Begin learning about 3-D printing by checking out Web sites and publications. Suggestions include What is 3D Printing? (https://3dprinting.com/what-is-3d-printing); What is Additive Manufacturing? (https://www.ge.com/additive/additive-manufacturing); and the Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing (https://3dprintingindustry.com/3d-printing-basics-free-beginners-guide). Watch the movie Print the Legend, which spotlights the history and achievements of several 3-D printing companies, including MakerBot, 3D Systems, Formlabs, and Stratasys.
The manufacturing engineering association SME offers an annual Digital Manufacturing Challenge in which contestants use additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques to solve real-world problems. It's open to both high school and college students. Visit https://www.sme.org/aboutsme/awards/digital-manufacturing-challenge to learn more.
One of the best ways to learn more about 3-D printing is to try out a 3-D printer at your school, local library, or park district. As you gain hands-on experience, you’ll soon learn if you like this field and want to further explore it by taking a class or even asking your parents to purchase a 3-D printer (consumer models are still relatively pricey but can be purchased for less than $300).
The use of 3-D printing technology has vastly changed the way some products are manufactured. In the past, most products were created by cutting away or molding material; 3-D printing involves the use of a laser to melt powders, wire, or other raw materials to apply layer after layer until the product is completed. The use of 3-D printing technology has also expanded the places in which products can be manufactured. In the past, most mass-produced products were manufactured in factories. Today, 3-D printing allows products to be not only created in factories, but also manufactured in business offices, laboratories, research facilities, people’s homes, and even in the field (for example, the military and oil and gas companies use 3-D printing technology to manufacture replacement parts in remote locations). The use of 3-D printing technology is also useful because it allows manufacturers to create customized products (i.e., endless combinations of colors, shapes, and sizes) when and for how long they want to. It’s much harder to achieve that flexibility in large-scale, traditional manufacturing.
The phrase “3-D printing specialist” covers a wide range of careers that require different levels of knowledge and training. The following paragraphs describe some popular occupational paths in 3-D printing.
Software developers design, test, and debug 3-D printer software, computer-aided design and manufacturing software, and systems software that operates large-scale 3-D printing machinery in factories. They also work on issues such as software/hardware integration, systems automation, user interface and experience design, cloud-based 3-D printing solutions, and server administration.
Materials scientists conduct research to develop next generation 3-D printing materials. They work with engineers and technicians to improve existing 3-D printing materials and printing processes. They are extremely knowledgeable about photoactive resins, metal powders, thermoplastic powders, and other substances used in the 3-D printing process. Materials scientists also conduct tests and write reports that provide information on the chemical properties of completed 3-D products.
Many types of engineers work in 3-D printing. Hardware and mechanical engineers design, test, and develop 3-D printing technology—from the basic printers that are designed for home use, to the highly complex ones that are used by industry. Software engineers work with software developers to design and develop 3-D technology. Materials engineers and chemical engineers work with materials scientists to develop and test 3-D printing materials and printing processes. They also provide expertise regarding the materials that are used in 3-D printing. Industrial engineers study production processes and the activities of workers to improve efficiency.
3-D printing technicians operate 3-D printers, oversee print preparation software (which may be different at each employer), and otherwise ensure that the equipment and software work as designed. They also prepare digital files for printing, which may include the need to adjust and format them to match the unique specifications of a particular printer in order to achieve the highest-quality product.
3-D printing service technicians maintain and repair 3-D printers, perform systems upgrades, and provide advice to employers on equipment upkeep and new 3-D printing software and hardware.