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What is Stereolithography,Rapid prototyping and 3D Printers

Updated on January 10, 2012

Where future meets present in technology

Stereolithography, Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printers are not new to the industry of industrial product design and or the making of prototypes.

The terms used may seem a little odd at first, but once you understand what is Stereolithography, rapid prototyping and what a 3D printer is, you will realize how often you may have seen this technique used or on some TV program you may enjoy.

Lets break them down into each category to better understand what each is.

What is Stereolithography ?

Stereolithography is a process used in which to manufacture first time parts or prototypes whilst the designers run through the trials associated with flaws and presentation to various departments during the design and research phases of a project.

Size of these products are limited, but the stereolithographic process is used mostly by large corporations due to the expenses of the stereolithographic machines and the material used in the processes.

Let us look at the design of a new car for example. The first stage in the design process is to render an artists impression of the desired prototype automobile.From this sketch, a team of designers will build a small scale model using clay to establish if the dimensions and general look and feel of the automobile is good. Once the design team is happy, they will reduce the scale model to a Computer Aided Design (CAD) blueprint by using specialized measuring robotics. The CAD drawing is now sharpened to remove any flaws. It is then enlarged to reflect the real life dimensions of the prototype automobile.

Again the designers will build a clay model to ensure that the real life size model is to their satisfaction and meets everyone's departmental approval.

It is now ready to be measure again using the robotics processes to ensure accuracy and reduced to a CAD Drawing on the computer.

The stereolithographic process is now ready to begin.Because it is difficult to make the full real life size model into a more durable material in once fowl swoop, the following process explains stereolithographic principles.

There are 3 basic fundamentals to understand:

  1. The part is built up in layers that are fractions of inches or centimetres.
  2. The process uses a spray on resin based polymer to build the layers.
  3. The process uses a laser to cut each layer as it is built into the 3d part.

Picture a loaf of bread being cut into slices.As you add back each slice of the bread, it will start to form the original loaf. The same process is used. The CAD Drawing is cut into slices extremely thinly and slowly built up by the following until the product is complete.

  1. Program the first layer into the machine from the CAD Drawing
  2. Spray a layer and let it dry
  3. Cut the shape for that layer using a laser cutting tool.
  4. Spray the next layer and let it dry
  5. Cut the next layer and slowly allowing the layers being built one on top of the other to take shape into the product being designed.

Now lets take a look at Rapid Prototyping.

What is Rapid Prototyping ?

Rapid Protyping is generally the same principle accepted above in the stereolithographic process.

The term rapid prototyping is more mainstream and a coined phrase for most of the 3d printing processes in the design fields.

The public now uses 3d printing as its preferred coin phrase as the process grows in popularity.Some people may argue the the process used in rapid prototyping is not the same in that the material used may be different like metals or plastics as opposed to resin based polymers and powder based products.

The term "rapid" has been adopted as this method is usually chosen to make smaller products and shorts runs in the manufacturing process.

Lets look at 3d printing now.

Create your own lego or toys with 3d printing

3d printing allows you to be creative
3d printing allows you to be creative

What is a 3D Printer ?

A 3d printer as strange as the concept may be to some folks is just that which it suggests.

3D printing is at that stage whereby most home users and DIY enthusiast are able to afford to purchase their very own 3d printer for themselves. Retailing at about $2200 , this is reasonably affordable in relation to the average computer configuration used by the technology conscious.For industrial type applications, you could expect to pay in the region of $150 000.

3d printing technology uses a slighly different process to build the products, but still uses the CAD Drawing as its template.Software is being upgraded on a daily basis as computer programmers participate in collaborations to improve what is available for 3d printing software.

Apart form the affordability of 3d printers, their user friendly ability and relatively simple processes allow many to use them with ease. The process is similar in nature to the operatiion of a laser jet printer in that the printer is able to spray the powder/polymer instead of ink into a layer by layer built product.

The fact that it has become simple enough to create small items at home will most definitely spawn businesses in the near future that offer creative 3d drawings that are easily downloaded off the internet and produced into little models at home.These can then be hand painted and may even produce better quality toys and nick nacks than presently available via alternative options


Add CAD if you do not have it yet - free shipping options

You can get started today with your own 3d printer - free shipping options

Now consider what you have learnt

By understanding the above principles and explanations, it is easy to understand the impact of stereolithography, rapid prototyping and 3d printers in everyday use.

In so far as technology is concerned, this is not a new principle.The interesting part is that in the same way as the computer grew leaps and bounds in the early 90's, so has the ability for these methods of creativity to reduce size and become compact and affordable enough for most households to set up the necessary hardware and software in order to begin their own home based business ventures in the design and creative niche.

Many folks have great ideas that before now have been just to costly to have an impact on the industrial giants that seem to have cornered the markets in so many ways. Now it is easy and cost effective enough to design and create a prototype that can be taken to patent lawyers and a physical product used for presentation.

Look around your home at the variety of little doodads that you use in every day life that where in the past most difficult for their designed to market and get into production.

Be it metal, rubber, plastic or wood, the ability to set up stereolithography, rapid prototyping or 3d printers in your own home is now a reality for everyone.

Hope this has shed some light on these fantastic methods of production and causes you to do more research into that dream of yours to invent something new.

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