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Archive for the ‘3D Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: 3D Printing Update and Implications

Sunday, April 9th, 2023

Photo purchased from …

Every day in my Google aggregator email feed, I get a list of digital printing articles and a list of offset printing articles. I find it incredibly useful. In addition to updating me on the technologies and techniques of various aspects of commercial printing, the Google aggregator shows me what’s trending. And recently 3D custom printing has been trending, showing up in a large percentage of the links to commercial printing articles.

In this light, about six months ago I wrote a PIE Blog post about 3D printing. Being a student of offset and digital printing, which in many ways symbolize in two-dimensional form our surrounding 3D world, I’m still finding it challenging to wrap my brain around the concept of making physical “things” with a process analogous to inkjet printing.

You may want to check out Wikipedia when doing your own research, as well as an article I found entitled “What Is 3D Printing?–Simply Explained,” by Lucas Carolo, 02/11/2023, Much of what I have written here has been in response to items discussed in these articles.

The 3D Manufacturing Process

Since I don’t have a twelve-year old handy, here’s my 65-year old take, from my cursory research, on what 3D printing is (in non-technical terms) and what implications it has for such issues as copyright protection, reasonable control over firearms, and printing such things as food and medical products (including internal organs).

Plus I will touch briefly on the benefits of 3D printing for the environment, the realignment of manufacturing processes in a world where we can “print our own,” plus challenges for the labor market brought about by the projected growth of 3D printing (or additive manufacturing).

Based on my cursory research, it seems that there are only a handful of steps in 3D printing. First there has to be a computer model, a diagram, if you will, to drive the fabrication of a 3D product. These models can be created with CAD (computer aided design) software packages, or they can even be found online in “repositories.” So you could conceivably just go online, find a computer model for a product, download it, and print it.

The next step is preparing the model for production on your 3D printer. I have seen these in computer stores. They are now very affordable. The ones you or I could buy work with spools of (basically) plastic filament, which are melted and extruded (squeezed out in a stream through a nozzle or print head). This is not unlike an inkjet printer, which does the same thing with liquid ink.

The plastic filament (which looks like a thick plastic wire) builds the physical model layer by layer as the print head travels back and forth over the bed of the 3D printer, which rises or falls as necessary to allow for the growth of the product layer by layer.

Then, the heated plastic solidifies. Or, in some approaches to 3D printing, UV light or even a laser cures the plastic (causes it to harden). For this to work, the computer model must first be “sliced.” Slicing breaks down the 3D computer image into flat layers, which can then be printed one upon the other and thus built up into the final form. This is a mathematical process, as I understand it.

The next step is to print the product. In the case of a desktop 3D printer this process works with different kinds of plastic, but in other additive manufacturing processes 3D products can be made in a similar way with other materials, including metal, ceramic, food, and even biological matter.

To help you visualize this, here’s an analogy. In a nutshell, additive manufacturing is akin to collecting clay and modeling it into a sculpture, while subtractive manufacturing (its opposite) is analogous to chipping away at a block of marble with a chisel to create a sculpture. In the manufacturing arena, subtractive manufacturing would include such processes as “machining” or grinding away metal from an item.

The third option is molding (such as injection molding), which involves pouring a molten material, like plastic or even metal, into a hollow form (the inverse of the final 3D component part) and then removing the mold. This actually can be tied in to 3D printing, because it is possible to either print a mold or print a (plastic) part around which you can then make a mold (for pouring more durable materials than molten plastic).

Most of these processes take time and cost a lot. Among other things, for instance, you would have to create the molds from which you’re making injection molded products (such as plastic toy soldiers).

But with 3D modeling, you just create the computer model yourself, scan a physical object and turn it into a computer model, or acquire the computer model from a repository and then print it.

One benefit of this process is that plastic products made layer by layer from a computer file can be infinitely more detailed than machined component parts. That said, once printed they are usually a bit ragged in areas (or they have supplemental plastic support pieces that hold up the 3D model but that must be removed before use).

So the next step is post processing. (It’s a little like the clean up or finishing work you need to do if you’ve just poured a bronze sculpture into a mold and then opened the mold to find portions that need to be ground away. In 3D printing, you may need to clean up, cure, or paint the pieces, or even assemble them into a larger, more complex final product.

Again, as a reminder, we’re talking about 3D custom printing on desktop machinery using plastic filament, but the concept still holds true for industry-level additive manufacturing.

What’s Is 3D Printing Good For?

The first thing I learned in my research was that companies or individuals could make prototypes easily, quickly, and cheaply.

This is a bit like the prototype a package designer can make before committing to a long run of a particular carton design. If you’re producing a 3D item using subtractive manufacturing or injection molding, you have to build manufacturing equipment specific to producing that particular item.

In contrast, if you’re 3D printing a plastic model head (see the photo at the opening of this article), you can print one copy or ten copies for a small amount of money, quickly. If you’re producing a printed model head as a toy to be sold to children, you can print one, make design changes, and then print a revised version.

This is not true with more mechanical, laborious manufacturing processes (such as injection molding or machining). So your time from idea to prototype to market can be faster with 3D printing, and you have the ability to improve, simplify, or even personalize the 3D plastic head toy each time you print it.

Granted, you can’t print a huge run of these plastic heads quickly or cheaply. This is a more time consuming process for the actual production run (at this point in the development of 3D printing) than the final stage of traditional manufacturing.

Here are some other items that are in vogue for 3D commercial printing at the moment:

  1. Home décor items such as furniture
  2. Fashion items such as shoes and jewelry (these can be very intricate, as noted before)
  3. Firearms
  4. Food (such as crackers, hamburgers, and even such products as food for astronauts)
  5. Actual body parts and especially prosthetic limbs. (This doesn’t surprise me, since the medical field has been growing human ears on mice for a long time–on their backs, not their heads.)
  6. Spare parts that allow people to make their own product repairs at home

3D Printing Is Similar to Inkjet Commercial Printing

As you’re reading this, you may be seeing (as I do) a similarity between inkjet printing in the commercial printing arena and 3D printing with plastic filament in the manufacturing world. You can prototype quickly, personalize your items, print a limited number of copies for a reasonable investment, and easily modify the printout by changing the computer file.

All of this has profound implications, and many of these implications bring to mind the workflow of digital commercial printing.

For instance, since the 3D desktop printers are already affordable, and since they will presumably improve in the near future and use other raw materials such as metals, then 3D printing will presumably democratize manufacturing (make it available to most people, or at least give them more options).

For example, just as you can now write, design, and digitally print publications with equipment that will fit in your home, in the near future you may not need to go to a store to buy something (like a replacement part for a product you own). Instead, you may just download a computer-designed template and print your own replacement part.

Or, manufacturing may move closer to the final destination (think of people who send art files to another state, print their books there, and have a lower freight bill since the printed products are already close to their destination).

Like digital printing, 3D manufacturing will also allow for reduced inventory. Companies won’t need to store inventory since they can 3D print items at the time they are ordered (just like web-to-print for publications). This will save warehousing space and the costs associated with inventorying products, reduce energy for heating and cooling storage facilities, and reduce carbon emissions by minimizing product delivery by truck.

Plus, there will be less material to dump in landfills, since products can be made only when needed (you won’t need to make a huge number of products just because that’s the only way to make the unit costs reasonable). Sounds like digital commercial printing again, doesn’t it?

Social and Ethical Concerns to Address

These are a few of the issues I’ve read about recently:

  1. Gun control issues. When you can download a template and 3D print your own gun, this can be challenging for the control and licensing of firearms.
  2. Copyright issues will need to be addressed.
  3. Ethics issues and religious concerns related to the 3D printing of biological items may need to be addressed.
  4. Labor issues. The new 3D print workflow will have an impact on labor. Presumably there will be more machines and fewer people getting paid to manufacture items. How will these displaced workers be reintroduced into the labor force?

Welcome to our brand new world.

Custom Printing: Marrying 3D Printing with Lost-Wax Casting

Monday, October 24th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

In these PIE Blog articles I haven’t discussed 3D custom printing very often because I have had trouble wrapping my brain around the technology involved. While I still do not really understand how these printers work, I recently became more interested when I read about how 3D printing has been used increasingly to marry the 6,000-year-old technique of lost-wax casting with the precision and relative ease of digital CAD (computer aided design).

The process is faster and less labor intensive than traditional injection molding, so the prices for the casting component of manufacturing can go down, while the precision of the “geometry” (the structure of a digitally produced graduation ring, for instance) can go up.

What Is 3D Printing?

First of all, as a general overview, 3D custom printing is a type of additive manufacturing (insofar as the material used is built up layer upon layer rather than ground away from a solid block of metal or plastic). There are various ways to do this using powders or filaments (like plastic string from a spool), but essentially the raw material is expelled through a heated jetting device (like inkjet printing) to create a three dimensional object on the moving build plate of the printer.

Depending on the technique and the substance used, this material can be hardened, or cured, by exposure to a laser, chemicals, or even UV light (just as UV commercial printing inks will cure when exposed to UV light). Or, powdered particles can be fused together (called sintering) by exposure to a laser to create the material for the final product. The constant thread through all of this is that the final item is more or less complete, more or less detailed, and more or less durable depending not only on the raw materials but also on the method used to combine them layer by layer into a physical object.

What Is Injection Molding?

Prior to 3D custom printing, manufacturing shops that needed to create a part (either plastic or metal) had to create an injection mold. The designer had to produce a 3D model (usually by carving it), then reproduce the inverse image of the model (i.e., a mold with an empty cavity in the shape of the final object).

At this point, molten metal or plastic could be poured through an access hole to fill the empty mold. Then, after opening the mold, the designer could remove the final product. This could be done multiple times as needed. As with all analog printing processes (to which you might draw an analogy), all of these injection molded (because the material had been injected into the mold) pieces were identical.

This took a long time (and therefore cost a lot) because the molds had to be tooled and ground to create each part (of, for example, a motor, with a large number of individual parts that had to be injection molded and then assembled). Also, the process was not as precise as it might have been, so it was necessary to grind or tool the component parts, removing any extraneous material (imagine a perfect metal bolt, but with little pieces of metal sticking out that must be ground off before it can be used).

What Is Lost-Wax Casting?

This is very similar to injection molding. A figure or model is created (carved, for instance) and then covered in wax (to the desired thickness of the resulting statue (let’s say a bronze sculpture). If the metal sculpture will be hollow, then a core can be added inside the wax model. On top of this model the designer slathers a thick layer of heat resistant plaster. Wax tubes like the limbs of a tree (these are called sprues) are added. These will create pathways through which the final metal can enter the mold and noxious gases can exit the mold. When the mold is inverted and then heated in a kiln, the wax turns to liquid and runs out of the mold through the pathways, leaving a negative (or inverse) image of the initial model.

Then, molten metal can be poured into the empty cavity in the mold. When this has solidified, the mold can be opened and the metal statue removed.

As with injection molding, some final grinding and machining work must be done on the final bronze casting.

3D Modeling, and the Marriage of Injection Molding and Lost-Wax Casting

Now, with the advent of 3D digital printing, the 6,000-year-old lost-wax casting technique can be used to make products (and especially prototypes and molds) accurately, efficiently, with precise detail, and with far less post-mold machining work on the final component pieces (let’s say a graduation ring, since it may include raised portions and incised lettering, or whatever other complex, multi-layered “geometry” or design work).

Using CAD (computer aided design) software, which in this case has been simplified and is therefore more user-friendly than complex, traditional CAD/CAM software, the designer can produce wax models on a 3D printer that can be covered in a mold-making material, heated to let the wax run out, and then poured with metal to produce the final molded components.

This is a much faster process than traditional injection molding. The process, from model-making to mold-making to final metal product or component item, can take days rather than weeks (often up to 12 weeks the traditional way). In addition, the process is much more precise (think about the multi-level design, filigree, and lettering in a graduation ring, for instance), so post-molding processes such as grinding are minimized when compared to more traditional “investment casting,” the contemporary version (without 3D printing technology) of lost-wax casting. Plus, you can easily make changes to the wax model (perhaps various iterations of the graduation ring design) with the CAD software and 3D print a number of wax images quickly.

Furthermore, it’s possible to produce prototypes quickly and then incorporate any revisions into the final model. Speed equals lower costs. And the resulting items are more detailed and precise, as well as significantly faster to produce using the marriage of lost-wax casting and 3D custom printing.

The Takeaway

For those of you who entered the commercial printing or graphic design trade because you’re artists, you may very well find it enjoyable to learn about processes that cross over from the fine arts to the graphic arts. (Keep in mind that Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec was a poster designer and illustrator as well as a painter, and Andy Warhol was an illustrator as well as a painter.)

Discovering ways in which traditional methods, such as lost-wax casting, have been incorporated into modern graphic design (and product design) can enrich your understanding of what you do in your day-to-day design work and why.

There are many more areas in which the fine arts and commercial arts overlap. These include collagraphy (adding various collage materials to build up a paper custom printing plate, then varnishing the composite whole to make the plate waterproof, and then printing the plate). And they even include carving a design in a styrofoam plate (the kind used for saran-wrapped pork chops in a grocery store) and then printing this as a plate (as my fiancee and I have done with our art therapy students).

In all cases, commercial printing depends on aesthetics, the appreciation and creation of beautiful items, as well as the selection of the quickest and most technically effective approach to making multiple copies of something—whether it is a two-dimensional print book page or fine arts etching, or a three-dimensional component part of a toy automobile engine, using lost-wax casting models produced on a 3D printer run by CAD software.

Custom Printing: 3D Printed Rockets

Monday, October 21st, 2019

A dear friend and commercial printing colleague recently shared with me some information on a firm that prints rockets. Not plastic, model rockets for science fairs but huge, metal rockets that take satellites into space. They use 3D printing technology (building up layer upon layer of metal rather than plastic), and they can do this faster and less expensively than with more traditional technology. Wow. (more…)

Custom Printing: A Concise 3D Printing Primer

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

I just read an article online that captures in three pages the gist of the new 3D commercial printing wave. Written by Tyler Lacoma, this article, entitled “What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know,” presented on Yahoo News, delivers just what its title promises. If you’re interested in the subject, it’s worth your time. It will get you started on your research. (more…)

Custom Printing: Transformative Technology of 3D and 4D Printing

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

I hadn’t done much research into 3D custom printing recently, so I thought I’d check out the current state of the technology. I was pleased to find that it is very much alive and thriving. I found three articles I’d like to share with you. (more…)

Custom Printing: Making Car Parts with a 3-D Printer

Monday, February 6th, 2017

A close friend of mine is a car aficionado. He recently brought to my attention an article in the March issue of Motor Trend magazine that describes advances in 3-D printed car parts. I’ll have to admit that I was skeptical, as I was in the 1970s when I took a ride on my step-brother’s plastic motorcycle. But I was wrong then (it was a good bike), and in doing some reading now on 3-D printed car parts, I’ve become intrigued by the benefits. (more…)

Custom Printing: Stratasys Prints 3D in Vivid Color

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Stratasys has just redefined 3D custom printing with the introduction of the only 3D equipment that prints in vivid color using multiple materials.

To grasp what this means, let’s pause for a moment and jump back in history to the 1980s, back to the genesis of desktop publishing. After coding type for years on dedicated typesetting machines, I remember how exciting it was to look at a large monitor and see magazine pages laid out in columns in PageMaker. Back then, the monitors displayed only black and white images—literally. There were no levels of gray and no color. (more…)

Will 3D Printing Transform Shopping?

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

I just read an article in Space Daily (, 1/9/14) that gives a sense of perspective to the new technology of 3D custom printing (or additive manufacturing). The article in the Tech Space section is entitled, “3D Printing Poised to Shake Up Shopping.” (more…)

Digital Custom Printing: 3D and Inkjet for Fashion Items

Monday, May 20th, 2013

I’m seeing a lot more variety in the use of digital 3D and fabric custom printing within the fashion world, and I find this extremely exciting. It shows that print is more than ink on paper. It also shows that there’s a market for the mass customization afforded by digital custom printing. (more…)

Large Format Printing: Printing Bikinis and Houses

Monday, February 18th, 2013

In the last PIE Printing Blog article, I discussed novel uses for 3D custom printing, including the specifications Nokia has made available to enable phone owners to 3D-print their own phone cases, and a stem-cell 3D printing firm called Modern Meadow that 3D prints hamburgers. (more…)


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