3D printing was invented back in the mid 1980’s and today it has expanded massively. You can get all sorts of different products made using a 3D printer and there are a lot of different types of 3D printers, from simple machines that you can buy for £150 or less and play around with at home up to far more expensive machines such as the SLS printers we use at London 3D Printing which cost upwards of £50,000.
SLS stands for Selective Laser Sintering and such a machine has advantages over and above many of the standard 3D printers (although we also use those at London 3D Printing) in that it can produce parts of incredible fascinating geometric shapes with a much finer finish than other sorts of printer.
For those new to the workings of 3D printers, they can produce an object in three dimensions, as you might guess, which is often made out of one of the many thermoplastics available, and is frequently ABS. Thermoplastics are materials which melt when you heat them and solidify again as they cool down.
The way that it works is by producing a slice of very thin plastic to make the bottom of an object by subjecting it to heat. It then waits for the layer to cool down and adds another layer. This continues until the part or product is built and completed.
3D printing is often used to produce a prototype because it can do so quickly and cheaply. It is also used for small runs of parts for all sorts of different items from complete finger rings in the jewellery trade to parts for space shuttles. If you are building a space shuttle you are not going to want to make a lot of them: in fact, you probably only want one. This means that instead of going to the trouble of building a machine to produce a very small number of parts for it, after which you probably wouldn’t need the machine again, you can simply have them made by a 3D printer using thermoplastic or metal, or using SLS nylon printing which is what we do at London 3D Printing.
Nylon printing uses powdered nylon instead of plastics, and it is able to produce intricate designs with very exact finishes, compared to the somewhat rougher finishes of other 3D machines. The SLS machine heats the powdered nylon to just short of melting temperature and then the laser takes over and heats the nylon to melting point to produce a layer, lets it cool, prints the next layer, and so on. Nylon is an incredibly strong material which is versatile and can produce those complex shaped parts or products with extremely fine detail.
So what is the future for SLS nylon printing? We’re pleased to say that it is very bright. In the 21st century we produce many, many products out of plastic which are often for one time use and thrown away, or perhaps like toothbrushes which are very cheap to manufacture and buy, get used for six months, and also get thrown away. So 3D printing using thermoplastics can be used to produce all sorts of different products.
SLS nylon printing can produce products with very fine detail, as we have seen, and it can also be very cost-effective for low volume production runs. One designer on the website Etsy designs rings in many different patterns, which can be worn by both men and women, and these are produced using 3D printing. As he says, he can work from anywhere in the world and only needs his laptop to produce a design which he then sends off to the 3D printers who can produce a small run to see how well it sells.
When 3D printing is universally accepted by big manufacturers it will enable them to offer much more customisation of their products. It will mean that you can design your own product and have small quantities made, or even just one item. 3D printing is basically a robotic technology, so it will reduce production costs and make it possible once again to produce items in the West that are presently being made by very poorly-paid people in China and India, and so on.
It will also lead to increased productivity because less people will be needed to make the same number of products, which in turn will lead to greater demand and lower prices.
What’s not to like?