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How Does 3D Printing Work?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- 3D printing technology is now 35 years old, but it's constantly growing at lightning speed.

"It's pretty much limitless what you can 3D print," says Tyler Pope, and engineer and partner at 3D Printing Ally in Eden Prairie.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota are working on 3D printing electronics on human skin. Shoe manufacturers, like Nike and Adidas, are now creating 3D printed sneakers.

At 3D Printing Ally, most of their business comes from medical device companies who want to test their product before mass production. They have five different printers, each of which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and run 24 hours a day.

"If something is low volume and highly complex, it's perfect for 3D printing," says Pope.

3D printing works layer by layer. It starts with a base layers and works its way up.  The layers can range from 2/1000th to 13/1000ths of an inch. Some products take two hours to print, while others can take up to 40.

While the layering concept is the basis for 3D printing, there are a number of different ways to print. Some machines melt a powder into a solid, and another uses a laser to harden a liquid into a solid.

The most common kind of 3D printing, FDM (fused deposition modeling), works like a hot glue gun.

"It's a hot tip extruding out plastic layer by layer," says Pope.

In some cases, customers will bring Pope the product they want copied. But, in most cases, the customers will send a computer design that can be transferred to the printers.

He says the popularity of home 3D printers has brought a boon to their business.

"I got into it at the same time," Pope says. "But the nice thing is that it's exposing people to 3D printing so they can see what's possible."

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