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 cross-section of the object.
3D printing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing which is cutting out / hollowing out a piece of metal or plastic with for instance a milling machine.
3D printing enables you to produce complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
It all starts with a 3D model. You can opt to create one from the ground up or download it from a 3D library.
There are many different software tools available. From industrial grade to open source. We’ve created an overview on our 3D software page.
We often recommend beginners to start with Tinkercad. Tinkercad is free and works in your browser, you don’t have to install it on your computer. Tinkercad offers beginner lessons and has a built-in feature to export your model as a printable file e.g .STL or .OBJ.
Now that you have a printable file, the next step is to prepare it for your 3D printer. This is called slicing.
Slicing: From printable file to 3D Printer
Slicing basically means slicing up a 3D model into hundreds or thousands of layers and is done with slicing software.
When your file is sliced, it’s ready for your 3D printer. Feeding the file to your printer can be done via USB, SD or Wi-Fi. Your sliced file is now ready to be 3D printed layer by layer.
3D Printing Industry
Adoption of 3D printing has reached critical mass as those who have yet to integrate additive manufacturing somewhere in their supply chain are now part of an ever-shrinking minority. Where 3D printing was only suitable for prototyping and one-off manufacturing in the early stages, it is now rapidly transforming into a production technology.
Most of the current demand for 3D printing is industrial in nature. Acumen Research and Consulting forecasts the global 3D printing market to reach $41 billion by 2026.
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.
Examples of 3D Printing
3D printing encompasses many forms of technologies and materials as 3D printing is being used in almost all industries you could think of. It’s important to see it as a cluster of diverse industries with a myriad of different applications.
A few examples:
- – consumer products (eyewear, footwear, design, furniture)
- – industrial products (manufacturing tools, prototypes, functional end-use parts)
- – dental products
- – prosthetics
- – architectural scale models & maquettes
- – reconstructing fossils
- – replicating ancient artefacts
- – reconstructing evidence in forensic pathology
- – movie props
Rapid Prototyping & Rapid Manufacturing
Companies have used 3D printers in their design process to create prototypes since the late seventies. Using 3D printers for these purposes is called rapid prototyping.
Why use 3D Printers for Rapid Prototyping?
In short: it’s fast and relatively cheap. From idea, to 3D model to holding a prototype in your hands is a matter of days instead of weeks. Iterations are easier and cheaper to make and you don’t need expensive molds or tools.
Besides rapid prototyping, 3D printing is also used for rapid manufacturing. Rapid manufacturing is a new method of manufacturing where businesses use 3D printers for short run / small batch custom manufacturing.
Car manufacturers have been utilizing 3D printing for a long time. Automotive companies are printing spare parts, tools, jigs and fixtures but also end-use parts. 3D printing has enabled on-demand manufacturing which has lead to lower stock levels and has shortened design and production cycles.
Automotive enthusiasts all over the world are using 3D printed parts to restore old cars. One such example is when Australian engineers printed parts to bring a Delage Type-C back to life. In doing so, they had to print parts that were out of production for decades.
The aviation industry uses 3D printing in many different ways. The following example marks a significant 3D printing manufacturing milestone: GE Aviation has 3D printed 30,000 Cobalt-chrome fuel nozzles for its LEAP aircraft engines. They achieved that milestone in October of 2018, and considering that they produce 600 per week on forty 3D printers, it’s likely much higher than that now.
Around twenty individual parts that previously had to be welded together were consolidated into one 3D printed component that weighs 25% less and is five times stronger. The LEAP engine is the best selling engine in the aerospace industry due to its high level of efficiency and GE saves $3 million per aircraft by 3D printing the fuel nozzles, so this single 3D printed part generates hundreds of millions of dollars of financial benefit.
GE’s fuel nozzles also made their way into the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but it’s not the only 3D printed part in the 787. The 33-centimeter-long structural fittings that hold the aft kitchen galley to the airframe are 3D printed by a company called Norsk Titanium. Norsk chose to specialize in titanium because it has a very high strength-to-weight ratio and is rather expensive, meaning the reduction in waste enabled by 3D printing has a more significant financial impact than compared to cheaper metals where the costs of material waste are easier to absorb. Rather than sintering metal powder with a laser like most metal 3D printers, the Norsk Merke 4 uses a plasma arc to melt a metal wire in a process called Rapid Plasma Deposition (a form of Directed Energy Deposition) that can deposit up to 10kg of titanium per hour. A 2kg titanium part would generally require a 30kg block of titanium to machine it from, generating 28kg of waste, but 3D printing the same part requires only 6kg of titanium wire.
Is it possible to print a building? – yes it is. 3D printed houses are already commercially available. Some companies print parts prefab and others do it on-site.
Most of the concrete printing stories we look at on this website are focused on large scale concrete printing systems with fairly large nozzles for a large flow rate. It’s great for laying down concrete layers in a fairly quick and repeatable manner. But for truly intricate concrete work that makes full use of the capabilities of 3D printing requires something a little more nimble, and with a finer touch.
When we first started blogging about 3D printing back in 2011, 3D printing wasn’t ready to be used as a production method for large volumes. Nowadays there are numerous examples of end-use 3D printed consumer products.
Adidas’ 4D range has a fully 3D printed midsole and is being printed in large volumes. We did an article back then, explaining how Adidas were initially releasing just 5,000 pairs of the shoes to the public, and had aimed to sell 100,000 pairs of the AM-infused designs by 2018.
With their latest iterations of the shoe, it seems that they have surpassed that goal, or are on their way to surpassing it. The shoes are available all around the world from local Adidas stores and also from various 3rd party online outlets.
The market of 3D printed eyewear is forecasted to reach $3.4 billion by 2028. A rapidly increasing section is that of end-use frames. 3D printing is a particularly suitable production method for eyewear frames because the measurements of an individual are easy to process in the end product.
But did you know it’s also possible to 3D print lenses? Traditional glass lenses don’t start out thin and light; they’re cut from a much larger block of material called a blank, about 80% of which goes to waste. When we consider how many people wear glasses and how often they need to get a new pair, 80% of those numbers is a lot of waste. On top of that, labs have to keep huge inventories of blanks to meet the custom vision needs of their clients. Finally, however, 3D printing technology has advanced enough to provide high-quality, custom ophthalmic lenses, doing away with the waste and inventory costs of the past. The Luxexcel VisionEngine 3D printer uses a UV-curable acrylate monomer to print two pairs of lenses per hour that require no polishing or post-processing of any kind. The focal areas can also be completely customized so that a certain area of the lens can provide better clarity at a distance while a different area of the lens provides better vision up close.
There are two ways of producing jewelry with a 3D printer. You can either use a direct or indirect production process. Direct refers to the creation of an object straight from the 3D design while indirect manufacturing means that the object (pattern) that is 3D printed eventually is used to create a mold for investment casting.
It’s not uncommon these days to see headlines about 3D printed implants. Often, those cases are experimental, which can make it seem like 3D printing is still a fringe technology in the medical and healthcare sectors, but that’s not the case anymore. Over the last decade, more than 100,000 hip replacements have been 3D printed by GE Additive.
The Delta-TT Cup designed by Dr. Guido Grappiolo and LimaCorporate is made of Trabecular Titanium, which is characterized by a regular, three-dimensional, hexagonal cell structure that imitates trabecular bone morphology. The trabecular structure increases the biocompatibility of the titanium by encouraging bone growth into the implant. Some of the first Delta-TT implants are still running strong over a decade later.
Another 3D printed healthcare component that does a good job of being undetectable is the hearing aid. Nearly every hearing aid in the last 17 years has been 3D printed thanks to a collaboration between Materialise and Phonak. Phonak developed Rapid Shell Modeling (RSM) in 2001. Prior to RSM, making one hearing aid required nine laborious steps involving hand sculpting and mold making, and the results were often ill-fitting. With RSM, a technician uses silicone to take an impression of the ear canal, that impression is 3D scanned, and after some minor tweaking the model is 3D printed with a resin 3D printer. The electronics are added and then it’s shipped to the user. Using this process, hundreds of thousands of hearing aids are 3D printed each year.
In the dental industry, we see molds for clear aligners being possibly the most 3D printed objects in the world. Currently, the molds are 3D printed with both resin and powder based 3D printing processes, but also via material jetting. Crowns and dentures are already directly 3D printed, along with surgical guides.
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.
Additive manufacturing invaded the food industry long time ago. Restaurants like Food Ink and Melisse use this as a unique selling point to attract customers from across the world.
Educators and students have long been using 3D printers in the classroom. 3D printing enables students to materialize their ideas in a fast and affordable way.
While additive manufacturing-specific degrees are fairly new, universities have long been using 3D printers in other disciplines. There are many educational courses one can take to engage with 3D printing. Universities offer courses on things that are adjacent to 3D printing like CAD and 3D design, which can be applied to 3D printing at a certain stage.
In terms of prototyping, many university programs are turning to printers. There are specializations in additive manufacturing one can attain through architecture or industrial design degrees. Printed prototypes are also very common in the arts, animation and fashion studies as well.
Types of 3D Printing Technologies and Processes
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), developed a set of standards that classify additive manufacturing processes into 7 categories. These are:
- Vat Photopolymerisation
- Material Jetting
- Binder Jetting
- Material Extrusion
- Powder Bed Fusion
- Sheet Lamination
- Directed Energy Deposition
A 3D printer based on the Vat Photopolymerisation method has a container filled with photopolymer resin. The resin is hardened with a UV light source.
SLA was invented in 1986 by Charles Hull, who also at the time founded the company, 3D Systems. Stereolithography employs a vat of liquid 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 fuses 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. Depending on the object & print orientation, SLA often requires the use of support structures.
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 SLA, the key difference is the light source. DLP utilizes other light sources like arc lamps. DLP is relatively quick compared to other 3D printing technologies.
Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP)
One of the fastest processes using Vat Photopolymerisation is called CLIP, short for Continuous Liquid Interface Production, developed by Carbon.
Digital Light Synthesis
The heart of the CLIP process is Digital Light Synthesis technology. In this technology, light from a custom high performance LED light engine projects a sequence of UV images exposing a cross section of the 3D printed part causing the UV curable resin to partially cure in a precisely controlled way. Oxygen passes through the oxygen permeable window creating a thin liquid interface of uncured resin between the window and the printed part known as the dead zone. The dead zone is as thin as ten of microns. Inside the dead zone, oxygen prohibits light from curing the resin situated closest to the window therefore allowing the continuous flow of liquid beneath the printed part. Just above the dead zone the UV projected light upwards causes a cascade like curing of the part.
Simply printing with Carbon’s hardware alone does not allow for end use properties with real world applications. Once the light has shaped the part, a second programmable curing process achieves the desired mechanical properties by baking the 3d printed part in a thermal bath or oven. Programmed thermal curing sets the mechanical properties by triggering a secondary chemical reaction causing the material to strengthen achieving the desired final properties.
Components printed with Carbon’s technology are on par with injection molded parts. Digital Light Synthesis produces consistent and predictable mechanical properties, creating parts that are truly isotropic.
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 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 required shape. After the print is finished, the remaining powder is cleaned off which often can be re-used printing the next object. This technology was first developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
FDM works using a plastic filament which is unwound from a spool and is supplied 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. The object is produced by extruding melted material to form layers as the material hardens immediately after extrusion from the nozzle.
FDM was invented by Scott Crump in the late 80’s. After patenting this technology he started the company Stratasys in 1988. 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
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS uses a high power laser to fuse small particles of powder into a mass that has the desired three dimensional shape. The laser selectively fuses powder by first scanning the cross-sections (or layers) 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.
Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)
Multi Jet Fusion technology was developed by Hewlett Packard and works with a sweeping arm which deposits a layer of powder and then another arm equipped with inkjets which selectively applies a binder agent over the material. The inkjets also deposit a detailing agent around the binder to ensure precise dimensionality and smooth surfaces. Finally, the layer is exposed to a burst of thermal energy that causes the agents to react.
Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
DMLS is basically the same as SLS, but uses metal powder instead. All unused powder remains as it is and becomes a support structure for the object. Unused powder can be re-used for the next print.
Due to of increased laser power, DMLS has evolved into a laser melting process. Read more about that and other metal technologies on our metal technologies overview page.
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.
Directed Energy Deposition
This process is mostly used in the 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.
Multiple materials can be used in additive manufacturing: plastics, metals, concrete, ceramics, paper and certain edibles (e.g. chocolate). Materials are often produced in wire feedstock a.k.a. filament, powder form or liquid resin. Learn more about our featured materials on our materials page.
Looking to implement 3D printing in your production process? Get a quote for a custom part or order samples on our 3D print service page.