What is 3D printing?
3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file.
The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.
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How does 3D printing work?
It all starts with making a virtual design of the object you want to create. This virtual design is for instance a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file. This CAD file is created using a 3D modeling application or with a 3D scanner (to copy an existing object). A 3D scanner can make a 3D digital copy of an object.
3D scanners use different technologies to generate a 3D model. Examples are: time-of-flight, structured / modulated light, volumetric scanning and many more.
Recently, companies like Microsoft and Google enabled their hardware to perform 3D scanning, for example Microsoft’s Kinect. In the near future digitising real objects into 3D models will become as easy as taking a picture. Future versions of smartphones will probably have integrated 3D scanners.
Currently, prices of 3D scanners range from expensive professional industrial devices to $30 DIY scanners anyone can make at home.
3D modeling software
3D modeling software also comes in many forms. There’s industrial grade software that costs thousands a year per license, but also free open source software, like Blender, for instance. You can find some beginner video tutorials on our Blender tutorials page.
When you are a beginner and the amount of choices are a bit overwhelming, we recommend to start with Tinkercad. Tinkercad has a free version and it works in browsers that support WebGL, for instance Google Chrome. They offer beginner lessons and has a built in option to get your object printed via various 3D printing services.
When you have a 3D model, the next step is to prepare it in order to make it 3D printable.
From 3D model to 3D printer
You will have to prepare a 3D model before it is ready to be 3D printed. This is what they call slicing. Slicing is dividing a 3D model into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers and needs to be done with software.
Sometimes a 3D model can be sliced from within a 3D modeling software application. It is also possible that you are forced to use a certain slicing tool for a certain 3D printer.
When the 3D model is sliced, you are ready to feed it to your 3D printer. This can be done via USB, SD or wifi. It really depends on what brand and type 3D Printer you have.
When a file is uploaded in a 3D printer, the object is ready to be 3D printed layer by layer. The 3D printer reads every slice (2D image) and creates a three dimensional object.
Getting started with 3D Printing
Getting started with 3D printing means asking yourself what you would like to learn first. Are you interested in the hardware, or do you want to focus on creating objects?
We’ve created a 3D printers for beginners buyers guide to help you decide if you should choose a pre-assembled 3D Printer or a 3D printer kit.
In case you have a tight budget and you want to start your journey into learning 3D printing, cheap 3D printer kits can be a great starting point. If you are interested in going this route, please read our article about cheap 3D printer kits. This article explains what to look for when you’re comparing DIY kits.
What is the best 3D printer for you?
So what is the best 3D Printer? As you can imagine, we get that question a lot. It depends on a few things. For example:
Let’s say you are a tinkerer who’s using a 3D printer in the garage to create replacement parts, then resolution (how smooth your objects surface is) is probably less important and creating strong parts in less time is more important. If you’re into character design and you want to print complex miniatures, then resolution is really important and you’re probably okay with longer print times.
Tinkerers who belong to the first example will probably go for an FFF / FDM printer, because these are relatively fast and able to print with 300 microns layer heights. You can also choose from a wide range of specialty filament.
Tinkerers who belong to the second example might consider an SLA printer. 3D printers with this SLA technology can reach really high detailed surfaces, as much as 20 microns.
Besides the examples above, there are a whole lot of different elements which will help decide what the best 3D printer is for you. Will it be used in the classroom? Will it be used for small batch production? For more information about this, please read our Best 3D Printer buyers guide.
Different types of 3D Printing technologies and Processes
Not all 3D printers use the same technology. There are several ways to print and all those available are additive, differing mainly in the way layers are build to create the final object.
Some methods use melting or softening material to produce the layers. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) are the most common technologies using this way of 3D printing. Another method is when we talk about curing a photo-reactive resin with a UV laser or another similar power source one layer at a time. The most common technology using this method is called Stereolithography (SLA).
To be more precise: since 2010, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) group “ASTM F42 – Additive Manufacturing”, developed a set of standards that classify the Additive Manufacturing processes into 7 categories according to Standard Terminology for Additive Manufacturing Technologies. These seven processes are:
- Vat Photopolymerisation
- Material Jetting
- Binder Jetting
- Material Extrusion
- Powder Bed Fusion
- Sheet Lamination
- Directed Energy Deposition
Below you’ll find a short explanation of all of seven processes for 3D printing:
A 3D printer based on the Vat Photopolymerisation method has a container filled with photopolymer resin which is then hardened with a UV light source.
The most commonly used technology in this processes is Stereolithography (SLA). This technology employs a vat of liquid ultraviolet curable photopolymer resin and an ultraviolet laser to build the object’s layers one at a time. For each layer, the laser beam traces a cross-section of the part pattern on the surface of the liquid resin. Exposure to the ultraviolet laser light cures and solidifies the pattern traced on the resin and joins it to the layer below.
After the pattern has been traced, the SLA’s elevator platform descends by a distance equal to the thickness of a single layer, typically 0.05 mm to 0.15 mm (0.002″ to 0.006″). Then, a resin-filled blade sweeps across the cross section of the part, re-coating it with fresh material. On this new liquid surface, the subsequent layer pattern is traced, joining the previous layer. The complete three dimensional object is formed by this project. Stereolithography requires the use of supporting structures which serve to attach the part to the elevator platform and to hold the object because it floats in the basin filled with liquid resin. These are removed manually after the object is finished.
This technique was invented in 1986 by Charles Hull, who also at the time founded the company, 3D Systems.
Digital Light Processing (DLP)
DLP or Digital Light Processing refers to a method of printing that makes use of light and photosensitive polymers. While it is very similar to stereolithography, the key difference is the light-source. DLP utilises traditional light-sources like arc lamps.
In most forms of DLP, each layer of the desired structure is projected onto a vat of liquid resin that is then solidified layer by layer as the buildplate moves up or down. As the process does each layer successively, it is quicker than most forms of 3D printing.
The Envision Tec Ultra, MiiCraft High Resolution 3D printer, and Lunavast XG2 are examples of DLP printers. Companies that specialise in DLP technology include ONO and Carbon (who invented a subtype of DLP called CLIP).
Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP)
Other technologies using Vat Photopolymerisation are the new ultrafast Continuous Liquid Interface Production or CLIP and marginally used older Film Transfer Imaging and Solid Ground Curing.
In this process, material is applied in droplets through a small diameter nozzle, similar to the way a common inkjet paper printer works, but it is applied layer-by-layer to a build platform making a 3D object and then hardened by UV light.
With binder jetting two materials are used: powder base material and a liquid binder. In the build chamber, powder is spread in equal layers and binder is applied through jet nozzles that “glue” the powder particles in the shape of a programmed 3D object. The finished object is “glued together” by binder remains in the container with the powder base material. After the print is finished, the remaining powder is cleaned off and used for 3D printing the next object. This technology was first developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993 and in 1995 Z Corporation obtained an exclusive license.
The following video shows a high-end binder jetting based 3D printer, the ExOne M-Flex. This 3D printer uses metal powder and curing after the binding material is applied.
The most commonly used technology in this process is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
The FDM technology works using a plastic filament or metal wire which is unwound from a coil and supplying material to an extrusion nozzle which can turn the flow on and off. The nozzle is heated to melt the material and can be moved in both horizontal and vertical directions by a numerically controlled mechanism, directly controlled by a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software package. The object is produced by extruding melted material to form layers as the material hardens immediately after extrusion from the nozzle. This technology is most widely used with two plastic filament material types: ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (Polylactic acid). Though many other materials are available ranging in properties from wood fill to flexible and even conductive materials.
FDM was invented by Scott Crump in the late 80’s. After patenting this technology he started the company Stratasys in 1988. The software that comes with this technology automatically generates support structures if required. The machine dispenses two materials, one for the model and one for a disposable support structure.
The term fused deposition modeling and its abbreviation to FDM are trademarked by Stratasys Inc.
Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)
The exactly equivalent term, Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), was coined by the members of the RepRap project to give a phrase that would be legally unconstrained in its use.
Powder Bed Fusion
The most commonly used technology in this processes is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS uses a high power laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders into a mass that has the desired three dimensional shape. The laser selectively fuses the powdered material by scanning the cross-sections (or layers) generated by the 3D modeling program on the surface of a powder bed. After each cross-section is scanned, the powder bed is lowered by one layer thickness. Then a new layer of material is applied on top and the process is repeated until the object is completed.
All untouched powder remains as it is and becomes a support structure for the object. Therefore there is no need for any support structure which is an advantage over SLS and SLA. All unused powder can be used for the next print. SLS was developed and patented by Dr. Carl Deckard at the University of Texas in the mid-1980s, under sponsorship of DARPA.
Sheet lamination involves material in sheets which is bound together with external force. Sheets can be metal, paper or a form of polymer. Metal sheets are welded together by ultrasonic welding in layers and then CNC milled into a proper shape. Paper sheets can be used also, but they are glued by adhesive glue and cut in shape by precise blades. A leading company in this field is Mcor Technologies.
Here is a video with a metal sheet 3D printer by Fabrisonic that uses additive manufacturing paired with CNC milling:
… and here is an overview of Mcor 3D printers that use standard A4 paper sheets:
Directed Energy Deposition
This process is mostly used in the high-tech metal industry and in rapid manufacturing applications. The 3D printing apparatus is usually attached to a multi-axis robotic arm and consists of a nozzle that deposits metal powder or wire on a surface and an energy source (laser, electron beam or plasma arc) that melts it, forming a solid object.
Sciaky is a major tech company in this area and here is their video presentation showing electron beam additive manufacturing:
Examples & applications of 3D printing
Applications include rapid prototyping, architectural scale models & maquettes, healthcare (3D printed prosthetics and 3D printing with human tissue) and entertainment (e.g. movie props).
Other examples of 3D printing would include reconstructing fossils in paleontology, replicating ancient artifacts in archaeology, reconstructing bones and body parts in forensic pathology and reconstructing heavily damaged evidence acquired from crime scene investigations.
3D printing industry
The worldwide 3D printing industry is expected to grow from $3.07B in revenue in 2013 to $12.8B by 2018, and exceed $21B in worldwide revenue by 2020. As it evolves, 3D printing technology is destined to transform almost every major industry and change the way we live, work, and play in the future.
Source: Wohlers Report 2015
The outlook for medical use of 3D printing is evolving at an extremely rapid pace as specialists are beginning to utilize 3D printing in more advanced ways. Patients around the world are experiencing improved quality of care through 3D printed implants and prosthetics never before seen.
As of the early two-thousands 3D printing technology has been studied by biotech firms and academia for possible use in tissue engineering applications where organs and body parts are built using inkjet techniques. Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures. We refer to this field of research with the term: bio-printing.
Aerospace & aviation industries
The growth in utilisation of 3D printing in the aerospace and aviation industries can, for a large part, be derived from the developments in the metal additive manufacturing sector.
NASA for instance prints combustion chamber liners using selective laser melting and as of march 2015 the FAA cleared GE Aviation’s first 3D printed jet engine part to fly: a laser sintered housing for a compressor inlet temperature sensor.
Although the automotive industry was among the earliest adopters of 3D printing it has for decades relegated 3D printing technology to low volume prototyping applications.
Nowadays the use of 3D printing in automotive is evolving from relatively simple concept models for fit and finish checks and design verification, to functional parts that are used in test vehicles, engines, and platforms. The expectations are that 3D printing in the automotive industry will generate a combined $1.1 billion dollars by 2019.
Industrial 3D Printing
In the last couple of years the term 3D printing has become more known and the technology has reached a broader public. Still, most people haven’t even heard of the term while the technology has been in use for decades. Especially manufacturers have long used these printers in their design process to create prototypes for traditional manufacturing and research purposes. Using 3D printers for these purposes is called rapid prototyping.
Why use 3D printers in this process you might ask yourself. Now, fast 3D printers can be bought for tens of thousands of dollars and end up saving the companies many times that amount of money in the prototyping process. For example, Nike uses 3D printers to create multi-colored prototypes of shoes. They used to spend thousands of dollars on a prototype and wait weeks for it. Now, the cost is only in the hundreds of dollars, and changes can be made instantly on the computer and the prototype reprinted on the same day.
Besides rapid prototyping, 3D printing is also used for rapid manufacturing. Rapid manufacturing is a new method of manufacturing where companies are using 3D printers for short run custom manufacturing. In this way of manufacturing the printed objects are not prototypes but the actual end user product. Here you can expect more availability of personally customized products.
In the history of manufacturing, subtractive methods have often come first. The province of machining (generating exact shapes with high precision) was generally a subtractive affair, from filing and turning through milling and grinding.
Additive manufacturing’s earliest applications have been on the toolroom end of the manufacturing spectrum. For example, rapid prototyping was one of the earliest additive variants and its mission was to reduce the lead time and cost of developing prototypes of new parts and devices, which was earlier only done with subtractive toolroom methods (typically slowly and expensively). However, as the years go by and technology continually advances, additive methods are moving ever further into the production end of manufacturing. Parts that formerly were the sole province of subtractive methods can now in some cases be made more profitably via additive ones.
However, the real integration of the newer additive technologies into commercial production is essentially a matter of complementing subtractive methods rather than displacing them entirely. Predictions for the future of commercial manufacturing, starting from today’s already- begun infancy period, are that manufacturing firms will need to be flexible, ever-improving users of all available technologies in order to remain competitive.
It is predicted by some additive manufacturing advocates that this technological development will change the nature of commerce, because end users will be able to do much of their own manufacturing rather than engaging in trade to buy products from other people and corporations.
3D printers capable of outputting in colour and multiple materials already exist and will continue to improve to a point where functional products will be able to be output. With effects on energy use, waste reduction, customization, product availability, medicine, art, construction and sciences, 3D printing will change the manufacturing world as we know it.
If you’re interested in more future predictions regarding 3D printing, check out The Future Of Open Fabrication.
Not everybody can afford or is willing to buy their own 3D printer. Does this mean you cannot enjoy the possibilities of 3D printing? No, not to worry. There are 3D printing service bureaus like Shapeways, Ponoko and Sculpteo that can very inexpensively print and deliver an object from a digital file that you simply upload to their website. You can even sell your 3D designs on their website and make a little money out of it!
There are also companies who offer their services business-to-business. When, for instance, you have an architecture practice and you need to build model scales, it is very time consuming doing this the old fashioned way. There are services where you can send your digital model to and they print the building on scale for you to use in client presentations. These kind of services can already be found in a lot of different industries like dental, medical, entertainment and art.
If you don’t have the skills to design your own 3D models, you can still print some very nice objects. 3D marketplaces such as Pinshape and CGTrader contain 3D model files you can download for a small charge or for free.
So what is 3D printing?
Reddit user Flux83 made an awesome meme: