To create a 3D model, a computer program like AutoCAD is used to create a computer aided design file (.CAD) that acts as a blueprint for the model. Next, the .CAD file needs to be converted to something that the 3D printing machine can understand. Most 3D printing machines can understand STL (Standard Tessellation Language) file types. STL files are basically a slice-by-slice representation of the CAD model that the 3D printer understands and uses. 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process, which means that one layer is added on top of the second layer to create a 3D object.
The most commonly used technology for 3D printing is based on a process called stereo lithography developed by Charles W. Hull in 1986. Some polymers in liquid state have a property of turning solid when exposed to UV light. These polymers are called photopolymers and are the special materials that are used to create 3D printed objects using stereo lithography. The time taken to create a 3D printed object usually depends on the complexity of the design. Here is a link to a video describing the process.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is another technique used for 3D printing prototypes. During SLS, laser is used to heat finely powdered particles to just below the boiling point of the material, which fuses the particles into solid form. Here is a link to the video describing the process.
Fused Deposition Modeling is another technique that is used in 3D printing. Here is a link to the video describing the process.
Besides being used for creating monuments and action figures, 3D printers have also been used for medical applications. In 2013, a 3D printer was used to custom create a part of skull that was implanted into a patient. A 3D printed pelvis has also been implanted into a patient with chondrosarcoma. (Chondrosarcoma is a type of cancer that affects bones and joints). The infected part of the pelvis was removed from the patient and replaced with the 3D printed part.
Dr. James Yoo at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is working on 3D printing skin that can be used for burn patients. Scientists have predicted that 3D printed organs will be available for health care applications by the end of 2014. 3D printed organs can save the lives of approximately 140,000 people waiting for an organ donation.
Project Daniel by Not impossible Labs, a media and technology company is using 3D printers to create prosthetic arms for amputees. This project was started to 3D print a prosthetic hand to help people like Daniel Omar, a 14-year old from Sudan whose hands were blown off by a bomb. Under this project, along with the help of Dr. Tom Catena, a lab has been set up in Sudan to 3D print prosthetic hands. The prosthetic arm costs around $100 and takes about 6 hour to produce. Take a look at this amazing video about Project Daniel.
NASA is planning to send 3D printers to the International Space Station. So far, two potential uses have been identified for a 3D printer aboard the ISS or during space travel. One use is for astronauts to 3D print parts needed for repairs aboard the space station. For this purpose, NASA in collaboration with Made in Space has built a 3D printer capable of printing in zero gravity conditions. The device has passed microgravity tests, certified and ready for launch to the ISS sometime in 2014. The second use is for printing food on the ISS to provide astronauts with more options and the ability to personalize their meals instead of the current prepackaged shelf stable foods.
You can use them to print unique 3D innovations or to make something by doodling in air or the most awesome use: to print your own food!!!!