What is 3D Printing

Georgi Karaivanov
Georgi Karaivanov

Updated · Jun 10, 2022

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3D printing – a set of words you hear everywhere nowadays.

Reading about it almost makes it seem like wizardry. Creating physical objects out of thin air, just like printing a document on a sheet of paper?

But it’s real. And this technology exists today.

So what is 3D printing, how does it work, and who uses it? Those are the questions we’ll tackle with this article.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is self-explanatory.

It’s a process similar to printing text on a sheet of paper. Only this time, instead of text, you’re producing physical, three-dimensional objects. And instead of ink, you use polyester.

To do that, you need a specialized 3D printer. These machines work with plastic filament, which they can melt down and mold into whatever shape you want to print. And with the help of a computer, you can print out just about anything.

Filament is the most common material used for 3D printing. 

But it’s far from the only one.

Nowadays, countless industries rely on this tech for quick, inexpensive manufacturing. Think of car parts, building components, appliances, etc. 

These products are printed using metal, graphene, and carbon fiber, among others.

So while your everyday home-use 3D printer might use flimsy plastic, in reality, this is a massive industry. And it’s growing year after year.

How Does It Work?

Let’s go back to the home setting for a second.

What does a 3D printer do to mold a plastic filament into a complete model? Let’s go over the process step-by-step.

As we already established, you can 3D-print with various materials. But the most common one is PLA, also called polylactide. This is a thermoplastic material that can mold into any shape when heated and solidifies when cooled.

The printing material, called a filament, is sold in coils in a solid form.

The printer then melts down the plastic and pushes it through a nozzle to mold it into the correct shape.

But how do you tell the machine what shape you want?

Through software.

The 3D printing process is similar to regular printing. You load up the thing you want to print on your computer, and the machine takes it from there.

Only instead of using text documents, you use 3D modeling software.

With these specialized programs, you can either make your own 3D model or download one from the internet. There’s a huge number of online communities dedicated to sharing all kinds of designs – from statuettes to small gadgets.

The printer itself works like a robot. Once you’ve loaded your design, the machine knows exactly how to mold it. It melts down the filament and uses it to carefully create a physical object based on the 3D computer model.

So why is 3D printing so huge nowadays?

It comes down to cost. Additive manufacturing is very efficient and affordable, to the point where anyone can do it at home. But it’s also practical.

It has an advantage in constructing objects and shapes that would be difficult or impossible to do by hand. It is also a very quick process, from prototyping to manufacturing.

Because of this, many industries utilize 3D printing.

Apart from mechanical components, companies can even produce organic materials like food and human tissue. All of these things aren’t just ideas; they exist today.

History of the 3D Technology

But of course, it wasn’t always like this.

The history of 3D printing is longer than you might think.

The concept of 3-dimensional print technology has been idealized since the first half of the 20th century. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it became a reality.

The closest thing to an inventor of 3D printing is Dr. Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. In 1981, he invented a technology that used ultraviolet light to solidify a polymer.

He never patented his invention, however.

The first patents pertaining to 3D printing were filed in 1984. That is when a couple of technologies using a similar method called stereolithography were invented.

In the 90s, additive manufacturing began to take off.

It was the first time 3D printing was used for metalworking. This was also when research institutes began studying and developing their own additive tech. 

These would be the precursors to what is now the massive industry of 3D printing.

Applicable Industries

Downloading a 3D model of Batman off the internet and printing it into a statuette for your desk is neat. But how does that same process benefit industries today?

As it turns out, 3D printing technology is quite multipurpose.

Below are just some examples of the many ways it can be utilized.

Car Manufacturing

Sadly, we’re a long way away from being able to download and print a whole car.

So what are 3D printers used for in the automotive industry?

For one, the prototyping of new models. Having a computer render of a new car in development isn’t always enough. Printing it out, however, gives the engineers something physical to inspect for flaws. It lets them do aerodynamic tests and see how it would perform.

But 3D printing also aids in the creation of car components.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a printed part in your vehicle, though. Instead, the technology is part of the development stage. Printing can be used to quickly make the necessary components and conduct the proper tests.

And finally – custom parts. 

When you need to make a specialized component for a single vehicle, it’s often more efficient to print it.

Aviation Engineering

Now, I know what you’re thinking. 

“I wouldn’t want to fly in a plane with 3D printed parts!”

There’s actually a good chance you already have.

Both Boeing and Airbus have made use of 3D printing technology for their aircraft. Airbus has employed additive processes to repair parts for years now. Meanwhile, in 2020, Boeing completed a successful test flight of its 777X, using hundreds of 3D printed parts.

Architecture

This one should be fairly obvious.

Architecture largely relies on models, both physical and digital. If you have a highly detailed 3D render of your project, it’s much easier to print it right out. This massively simplifies the work process.

And here’s a very cool thing:

3D printing applications can specify the material of a model as well. Say you have a wooden fence. Then, the printer can use a special polyester which gives the final print a wood-like texture.

This way, you can print models that look like they’re made of different materials.

Archaeology

That’s right, archaeologists use 3D printed models to either restore or recreate artifacts. Remains that have either been lost, damaged, or destroyed can be rebuilt. Skeletal remains can be reconstructed.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Archaeologists can utilize 3D printing to renovate ancient artifacts like statues or valuable relics. They can put printed copies of antiques on display in museums and allow visitors a closer look than normal.         

Necessary Materials for the 3D Technology

Let’s get back to the 3D printing basics.

What materials does it work with, exactly?

We already mentioned polylactide, or PLA. But that’s far from the only option. As we mentioned before, many industries that rely on 3D printing for manufacturing use metal.

Some 3D printers work with powders.

The two most popular of which are polyamide and alumide. Alumide, as the name suggests, contains aluminum, which gives it a distinctive shimmering, sandpaper-like appearance. It’s also a very sturdy material.

3D printers can also use resins.

It’s not the most popular material to work with due to its relative impracticality. Resin printers are also fairly constrained regarding the size of prints they can produce. So what can a 3D printer do with resins?

This material is mostly used for figurines and other ornaments. Resin prints are smooth to the touch and allow for greater detail.

Now, if you really want to get luxurious, you can print with carbon fiber.

This material is both very durable and super lightweight. It has no limitations on size and can be used for generally the same purposes as polylactide. However, carbon fiber requires specialized steel nozzles since it can be quite damaging to the printer components.

Types Of Technology

As you can see, a 3D printer can function with a wide variety of materials.

However, not all materials are equal. Some require different technologies.

How do 3D printers work? There are many different ways, but we’ll focus on the three most popular types.

FDM - Fused Deposition Modeling

This is the most common 3D printing method for the consumer market. If you buy an average printer, chances are it will be an FDM one.

FDM printing makes use of thermoplastic filament, which is heated up, melted down, and pushed through a nozzle. The nozzle is attached to a computerized head that can freely move around and mold the filament as needed.

Most 3D pens use FDM technology as well.           

SLA - Stereolithography

You might remember we already mentioned stereolithography when talking about the technology’s history. This is the oldest method of 3D printing, invented back in the 1980s.

How does SLA 3D printing work?

The process uses photosensitive material. It takes advantage of an ultraviolet laser that solidifies the substance upon contact and shapes it into a final pattern. Resin-based printers are an example of SLA technology in action.

SLS - Selective Laser Sintering

SLS is the most expensive type of 3D printing.

That’s why it’s mostly used by businesses for manufacturing purposes.

SLS is powder-based. A high-energy laser beam fuses the powder into a solid, going layer by layer until reaching the final shape. One massive advantage of SLS is that it doesn’t need a support structure.

The 3D printing process employs support structures to provide a surface for the printer to build on top of. That’s necessary because the device obviously can’t print in mid-air. The downside is a lot of excess material you need to remove.

SLS doesn’t have that problem.

Since the powder is sitting in a container, the material acts as its own support.

3D Printing Products Examples

Now that we’ve gone over the three fundamental camps of printing tech, let’s see how each of them is used.

FDM - Fused Deposition Modeling

FDM is great for commercial use due to its low cost. But what else?

For one, custom parts that need to be tailored specifically for an individual. Take prosthetics as an example. Each person needs a part made specifically for them. And that’s just one of the many possible 3D printing applications.

The method the aerospace and automotive industries use to manufacture custom parts is also usually FDM.

SLA - Stereolithography

This is the technology behind resin printers.

Believe it or not, stereolithography has been a part of the medical industry since the 1990s. This printing method is capable of super-precise details, making it perfect for models of patients’ anatomy.

SLS - Selective Laser Sintering

SLS is best for creating complex forms and is often employed in the manufacturing processes of electronics, vehicles, and engineering. Companies often use it to rapidly produce tools and fixtures.

However, its high cost and impractical equipment mean commercial use of SLS printing is almost nonexistent. It’s almost entirely confined to manufacturing.

Wrap Up

So, what is 3D printing all about?

Simply put, it’s a state-of-the-art technology that allows us to print physical, three-dimensional objects. The process requires a 3D printer, and most commercial devices use plastic filaments, which are molded into a shape.

But you can 3D-print with various materials.

Metal, carbon fibers, and graphene are all examples of substances used to print in 3D.

It’s an industry that’s growing day by day. And since it’s also reaching the consumer market, anyone can learn how to use a 3D printer.

It can assist in the production of car and plane parts, architectural and archaeological models, and even synthetic skin. But if that sounds too boring to you, commercially available home 3D printers are getting cheaper by the year.

FAQ.


What is 3D printing, and how does it work?

3D printers use thermoplastics to create three-dimensional models. The filament is melted down and pushed through a nozzle, which is attached to a head. The head then moves around and places the material in the necessary spots to mold it into the desired shape.

What is 3D printing and its benefits?

3D printing is a quick and cost-effective method of producing various products. From prosthetics through car and airplane parts, all the way to food and human skin. And its use cases are expanding every year!

What is being 3D printed?

Most people print out figurines or tools for home use. Businesses, on the other hand, use 3D printing for quick manufacturing and prototyping.

What is 3D printing in simple words?

It’s the process of printing physical, three-dimensional objects. Just like how normal printers use ink to print text on a page, 3D printers use filaments to create shapes. Check our What is 3D Printing? section for more information.

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Georgi Karaivanov

Georgi Karaivanov

My fascination with technology began from quite an early age thanks to computers and video games. Nowadays, I love anything related to music production and astronomy. Coincidentally (or is it?), both of those have a great deal to do with tech. Honestly, most of the stuff that can be accomplished with modern electronics kind of seems like magic to me. This is why I feel this strong need to constantly learn more about it and talk about it, almost to the detriment of others.

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