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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: A 3D Printing Primer

What does the term “printing” really encompass? What are the boundaries of the word?

I wrote an article over a year ago about a device that dropped water in a pattern from a certain height. You could see an image for a few seconds before the water disappeared. I believe it was a clock, so the image was the changing digital numbers of the time of day.

A few months ago I wrote another article about three-dimensional printers. In fact, I recently saw a video of a 3D printer (similar to an inkjet printer, but spraying layer upon layer of polymer material rather than ink to finally build a three-dimensional object rather than print an image on paper). The process is improving, and prices are dropping. I see references to this transformative technology almost daily.

What Is 3D Custom Printing?

Another term for 3D printing is “additive manufacturing.” It is not new. In fact, the concept has been around since the ’80s. Additive manufacturing is based on the building up of successive layers of material to create an object or a part of an object. Digital information (cross sections of an object rendered in CAD/CAM software) controls the process; hence, the object can be altered from one “print” to the next.

The video I saw on YouTube showed the creation of a baseball bat using a desktop 3D printer. The first part of the film involved its creation; the second part involved using the polymer (or resin) bat to hit objects of increasing size and hardness in order to prove that the additive-manufactured baseball bat had weight and durability.

“Subtractive manufacturing” is the opposite of additive manufacturing. This is the more common technology, and it involves cutting, drilling, milling, and grinding to remove (rather than add) material. In auto manufacturing, for instance, many component parts are “machined” or “tooled” from metal and then assembled into a car.

Granted, subtractive processes can be automated and controlled using digital information as well, and additive processes can include pouring or injecting material (such as molten metal or liquid plastic) into molds.

So What Makes 3D Custom Printing Different?

Whether you’re cutting or drilling metal or wood, you need expensive, heavy machinery. Accountants distribute the cost of the machinery across the thousands of copies produced (usually multiple copies of the same object). You make a lot of metal bolts or car parts, and the cost of the equipment eventually gets distributed evenly (and in small amounts) among thousands of copies of the same thing.

In some ways we can compare this to offset commercial printing, in which a lot of time and money go into the set-up, or make-ready, processes and the unit cost only comes down as you print thousands of copies of the same brochure, flyer, or print book.

This is also true for metal or plastic parts poured or injected into molds. Only after you have made thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies of the same part does the process pay for the creation of the machines that do the work.

But with the newer technology of digitally controlled 3D printing, you have equipment that is comparatively inexpensive to purchase, that will sit on a desktop, and that will produce a different item each time you hit “print.” Changes within the digital programming can immediately yield changes in the output. It’s more like digital printing of a brochure, in which the HP Indigo, iGen, or NexPress can print a different brochure each time it delivers a printed piece.

How Can 3D Printing Be Used?

Wikipedia lists “jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, graphic information systems, and civil engineering,” among other fields. Basically, the list is endless.

Moreover, 3D custom printing can democratize manufacturing. Back in colonial times (in Williamsburg, VA, for instance), “coopers” made barrels from start to finish in their small shops. Gunsmiths made flintlock muskets in the same way, from start to finish, by themselves.

Over the years, to speed up production and spread costs over multiple jobs, money was poured into building factories and heavy equipment. Items started to be made in assembly-line fashion. Granted, there were limited options, but items could be made inexpensively. In direct contrast to this approach, additive manufacturing can now create different parts for everyone just by changing the digital information from which the job is “printed.”

Additive printing holds the promise of bringing manufacturing back into smaller local shops and perhaps even right into your own home. If you need something, you can print it out yourself (or the pieces needed for its assembly). Or you can go down to the corner 3D printer. You don’t need to have parts shipped from China to be assembled in another plant across the country and then shipped to your home or local store. That’s what makes this exciting. That’s democratization of manufacturing.

New Uses for 3D Custom Printing Technology

Prototyping—Companies can quickly produce new items using powdered metals, resins, or polymers, along with casting materials such as sand, and then make necessary changes before committing to an entire production run of the item.

Rapid Manufacturing—In some cases, even the final component parts can be manufactured additively.

Mass Customization—This term has been used to describe infinitely variable, digitally printed marketing materials, in which each direct marketing piece matches the recipient’s personal needs. The same concept can be applied to additive manufacturing, in which customers can request changes to a prototype to meet their own needs.

Medical Items—This is where the technology soars into the realm of science fiction. As of 2012, biotechnology firms have been studying the potential for inkjet printing actual body parts and organs. In this case, layers of living cells would be sprayed onto a gel medium or sugar matrix. Picture a machine that can print a hip replacement. This is actually in process—now.

The Future Is Now

So printing is much more than putting ink or toner on paper. I think there will be a lot to say about 3D printing in future issues of the PIE Blog. So stay tuned. The future is now.

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