Jakob Sperry has had a love of creating things with his hands his entire (albeit short — he’s only 15 years old) life. He got his start in woodworking, creating projects in computer-aided design and then bringing them to life on his workbench (which he also made). One day, Sperry found an online design for two interlocking rings. Realizing he could turn the design into a toy using the 3-D printer at his dad’s work, he made the center spherical and made five concentric rings spin around it, creating what he calls GyRings. Sperry has now sold over 1,000 GyRings through his website and local retailers, and he has signed a licensing deal to get his invention into major national retail chains.
Sperry’s story illustrates how 3-D printing is empowering inventors to become entrepreneurs. If your invention is stuck in the concept phase, here are four steps to get it ready for 3-D printing.
Understand the 3-D Printing Process
To begin, it is important to understand the 3-D printing process and how it differs from traditional injection molding. The injection molding process uses a ram injector or reciprocating screw to feed materials such as thermoplastic through a hot barrel into a mold cavity for mixing, cooling and hardening. After hardening, the results can be used to make molds out of substances such as aluminum or steel.
In contrast, 3-D printing uses an additive process that creates objects in layers. For example, in stereolithography (SLA) 3-D printing, computer-aided design or manufacturing software directs an ultraviolet laser in drawing a shape over a vat of photopolymer resin. This makes the photosensitive material solidify in layers. The process continues adding multiple layers until the desired shape is complete.
The 3-D printing process creates less waste than traditional processes, which can lower the costs of prototyping and production as well as speed up production time. Additionally, 3-D printing can use new materials not available in traditional injection molding, and can also create more flexible designs due to the digital basis of 3-D design. For instance, o-ring supplier Apple Rubber offers a selection of over 7,000 sizes of o-rings in a wide variety of materials suitable for specialized applications, such as automotive engines, aircraft and medical seals.
While 3-D printing has some advantages over injection molding, traditional processes remain useful for large-scale production runs and certain other types of projects. Currently, 3-D printing is most cost-efficient for small production runs of 1,500 items or less. This makes 3-D printing most suitable for prototyping, although it can also be useful for production. Do a cost comparison by getting estimates before deciding whether to go with 3-D printing or traditional injection molding.
Start With a 3-D Model
The 3-D printing process begins with a 3-D model. You can make a model on a PC, Mac or Linux by using a program such as SketchUp or Blender, or if you’re working from a web browser, you can use an app such as 123-D Catch. You can also use scanned or downloaded images obtained from the Internet.
Three-dimensional printing files use a format called STL, which stands for STereoLithography. STL files use 3-D coordinates to define the surface shape of 3-D objects. You can use programs such as ViewSTL to view STL files.
STL code must be checked and edited before use. This can be done using tools such as Meshmixer. If you don’t know how to use these various programs, you can hire a 3-D printing firm or engineer to assist you. 3-D Printing for Beginners provides an introductory guide to some of today’s more popular 3-D printing programs.
Convert Your File for Transmission
In order for an STL file to be sent to a printer, its 3-D coordinates must be converted into 2-D layers. This is done with a program called a slicer. Slicers use G-code, a language for giving instructions to automated machine tools. A free beginners slicer program that works for PC, Mac and Linux is Cura, which is compatible with leading 3-D printers such as Makerbot, RepRap and Ultimaker.
When Cura is connected to your PC, it can also be used as printer host software to directly control your printer. Octoprint is a program professionals use for 3-D printer hosting.
Locate 3-D Printing Resources
Finally, to turn your slicer file into a printed object, you will need access to 3-D printing resources. Directory services such as Treatstock can help you locate a 3-D printing service in the U.S. or other countries. UPS also offers 3-D printing services along with shipping.
If you prefer to buy your own 3-D printer, All3-DP provides reviews of printers at a wide range of price points. To learn more about how to do your own 3-D printing, you can take online courses from resources such as Coursera.