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How to Get Your Invention Prepared for 3-D Printing

Eight-year-old Kaori Misue was born without any fingers on her left hand, but she now has two working hands, thanks to 21-year-old Argentine inventor Gino Tubaro’s innovative use of 3-D printing, the Daily Mail reports. Misue can now do art projects at school, bake with her mother, jump rope and ride a bike by using plastic prosthetic fingers flexed by her wrist muscles. She is one of over 500 children and adults in Argentina who have benefitted from Tubaro’s designs, assisted by crowdsourcing through Project LIMBS, which connects 3-D printer owners with people who need prosthetics printed.

Tubaro’s project illustrates the potential that 3-D printing is opening up for inventors. Here is some information, tips and resources to help get your invention ready for 3-D printing.

The Advantages of Using 3-D Printing over Injection Molding

For inventors, 3-D printing represents a more economical alternative to injection molding, which is usually used for most prototypes formed from plastic and other materials. Injection molding forms molds from materials such as thermoplastic and thermosetting plastics by funneling the material through a heated barrel to be mixed. A ram injector or reciprocating screw then forces the material into a mold cavity for cooling and hardening. The molded material can then be used to make molds out of aluminum or steel or other materials.

Injection molding has its benefits, but one of its cons is that metal molds take significant time to make and can be costly. Stereolithography (SLA) 3-D printing speeds up this process and cuts costs by using plastic instead of metal. The SLA process begins with a virtual mold created by computer-aided design or manufacturing software. This virtual mold directs an ultraviolet laser as it traces an outline over a tank full of molding material made from photopolymer resin. This solidifies a layer of the material. The laser repeats the process to add multiple layers until a three-dimensional object has been fully formed. In addition to SLA printing, there are over half a dozen other types of 3-D printing that use similar principles, All3DP says.

The 3-D printing process dramatically speeds up prototyping and production time and lowers production costs. Three-dimensional printing also enables a wider range of materials to be used. For instance, o-ring supplier Apple Rubber provides parts for specialized applications such as medical supply seals by using materials such as viton, a fluorocarbon with high temperature and chemical resistance. Other possible 3-D printing materials include metal, ceramics, nylon, and even biomaterials.

Using 3-D Printing Software

The first step in the 3-D printing process is creating a 3-D virtual model. You can do this in a program that works on a PC, Mac or Linux system, such as Blender and SketchUp. You can also use a web browser-based program, like 123-D Catch. Other ways to create 3-D models are to scan in 3-D images or to download them from websites.

Three-dimensional printing models use a format called STereoLithography (STL) to define the coordinates of 3-D objects. The format does not include details about properties such as color or texture. To view STL files, you can use a program such as ViewSTL. You can also test and edit STL code using advanced tools such as Meshmixer. 3-D Printing for Beginners provides an online overview of 3-D printing software tools and options.

Sending 3-D Printing Instructions

In order to transmit an STL file to a 3-D printer, the three-dimensional instructions must first be converted into two-dimensional “slices” by a program known as a slicer. Slicers are written in a computer language used to run automated machine tools known as G-code. A freeware slicer program accessible to beginners is Cura, which runs on PC, Mac and Lux systems. Cura is compatible with popular 3-D printers, including Makerbot, RepRap and Ultimaker.

Cura can also function as printer host software for directly controlling your printer through your PC. Octoprint is another popular program used for 3-D printer hosting.

Finding 3-D Printing Resources

You can learn more about how to do 3-D printing through online lessons from sites such as 3-DPrint.com and 3-D Printing for Beginners. The most efficient way to use a 3-D printer is to outsource to a 3-D printing service. You can also buy your own 3-D printer.


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