How Does a 3D Printer Work? [A Beginner-Friendly Guide]

Daniel Wabuge
Daniel Wabuge

Updated · Sep 21, 2022

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In today's world, it seems like there’s a 3D printer for everything. From small gadgets to entire homes, these machines can bring almost all designs into reality.

So, how does a 3D printer work? What techniques does it use? Which materials does it require for printing? 

Let’s see:

What Is a 3D Printer?

A 3D printer is a machine that uses additive processes to create three-dimensional objects from computer-aided designs. Japanese inventor Hideo Kodama came up with this technology that dates back to the early 1980s. 

But it was only in the early 2010s when it became popular because of affordability. Unlike the earlier versions, we currently even have portable printers.

3D printing technology is mostly used in the engineering and manufacturing fields. It is, however, also making its way into:

  • Healthcare: Biomedical technologists use it to create prosthetic organs and print pharmaceutical drugs. 
  • Building and Construction: The technology can build affordable houses, temporary shelters, and structures for emergency response.
  • Fashion: It can produce shoes and clothes on demand. 
  • Food: Some companies and high-end restaurants use it to prepare, dress, and decorate meals. Yes, really.

Currently, the 3D digital printing industry has a market size of around $12 billion. And as the technology grows, more life-changing applications are likely to emerge. 

Before then, let’s look at how it works.

How Does a 3D Printer Work?

It first begins by creating a digital model. You can do this using 3D printing or rendering software.

Next, the design undergoes slicing, where it's divided into thousands of thin layers

Then the actual 3D printing process begins!

There are three techniques:

Types of 3D Techniques

Here's all about 3D printing techniques and printers that you should know:

1. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is the most common 3D printing technique. It uses a filament of material that's pushed through a heated nozzle.

This melts it making it easier to apply layer-by-layer to create your object. The plastic then hardens as it cools, giving you a three-dimensional product.

There are two main types of FDM printers:

  • Cartesian Coordinate: To create the object, the print head has to move along the X, Y, and Z-axis. This machine is the most popular type because of being cheap, ultra-portable, and ideal for beginners.
  • Delta: This uses a suspended printer head, suspended in the air by three arms connected to the base. These move the tip up and down as required to create figures. It's a bit more expensive and larger than the first option.

2. Binder Jetting

Binder jetting uses a powder-like material to create objects. It lays down the layers on a build platform while carefully bonding them using an adhesive.

The advantage of this technology is that it can print in multiple colors and materials. On the downside, it takes longer to print and doesn’t create sturdy items like FDM.

The size of the machines is another disadvantage of this 3D digital printing process. They’re not only huge but also expensive.

3. Direct Energy Deposition

This technique uses a high-powered laser beam to melt and deposit material. Unlike in FDM, the print head moves horizontally upwards to create a product.

It's different from other methods because it can print with multiple materials and metal alloys. But direct energy deposition printers are costly and relatively slow.

This method is standard for creating large objects for commercial purposes. You can find its printers in industries like aerospace, marine, defense, oil, gas, etc. 

4. Material Jetting

Material jetting uses a print head to deposit droplets of liquid materials. It's similar to FDM but uses ultraviolet (UV) light to solidify layers much faster.

Unfortunately, you can only use polymers and waxes using this method. That's due to the complex nature of liquifying other potential materials.

Material jetting printers are also some of the most expensive 3D machines on the market. But they do come in different sizes, including compact and commercial-grade types.

5. Photopolymerization

This conventional type of 3D printing technology uses UV radiation to solidify layers of liquid resin. It comprises two different techniques: stereolithography (SLA) and digital light processing (DLP).

The first one employs a build platform that moves up and down solidifying sections using a UV beam. In contrast, the second option uses an electronic projector to cast micro-units of an object.

Both of these methods are super accurate and produce high-quality products. But they're sometimes slow, and you can only use photopolymer materials.

While photopolymerization printers are costly, they come in compact and large sizes. They’re common in the manufacturing industry due to their ability to create complex designs.  

6. Sheet Lamination

Sheet lamination is a unique method that bonds thin layers of materials to form a 3-dimensional print. The technique comprises ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM) and laminated object manufacturing (LOM).

As the name suggests, the first method uses ultrasonic welding to join lightweight pieces of metals. Unlike it, LOM employs the fusing of adhesive-coated materials to create items.

An additional computer numerical control (CNC) machining is necessary to fabricate the desired shapes. It involves the removal of unwanted materials to shape different designs.

This technique is popular in the production of 3D models and prototypes. Manufacturers also use it to create end-use products and functional parts.

7. Laser Sintering

This technique uses a laser that selectively melts a powder material on a bed. It also aligns the resultant layers to match your object’s cross-sectional profile.

There are three ways for making 3D printed objects using sheet lamination:

  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): This powder bed fusion method uses a CO2 laser to bond nylon compounds. It builds products from multiple materials, including plastics and metals.
  • Selective Laser Melting (SLM): It's similar to the first option but uses a near-infrared laser to melt the layers. As a result, you can create almost perfect objects with this technique.
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS): This method employs a fiber laser to fuse tiny particles of metal alloys. It can produce solid and functional parts from a wide range of materials.

The above methods are commonplace in the steel and ceramics industry. Manufacturers use them to create superalloys that have shiny and clean surfaces.

What Materials Do 3D Printers Use?

3D printers use a wide range of materials that include:

  • Polymers: These are the most common of all substances. They include resins, nylon, polyethylene, polycarbonate, etc. Most of them are lightweight, durable, and cost-effective. 
  • Metals: You can also use metals such as aluminum, brass, and stainless steel in 3D printing. These materials are pretty sturdy and ideal for machine parts production. 
  • Ceramics: Some printers can also create objects from clay, porcelain, and glass. They're suitable for making prototypes and models.
  • Foods: Thanks to this technology, you can use it to dress meals. Some 3D printing examples of food include sugar, chocolate, pizza, etc.
  • Carbon fiber:  This is a strong and lightweight material for use in the aerospace industry. It helps make aircraft parts and satellite components.
  • Paper: This material creates 3D prototypes that are realistic and have vivid details. It's cheap, eco-friendly, and easy to model. 
  • Nitinol: This substance helps create medical implants. It's super elastic but highly resistant to bending.

Let's now cross over to the upsides and downsides of using this technology.

3D Printing Pros and Cons

The 3D printing pros and cons are as follows:

Pros

The advantages include:

  • It's affordable and easy to start: You don't need to break the bank to set up your business. You only need a computer, the right software, and a 3D printer. Established companies can use it to cut prototyping and building components costs.
  • Increased accuracy and precision: 3D printers can create tiny parts and components, which are almost free from errors.
  • Greater design freedom: You're free to work and experiment with different shapes and sizes. You can create anything unimaginable without worrying about the manufacturing process.
  • Versatile applications: 3D printers have a wide range of use across different industries. They include healthcare, automobile, aerospace, construction, education, etc.
  • Time-saving and efficient: This technology can help you save time. Once you have the model, it can take a few hours or days to create the final product.
  • Less waste: Products require sizable amounts of materials to complete, regardless of the 3D printing process you employ. This is unlike traditional methods that cause a lot of wastage.

Cons

The disadvantages include:

  • Compromise on quality: Products made out of 3D printing lack the durability of those made using traditional methods. The layer-by-layer additive process it employs reduces the product's strength by 10 to 50%.
  • Limited colors: Most of the machines can only print in one color. This limits the number of applications and products you can create.
  • Models require post-processing: Some items need some form of refinements, such as sanding, painting, and polishing. As such, it may increase the cost and time of production.
  • Difficult to scale: 3D printing is unsuitable for mass-producing products. It requires hundreds of machines that may turn expensive in the long run.
  • Copyright issues: This technology makes it easy for pirates to counterfeit items by other companies.
  • Threatens job security: As this tech advances, it may replace human labor resulting in job losses. 
  • Environmental concerns: Most materials used in 3D printing are not biodegradable, which exposes the environment to pollution.

Wrap Up

A 3D printer creates a real-life three-dimensional object using a digital file. It builds an item by adding materials layer-by-layer until it's complete.

Overall, the technology is proving to be versatile and a lifesaver. It has endless potential applications in different industries.

From creating medical implants to manufacturing car parts, the possibilities are endless!

FAQ.


What can 3D printers do? 

3D printers have a wide field of application across different industries. They can create medical implants, automobile parts, low-cost houses, and more.

 

How does a resin printer work?

A resin printer uses a liquid material that's photosensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light to create a 3-dimensional print

It applies one layer at a time, curing it with UV before adding another. The exact process repeats over and over until the model is complete.

How does SLA printing work?

Stereolithography (SLA) printing works similarly to the resin technique. It uses a photosensitive liquid that’s applied layer-by-layer and cured to create objects.

The only difference is that SLA uses a laser beam to harden the material instead of UV light.

How does a 3D printer know what to print?

Before answering this question, first, ask yourself -  how does a 3D printer work?

It simply takes a digital file and uses it to create a three-dimensional object. It uses additive manufacturing, stacking materials layer-by-layer until it completes the product.

So, how does it know what to print?

You must start by sketching an object using computer-aided design (CAD) software. Next, break it down into multiple thin layers through a process known as slicing.

The outcome makes it easier for the printer to translate, follow, and print.

 

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Daniel Wabuge

Daniel Wabuge

Daniel is a curious thinker that loves everything about tech. If he spots something interesting, rest assured that he’ll reverse-engineer it. Apart from being an internet addict, he loves building web servers from scratch. Well, it’s not his profession per se. But it’s a passion he picked up after a series of unfortunate events involving terrible hosts. He’s the “hosting guy”.

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