3D printing is a technology that has been around for more than 30 years but now it is developing ever faster. And like many revolutionary inventions, the 3D printer first appeared in science fiction. The British writer Arthur Clark first described its main features back in 1964. The first such printer was released in 1987 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems, after which other 3D printing technologies appeared.
Industrial 3D printing is the most developed area, but healthcare and medicine is among the most promising niches. The movie industry is not to be underestimated as well - Iron Man's armor is made on a 3D printer. In the last few years, this business has grown dynamically as there has been an accumulation of knowledge. However, many industries have not yet considered using the benefits of this modern technology.
In Bulgaria, 3D printing is currently used most widely in the R&D and creation of new products. This allows the products to be tested before they are mass-produced. Here we have many product-oriented companies that innovate and penetrate markets around the world. The technology can go beyond prototyping and become more widely used in the production process. However, high-quality professional equipment is still very expensive and there is room for healthy competition to push prices down. Another hurdle is speed - generally printing is slow. But in recent years, there has been a shift towards personalization, and when there is a need for individual pieces, a niche for 3D printing opens, explains Dimo Dimov of Solid Fill. In his opinion, what is preventing the widespread use of the technology for mass purposes is the lack of a universal machine. Now there are several different technologies, each with its pros and cons.
Speed may be a disadvantage in general, but not in the production of single units. In addition, the products are made with an overlay, which makes it possible to achieve a level of geometry which was previously unattainable. That way, engineers are breaking another barrier when designing new devices. This technology decentralizes production, because through digital files, the production of a product can be done anywhere in the world, including in our country, where there are suitable conditions for it. However, that is how the most serious problem emerges as well - the copyright of 3D models. Once they are sent out for printing, someone who does not hold the rights could profit from them. This is a technical and legal issue that will probably get an adequate solution in the future, Dimo Dimov hopes.
There are printers that use photopolymers, which are able to work with up to six materials simultaneously, and with this technology realistic models are created. If such a model is to be made by conventional methods, it would take more time and more resources. FDM technology that works with plastics, which are widely used in the industry, is gaining popularity in Bulgaria. It allows the creation of products in small batches upon request. Direct production of finished products via 3D printing is much cheaper than creating a tool for making only a few pieces, says Velin Nedyalkov, Sales Manager of 3D Solutions at Technologica.
Machine speed is not a real advantage, but still it is gradually increasing. The same goes for the speed with which 3D printing develops, says Daniel Hristov, B2N Sales Manager - a distributor of 3D printers and 3D scanners throughout Eastern Europe. 3D technologies are used for prototyping and small series of parts, spare parts for machines, in dentistry, jewelry, architecture. This technology is rapidly advancing because it offers solutions to specific problems, says Daniel Hristov.
3D printing is available to both young and old. Ivan Spirov, an eleventh grade student at the American College in Sofia, is convinced that this technology will be used in a wide variety of fields – no matter if you are majoring in physics, biology, genetics, robotics, medicine, engineering or architecture, this skill will be useful. Boris Atanasov is a 3D designer and he is highly anticipating the time when there will be a demand for 3D models, which people will buy and print out in a specialized studio or at home.
3D printing will remain unmatched when rapid production of low-cost parts is required or when product geometry cannot be fabricated using other technology. That precisely would be the engine of development.