a robotic mechanism to create a 3D object, layer by layer, based on the model or data. Now that was quite a mouthful, but in layman’s terms, this means that we can print 3D objects of any shape, from a computer design, with the help of a 3D printer and a clever little process called additive manufacturing.
First conceptualized in the 1980’s, early developers saw the opportunity to print 3D objects using lasers, mechanics and photopolymer materials. Early 3D printer models were extremely expensive, limited in output and required special handling – the process was painstaking and the output was far more expensive to create through 3D printing than through traditional processes. The concept was great, but the technology needed a lot of revision. Later work saw developers able to manufacture parts for cars and aeroplanes using additive manufacturing. But it wasn’t until the 21st century that advanced computer technology and open source projects allowed developers to come up with 3D printers that could accurately manufacture intricate objects. These 3D printers were developed into consumer-friendly versions for homes businesses. The result? Well, just about anything you could imagine in 3 dimensions.