Here at Key Tech, we often use physical prototypes in our design process to literally get a feel for the part. While 3D computer models can be helpful, there is simply no substitute for actually holding a part in your hands and feeling it. 3D printing is often a great option for an initial prototype, especially for complex parts that are difficult to machine. Essentially, 3D printers work by printing many thin 2D cross-sections of a part on top of each other, bonding each layer to the previous one as they go. For more complex parts, special support structures may be required to keep the part from falling apart during the printing process, but the process is essentially the same.
Some 3D printers are now completely automated, allowing users to upload 3D part files via a website and receive the completed parts the next morning. This ability to automatically transform a part file into an actual object in less than a day is extremely powerful and a major advantage that 3D prototyping holds over competing methods, such as CNC machining. However, 3D printing has had a few major drawbacks that have prevented it from reaching its full potential. Most current 3D printers can only print with a few materials, and often only one or two per part. In addition, the resolution on 3D many printers is not fine enough for intricate or tightly toleranced parts. Finally, the part size is limited by the tray size in the 3D printer, meaning that larger parts cannot be fabricated in one piece.
A new generation of 3D printers, such as Objet’s Connex500, aim to overcome these traditional limitations and make 3D printing a more flexible prototyping option. The Connex500′s most impressive feature is its ability to print down to a resolution of 16 microns (.00004″), which is orders of magnitude finer than many traditional 3D printers. Many of this new generation of 3D printers can also print with more than a dozen materials in the same part. This allows for prototypes that work and feel more like the finished project will, and allows for much greater flexibility in the design and prototyping processes. While some 3D printers are aiming at making things smaller and more detailed, others are aiming at making parts larger. By increasing the tray size and allowing the print head more range of motion, some manufactures have made 3D printers that can print parts over a foot long in each direction.
These advances mark a significant improvement in the capabilities of 3D printers and a major step forward in the world of design. We are now closer than ever to being able to turn virtually any idea or concept immediately into an exact physical reality. That power has major ramifications for not only the design industry, but for society as a whole. We at Key Tech are very excited about this technology and seeing what the future of 3D printing will hold.