Paper 3D printing might not change the world, but it could be the fun, accessible technology that pushes 3D printing into the mainstream.
Producing customizable, colorful toys and models is one way in which paper 3D printing can enrich our lives, but paper can also be used to create full color prototypes and models for architecture and other uses.
Part 1: The Science Behind Paper 3D Printing
Paper 3D printing may seem strange in theory. As a material that burns easily, more common methods of 3D printing such as FDM or SLS are an impossibility. What’s more, unless you are skilled with your hands, paper is extremely difficult to manipulate. Forming paper into complex structures is a near impossibility.
That is where we introduce Dutch engineer Beer Holthuis. A graduate of the Design Academy Eindhoven, Beer observed two things: our enormous amount of paper waste, and the lack of recyclable materials used in 3D printing.
Across the world, around 80 kilograms of paper and paperboard is used annually per person. Additionally, 3D printing’s development has not yet reached a stage where environmentally friendly materials are widespread. Bar PLA, most plastic filaments are not biodegradable, and rarely made from recycled sources.
In the earliest stages of paper 3D printing, reusable molds were manufactured with plastic to produce 3D parts using paper pulp. Beer, however, is among the first to pioneer new methods of 3D printing entirely using paper, of which there are a number of similar, yet distinct, techniques.
Paper 3D Printing Technologies
Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM)
LOM is the primary technology leading the drive towards mainstream adoption of paper 3D printing, and it is the technique capitalized upon by Beer Holthuis.
LOM was first invented, however, by Cubic Technologies (then called Helisys Inc). The process involves depositing individual layers of adhesive-treated paper material onto the printer’s build plate, which is then laminated with a heat roller. The layers are then all glued together, before a laser or blade cuts out the desired geometry for the shape to produce a finished part.
While the technique can also be used for plastic and metal, here paper is soaked in adhesive to allow layers to form and make the gluing process easier. Beer has improved the technology by using recycled paper pulp suspended in resin that is deposited to form the layers. Not only does this make paper 3D printing more environmentally friendly, but also makes the process much quicker.
Selective Deposition Lamination
Though SDL also uses a laser to cut shapes into paper, this method differs slightly. Where LOM glues all layers together and cuts shapes from that block, SDL cuts during the production of each layer, then laminates those. It was invented in 2003 by brothers Conor and Fintan MacCormack, and was designed to drastically lower to operating costs of expensive competitors at the time.
A technique used today by companies such as Clean Green 3D, this not only reduces the amount of energy waste by streamlining the lamination stage, but also allows for not just full color, but multicolor production, one of the biggest benefits working in paper 3D printing’s favor.
These intricacies do add to production time; Clean Green 3D say that their CG-1 printers are able to produce 3D models that are recyclable, tactile and biodegradable, making this sector the cleanest in the industry.
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Part 2: Applications of Paper 3D Printing
Prototypes and Architectural Models
While 3D printing in general is a largely a prototyping technology, LOM and SDL are among the most effective at this. Paper 3D printing allows companies from a range of different industries to quickly, cleanly, cheaply and repeatedly craft product prototypes to visualize a final design in physical form. Traditional manufacturing methods simply cannot compete.
Unlike what would be expected, these paper models are surprisingly robust. While paper 3D printing has few practical industrial applications, prototypes can withstand a respectable amount of strain, and paper 3D prints have been used as tools, furniture, or even architectural models.
Paper 3D models are a drastically cheaper alternative than the plastic or metal models used previously, and allow architects to present a more substantial and tactile image to their clients as opposed to the currently widespread use of Virtual Reality. Everything from houses to skyscrapers are possible.
With product development a major cost factor for companies, paper 3D printing is announcing itself as a useful technology in reducing the costly waste that this entails. 3D printed paper prototypes are the cleanest and most cost-efficient choices for the job.
Paper 3D printing has a number of benefits that make geological mapping and wildlife conservation easier than ever before. With these techniques, 3D models of terrain can be accurately produced which are far easier to understand than a 2D map or even a computer model.
Moreover, with the ability to add color, conservationists are able to plot not only altitude, but species movement, weather, foliage and topography, making route planning and equipment preparation simpler, and reducing transport costs and unnecessary luggage.
Toys and Minifigures
On a more jovial note, paper 3D printing is a perfect way of making a range of toys, figurines and gaming components that can add a touch of personalization to any gaming session.
Whether it be action figures or accessories for children, safe playthings that won’t shatter like plastic can, or even miniatures for use in board games, paper 3D printing can create something unique and vibrant.
This also has the added benefit of increasing customization options for color and design. Making a lookalike Dungeons and Dragons avatar but with rippling muscles and a giant sword is a dream for any gamer, and can add a touch of reality to immerse yourself in.
See also: Our list of the best 3D printers for miniatures.
Part 3: The Pros and Cons of Paper 3D Printing
Almost every aspect of paper 3D printing is cheaper than any alternative you’ll find, at about 5% the cost per volume of standard 3D printers. The paper material is cheaper than plastic or metal filaments and the energy costs are lower due to the reduction in heating, using only a heat roller and laser as opposed to melting plastic or metal. This makes it one of the most cost-efficient 3D printing technologies on the market today.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of paper 3D printing is that there is infinite customizability with color. No other 3D printing method has a comparable level of flexibility in design.
Not only can paper be dyed to custom produce parts based on preference, but with SDL, colors can be changed between layers, with full color models that will bring any design to life. Depending on the product, either LOM or SDL will fulfill your needs.
Again, being set apart from other 3D printable filaments, paper 3D printing supports the use of recyclable and biodegradable material. Paper 3D printing also doesn’t involve much heating, saving energy and making it one of the cleanest methods around.
Lack of Applications
Despite the fact that 3D printed paper products are surprisingly robust and impact resistant, the biggest drawback is that there are few practical applications in which paper is a good choice.
It is biodegradable, which is helpful in being environmentally friendly, but also means that paper parts decay quicker than other materials making it less useful in industries like construction. Its weak parts are easily crushed and are therefore better suited to aesthetic prototypes rather than practical tools.
Lack of Precision
The nature of using blades and lasers to cut layers into shape means that the level of complexity possible with these techniques is drastically lowered. This means that prototypes or models with intricate designs and edges are much more difficult to produce. For producing prototypes with more complexity, using plastics or metals will produce much better results.
Conclusion: How Useful Can Paper 3D Printing Be?
Paper 3D printing has already proven useful in certain situations, but paper’s issues have hindered development. If the structural issues can be fixed, paper could be used far more in industry.
If the limitations of the design complexity can be diminished, many internal mechanical components such as cogs and pulleys can be manufactured as replacements much more quickly and cheaply. These parts experience very little stress and therefore a paper alternative would be not be required to withstand any great force. The main prohibiting factor is that these parts can often be small, with intricate edges, something that is not possible with paper at the moment.
Additionally, while paper does degrade at faster rates than plastic or metal, replacement costs will be low enough that this issue does not bear any real consequences.
The lack of strength is also a hinderance, but one that can only be managed rather than eradicated. Paper is not strong, and while post-processing treatments can help, it will never be strong enough to have industrial applications.
One interesting avenue in which paper is finding some use is fashion. Research has been conducted to explore 3D printing technology in general as a means to achieving zero emissions in the fashion and jewelry industry, and other experts have claimed that using paper 3D printing would be a benefit by rapidly and cleanly producing garment prototypes.
See also: our deep dive into the world of 3D printed fashion.
With paper 3D printing continuing to develop, perhaps it won’t be long until we see its fun and colorful potential arrive in our homes.