The 3D printers we use at London 3D Printing can be used to produce almost anything that you wish, whether you simply need a prototype of an idea you have or whether you need production runs of small parts, for use in any type of manufacturing.
We have a range of different 3D printers in our factory and they are all part of the additive printing process family. Some of them use plastics, and in particular ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). This is a thermoplastic, which is one which melts when you heat it and reverts back to a solid when it cools down. This is the same plastic from which your Lego bricks are made that you played with when you were a child. The same plastic is used for many car interiors, for the inside of refrigerators, and for many computer parts and components too: it is very likely that the mouse and keyboard you are using right now are made of ABS.
However, our main 3D printer is an SLS machine, SLS standing for Selective Laser Sintering, and it uses a nylon powder and a very high-powered laser to produce the product. It works along the lines of other 3D printers by placing a layer of nylon powder and using the laser to set it in place. Then it adds another layer, and another, and so on, until the final article is created.
SLS printing is a very high-end process and the printers themselves are extremely expensive. However, they can produce incredible, complex, shaped articles with a first-class finish which is far superior to other 3D printers.
3D printing is widely used in many different industries, such as aerospace and defence, for example. Designing and testing airplanes is an extremely complex and expensive process: for instance, a Boeing 747-400 has six million parts, 171 miles of wiring and 5 miles of tubing. Computer models can be used to test how certain things in a plane behave, but things may need to be tested in a wind tunnel, so accurate models need to be made. What’s more, military planes are often likely to be very customised, and so 3D printing is used to produce one-off or low volume parts effectively and quickly.
Space exploration is even more complex, and not only that, but there is often only one of a particular spacecraft ever made. Instead of going to all the trouble of making special tools to produce a part, it is much quicker and easier to produce it in a 3D printer.
3D printing in architecture is another use. It helps us to see how a design will look in three dimensions. It is all very well having it on a drawing, and of course there are always things such as virtual reality. However, it is much better to have something that you can see and touch. True, we can’t (yet) produce 3D models in brick, but by using 3D printing in architecture they can be produced in plastic and painted to look like the real thing, whether that is brick, concrete, stone, steel, or more.
3D printing is now also widely used for prototyping and testing many consumer and industrial products. Many of these are made from plastic of one sort or another anyway, so a 3D printed prototype can provide a very accurate model which is ideal for market research or testing.