In 3-D printing, hundreds or thousands of layers of material are “printed” layer upon layer using various materials, or “inks,”2 most commonly plastic polymers and metals. The many different printing technologies are generally material dependent. (See the sidebar “3-D printing technologies.”) For instance, fused filament fabrication (FFF) is used with plastics, stereolithography with photosensitive polymers, laser sintering with metals, and so on.
3-D printing technologies
The printers must be improved in three areas to seize the opportunities that exist beyond today’s predominant use case of rapid prototyping:
Performance: Improve key performance characteristics, such as speed, resolution, autonomous operation, ease of use, reliability, and repeatability.
Multi-material capability and diversity: Incorporate multiple types of materials, including the ability to mix materials while printing a single object.
Finished products: Provide the ability to print fully functional and active systems that incorporate many modules, such as embedded sensors, batteries, electronics, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and others.
Today’s 3-D printers are concentrated at two ends of a spectrum: high cost–high capability and low cost–low capability. (See Figure 2.) High-end printers are generally targeted at enterprises and 3-D printing service bureaus; low-end printers, which are often derivatives of open source RepRap3 printers, are targeted at consumers and hobbyists.
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