I’m always looking for new ways to exploit my creativity through technology—video, interactive, and mobile—but 3D printing is on an entirely new level. The fact that I can now do it in Adobe Photoshop CC is a huge bonus (watch this video to learn how). We’re able to create physical objects that never existed before; we’re inventors, a sculptors, and artists. It’s enough to give someone a god complex. If you’re anything like me, the ideas have already started flooding in; before you jump in let’s take a step back and get a general understanding of how it all works.
3D printing is considered additive manufacturing. It’s an amazingly simple process that consists of layers of material (plastic, wood, metal, sand, sugar, or even chocolate) being laid down in a pattern, one layer at a time, until the 3D object is created. There are three major types of 3D printing: Fused Deposition Modeling, Stereolithography, and Laser Sintering. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
The most common type of additive manufacturing, FDM is easy, affordable, and can be used with many different materials. The process involves feeding a spool of filament into an extruder where it’s melted down (like a hot glue gun) and “drawn,” one layer at a time, to create a 3D shape.
$1,000 – $5,000
Low cost with affordable filament
Large variety of materials
Fairly easy to maintain and replace parts
Nozzle clogging is common
Supports can be tough to clean
Layers can be visible (striping)
Stereolithography is a fascinating process in which a beam of UV light draws a pattern over a photosensitive pool of liquid resin. When the light hits the liquid it hardens. Once that layer is complete the base then moves to make room for the next layer, until the 3D object is made. SLA can be really good for designers looking for extra detail, with the potential for mass production, or for anyone who wants to cast their art in bronze or some other metal.
$3,000 – $7,000
Detail down to 25 microns (thinner than a sheet of paper)
Smooth surface details
Great for casting/molding and models
Nozzle clogging is common
Resin can be messy
Materials are limited and more brittle
3D printers are more expensive
Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS works much like Stereolithography, but with a powder instead of a liquid. When the laser hits the powder, it hardens; the powder surrounding the object being printed acts as a support so there are no additional supports or scaffolding to break off as with the other processes. The powder is then removed leaving just the solid object, which can be plastic, metal, ceramic, or even full-color sandstone (the metal and full-color sandstone options are particularly exciting). Although there’s not a consumer printer option available, objects can be sent to Shapeways.com for printing.
Detail down to 16 microns
No support structures
Higher model flexibility since parts can be completely suspended
Working mechanical parts can be printed with no assembly required
Powder requires some work to remove
No desktop printer options
Aluminum / Steel
Which is best?
SLS is the best option—despite the $50K cost of a printer—because from within Photoshop CC you can send your models directly to Shapeways.com who will print them and send them to your house. Curious about cost? A fancy iPhone case like this one cost me about $25.
Interested in buying your own? Well right now the FDM printers are the most widely available and their quality is getting really good. I personally like the Makerbot Replicator, 5th generation. Makerbot was one of the first companies to make 3D printers commercially and they are arguably the industry standard, with profiles built into Photoshop CC. I also like the Ultimaker 2 because it just feels more designer/Mac friendly and it’s open source. But what I REALLY want is the Formlabs Form 1 Stereolithography printer. It provides lots of detail, and you don’t see any of the layering lines. Plus the objects just look cool coming out of the liquid resin