Now that they’re affordable enough to have at home, is it really worth getting a 3D printer? Here’s what you need to think about, including materials, potential uses, and the benefits.
3D printing might not sound like an obvious craze, but since its invention, this technology has caused a complete overhaul in manufacturing processes which has opened up the market for small businesses and hobbyists alike.
There are so many other benefits to 3D printing, which we’ll go into in more detail later on, but arguably the most important is the fact that this enables the production of stronger, more accurate, higher quality, and more lightweight parts and system components.
Ready to hop right on the 3D printing train? This article will cover all the basic information that beginners need to know about 3D printing with a few links to some supporting material along the journey to provide pitstops for further reading.
First, we’ll answer this question: what is 3D printing?
Table of Contents
What Is 3D Printing?
The term 3D printing refers to technology with capabilities far larger than you could contain within a single machine, but the process of 3D printing essentially entails creating a three-dimensional physical object from a digital design model by layering different materials.
This is a pretty broad definition of what 3D printing is as there are several different methods for 3D printing that combine digital object manipulation and physical manufacturing, so I’ll walk you through what some of these are to help you understand the printing process.
Digital and Additive Manufacturing
3D printing is based on a digital and additive manufacturing process, a stand-out technology that uses a completely different printing method to anything else on the market right now.
Rather than starting with a large block of material and whittling it down into a smaller prototype or model, additive processes are based on layering materials on top of each other.
Data computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners control the printer hardware as it layers the material to turn your 2D design into a 3D print, which provides solutions for most of the problems posed by traditional print manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing is much more efficient and less wasteful, especially compared to subtractive techniques which can result in up to 90% of the original material not being used in the final model. This subsequently also helps to reduce the manufacturing costs associated with 3D printing.
You may hear the terms “3D printing” and “rapid prototyping” in conversations about additive manufacturing, but technically, these are both subgroups of additive manufacturing.
The History of 3D Printing
Before it was considered a phenomenon that is “bigger than the internet” according to the Financial Times and other media outlets, 3D printing was developed for several decades.
It’s the history of 3D printing that makes its current success so exciting, as it just goes to show how technology can evolve over the years until it becomes the best version of itself.
The first official record of any reference to 3D printing was dated in May 1980 on the form of a patent application filed by Dr. Kodama in Japan, despite the unfortunate failure of the application in spite of his history as a patent lawyer himself… that one’s got to sting.
However, the early origins of 3D printing trace back to 1986 when Charles Hull filed a patent for stereolithography apparatus (SLA). You might recognize the name, as he was a co-founder of the 3D Systems Corporation, one of the most respected brands in the industry.
This company was responsible for producing the first machine with 3D printing technology and there have been serious strides in the field ever since, although it wasn’t until the late 1990s that its full potential was realized.
Behind the scenes of the printing process is a bunch of other technology, and for 3D printing, this starts with a 3D digital model to work from.
Numerous 3D software programs allow you to create digital models, and they vary in their complexity. Alternatively, you can use a 3D scanner to upload your design.
For professionals and those working within the 3D printing industry, 3D CAD is a popular software tool. However, hobbyists and anyone who is still new to 3D printing may prefer to start with some simpler software, like Tinker Clad or 3D Splash which are free to use.
Once uploaded, the 3D model file is converted into a readable format that’s compatible with your 3D printer, which is called splicing. It then layers the filament according to the design and printing process, as each type of technology processes the material in different ways.
You can print your model using several different materials, with things like functional plastics, ceramics, and metals all being commonly used, although at the entry-level end of the market you won’t find much readily available beyond this.
How It Works
To understand how 3D printing works, you’ll need to have a basic understanding of how a 3D printer works, so here’s a rundown of the main components:
- Build Platform: Just like the name suggests, this is the platform on which the model is built and it will typically heat up to aid in the adhesion of certain parts.
- Extruder(s): This part of a 3D printer is what melts down the material before depositing the filament in layers to build your digital design.
Technically, the extruder can be broken down into more than one part.
- Hot End: Features a heater and a nozzle to deposit the melted material,
- Cold End: Features a motor, drive gears, and additional components that force the material to move toward the hot end to melt it.
- Heatsink: To ensure that the cool side stays cool, there’s a heatsink that sits between either side to prevent the system from becoming jammed.
- Cooling Fan: To further prevent overheating, you’ll often find an additional cooling fan to cool the material as it’s deposited by the extruder.
- Print Head: The extruders are located on top of the print head where there’s also a tube to feed the filament into the print head.
- User Interface: You can control the 3D printing via either a basic LCD screen that allows you to change the settings using buttons or a more modern touch screen interface which can be found on some of the higher-end models. Some 3D printers may also feature an SD card slot and/or a USB port.
To fully understand 3D printing, how they work, and how to design for them, you’ll first need to know more about the different processes featured by different 3D printers.
As I mentioned before, 3D printing is a rather broad term. There are several different processes you can use to produce your 3D designs, which we’ll go through now.
Stereolithography (SLA) was invented by Charles Hull, a founder of 3D Systems who discovered the technology’s potential in 1986. It’s widely accepted that this is the first process for 3D printing, or at the very least, it was the first to achieve commercial success.
SLA is a process of layering that uses an ultraviolet laser and a vat of liquid curable polymer. A laser beam is “focused to a free surface of a photosensitive liquid to induce polymerization of the liquid in that region and transform it to a polymerized solid,” according to ScienceDirect.
To highlight what this is saying in simpler terms, SLA is a process that creates solid objects from liquid plastics. Neat, huh!
An SLA printer can be categorized into four main parts:
- Printer filled with liquid plastic
- Perforated platform
- UV laser
- Computer to control the platform and laser
It starts with a layer of plastic that should be between 0.05 and 0.15mm thin. The laser reads the computer files that contain your design, and once the laser comes into contact with the material it hardens leaving a smooth finish for your model.
Another popular printing process is Digital Light Processing (DLP), which uses light and photosensitive polymers to print 3D models.
Unlike SLA, DLP uses a different type of light source to cure photopolymer resins, like a traditional arc lamp, and a liquid crystal display panel or a deformable mirror device (DMD), and this is used to cover the vat of photopolymer resin’s surface at much quicker speeds.
DLP is just as capable of creating high-quality parts as SLA, but with the added benefit of only requiring a shallow vat of resin which reduces costs and waste materials.
Using either a laser sintering or laser melting process, it traces the bed of the powdered material to interact with and solidify it. Once this is done, the excess can be removed so that only the ‘printed’ areas remain.
It’s one of the best processes for printing complex designs, although you’ll have to wait around a while for it to fully cool afterward due to the high temperatures it uses to fuse.
Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) is a method of 3D printing that uses a thermoplastic filament. This is a material that can withstand the process of being melted, selectively deposited, and cooled, to print parts through layering materials and fusing them.
It’s also the most common 3D printing technology due to its affordability, ease of use, and rapid prototyping abilities.
Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) is the same process. No, seriously. The only difference between them is in name only, as FDM was originally trademarked by Stratasys, so while FFF is the more general term by default, they refer to the same technology.
Unlike DLP, FDM/FFF processes need support structures if the design includes geometries, More specifically, FMD requires the use of an additional, water-soluble material so you can wash the support away. You can also use breakaway support materials, but this has a higher chance of damaging the model.
Inkjet 3D printing was invented somewhere between the 1960s and the 1970s, and two different processes use a jetting technique.
Binder jetting is when a binding material is sprayed into a powder bed, which negates the need for supports to hold the structure while the model is built.
Every layer that is applied fuses as a blade or roller layers more powder of the bed before the next layer of binder material is deposited via the jet heads.
Material jetting is when the material you’ve chosen to print the model with is heated until liquid and deposited through jet heads, although liquid photopolymers are cured during each layer with a pass of UV light.
This allows you to print with simultaneous materials meaning you can create more complex and colorful models without the need to make them separately and then assemble them.
Mcor Technologies developed SDL, a 3D printing process that could be likened to the Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) which Helisys developed earlier in the 1990s, namely due to the final stages of layering and shaping paper which share a few similarities.
Aside from that, they couldn’t be more different as SDL uses regular copier paper to create prints. Each layer is affixed with an adhesive per the design’s 3D data, which dictates which areas are part of the model so these end up being higher density than the waste parts.
Unlike other printing processes, SDL can produce 3D printed parts in full color with no post-processing, and it’s a more environmentally-friendly process due to its use of paper.
EBM stands for Electron Beam Melting which is a technique first invented by a Swedish company called Arcam.
This process forms parts using metal powder, and the heat source isn’t a laser but an electron beam instead, as indicated by the name. The finished parts are fully dense, and several metal alloys can be used as the material.
It has proved particularly useful in the medical sector where it’s used for purposes like implants, although both the aerospace and the automotive industry have also taken an interest in how EBM could be used to enhance their processes.
These days, you’re practically spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a material for 3D model printing as there’s now a much wider variety of materials available to use. However, not all of them are accessible to beginners as they require more advanced technology.
The more experience you gain with 3D printing, the less limited you’ll be in your material choice. Other materials like food and biomaterials are less common but highly promising.
These are currently still being researched and developed, with some entry-level machines that have even been designed solely to print 3D food using materials like chocolate and sugar, but they’re mainly reserved for professional or research purposes.
Plastic is probably the most commonly used material in 3D printing because it’s affordable, reliable, and easy to work with, as well as being both flexible and durable at the same time.
Some of the most popular plastic choices for 3D printing purposes include:
- Nylon, or Polyamide
You’ll find that some types of plastic, like nylon, or polyamide, are often used as a powder. It can be colored before or after you print the model but usually starts off as a natural white which earned it the nickname of “white plastic”.
Nylon can also be combined with powdered aluminum to create an alternative 3D printing material that’s good for sintering, called Alumide.
ABS tends to be the preferred choice for entry-level FDM 3D printing and is usually in filament form instead of powdered plastic. It can be purchased from non-official vendors, it’s highly durable, and it comes in multiple colors making it popular and easily personalizable.
PLA has more recently become a staple on the 3D printing scene because it’s derived from cornstarch, sugar cane, or tapioca, which makes it biodegradable and fume-free.
Whether you’re using PLA (in resin form) for DLP/SL or FDM printing processes (in filament form), it’s unique in that it can be transparent which is handy for certain 3D printing applications, although it’s not quite as strong or as flexible as plastics like ABS.
Lastly, LayWood is another entry-level 3D printing material that was formulated especially for extrusion 3D printing machines. You may also see it called WPC and the wood/polymer composite is available in filament form.
Metal may be used less frequently than plastic in terms of general 3D printing purposes, but it’s not so uncommon in industrial-grade 3D printing which uses professional machines.
Aluminum and cobalt derivatives are commonly used, including the following metals:
- Stainless steel
- Gold/silver plating
Stainless steel is one of the strongest materials you can use to print 3D models, and as such, it’s one of the most popular options you could opt for. It’s also pretty versatile as you can use powdered stainless steel for sintering, melting, and/or EBM purposes.
Although naturally silver, which has its uses in itself, stainless steel can be gold or silver-plated for an alternative metallic color. You can now even print Gold and Silver directly, also from powdered form, which has proved highly useful for the jewelry industry, among others.
If maximum strength is what you’re looking for, titanium is your best bet and it has a reliable track record as it’s been used for 3D printing for years. Once again, you can use it in its powdered form in sintering, melting, and EBM printing processes.
What could be more convenient than printing 3D models using 2D printing paper? Most people are likely to have some spare sheets lying around somewhere, but if not, it’s cheap and easy enough to source to make this an inexpensive way of creating 3D prints.
Mcor Technologies first thought to use paper for 3D printing in the early 2000s, and its business model operates differently due to the emphasis on making easily available, cost-effective material, rather than hiking up the upfront costs of the printing machine.
The advantages of using paper material for 3D printing are that it’s entirely safe to work with, it’s a better choice for the environment as you can easily recycle it, and it has the added benefit of not needing any post-processing.
As scientists test the limits of 3D printing and what this technology is capable of, there has been a huge amount of research carried out regarding the medical breakthroughs that it could potentially assist with, resulting in a new technique called Suspended Layer Additive Manufacturing (SLAM).
Using soft materials for additive manufacturing enables the production of replacement biomaterials. According to a study published in Advanced Functional Materials by Professor Liam Grover, the ability to “print soft materials in really fine detail” creates “huge potential for making replacement biomaterials such as heart valves or blood vessels,” successfully.
This can be used to make advancements in producing things like biocompatible plugs that “can be used to treat bone and cartilage damage.” There’s even the possibility of making more complex soft tissue types or devices for delivering drugs with different rates of release.
With the development of any new technology, there is always going to be at least one person who starts experimenting with unexpected materials. Food just happens to be the latest material that the 3D printing industry has turned its focus to.
It’s not without good cause, either, as 3D printed food has the potential to create more intricate designs, mass manufacturing, automated cooking, and can even add personalization to every meal you sit down to eat.
Chocolate is (unsurprisingly) one of the most popular 3D printing food materials, but others also work with sugar, pasta, and even meat!
Manufacturing methods have already been changed forever thanks to the invention and development of 3D printing, but what nobody could have predicted is the effects that 3D printing would have on a global scale.
As it stands, this technology has the potential to change the way we think about the social, environmental, and security effects of 3D printing, but especially the effects on manufacturing and the economy.
- Opportunities: 3D printing has the potential to take manufacturing out of the hands of big companies and corporations and bring them closer to the consumer.
- Storage Space: You can prevent your inventories from growing too large by printing in smaller batches (this is similar to Amazon’s business model).
- Increased Productivity: Less time is needed for production when working with 3D printers which enable faster output of bigger numbers of prototypes
- Localized production: Being able to produce products on-site removes the need for exporting and importing goods with the potential to reduce the imbalance between certain countries.
- Loss of Jobs: The downside of smaller businesses being able to produce their own prototypes is that it will lead to a decrease in manufacturing jobs, which will in turn affect the economy.
Reduced Costs: 3D printing uses less or recycled materials which will lower the cost of manufacturing products.
Benefits and Value
The ability to customize products is one of the greatest advantages of 3D printing. You can easily mock up prototypes as well as ensuring that you’re always giving your customers exactly what they’re looking for to maintain their engagement and patronage.
This also means that if you discover any design flaws after printing the first few models, you can easily work on fixing them in the next batch.
Provided you have the materials you need, nothing is stopping you from printing pretty much any 3D design, no matter how complicated or intricate it may be.
This doesn’t just apply to the aesthetic design, as 3D printing has also opened up the possibilities of printing complicated components in stronger, lighter materials for use in industrial applications.
Producing the tools required for traditional manufacturing is one of the most costly and time-consuming parts of product development, whereas additive manufacturing needs no such tools, allowing you to eliminate these more taxing stages.
You can also design components specifically to remove the need for assembly which will reduce labor and costs of production down the line.
Looking to the future, 3D printing has the potential to be a more sustainable way of manufacturing because it’s more energy-efficient and it produces less waste than traditional methods of manufacturing, as well as ensuring a longer lifespan for components.
Globally speaking, 3D printing is more environmentally friendly due to on-demand in-house production reducing the need for shipping large quantities of products all over the world.
Where Can 3D Printing be Used?
Medical and Dental
Not only was the medical and dental sector one of the first to embrace the use of 3D printing, but it’s also one of the areas that have the most potential to create real change.
There’s a whole host of things that 3D printing could help with, like the production of bespoke items which can be tailored to the individual’s exact needs from hearing aids to orthotic insoles, as well as things like dental crowns and hip replacement implants.
If it continues to develop the way it has done so far, 3D printing technology will one day be able to aid both surgeons and patients, although the commercial sector probably won’t reap these rewards for another few decades whilst it’s in development.
The aerospace sector was similarly quick to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon when this technology was first introduced, often working with academic institutions to carry out research and already implementing some non-essential 3D printed components.
However, due to the extreme precision required for the manufacture of aircraft components, 3D printing will have to undergo intense standards testing before being rolled out fully.
Rapid prototyping technologies were embraced by the automotive industry early on in its development as its advantages were obvious from the outset.
Although they still focus on their own technologies first and foremost, many companies are adapting their manufacturing processes to benefit from 3D printing technology, which can help with after-sales care and replacement parts as well as generally improving the process.
The construction of jewelry is just as complicated as it looks, featuring tiny, intricate details that require your full attention as you assemble parts of metal, silver, gold, or stones.
3D printing could remove some of the need to be an expert in certain techniques such as making molds, casting, electroplating, forging, engraving, and polishing, which is a possibility that sees the sector in a split decision over whether or not this advancement is good or bad.
From the design stage right through to the manufacturing and production process, 3D printing has already (and will continue to) have a huge influence over the jewelry industry.
Art, Design, and Sculpture
3D printing can be used for art, design, and sculpture similarly to how it’s used in the jewelry sector in that artists are finding new ways to explore areas of their work that they would have formerly thought impossible – or at least, incredibly difficult.
The following artists even found their fame and reputation through their contributions to 3D modeling, scanning, and printing technology and the art they created with it:
- Joshua Harket
- Pia Hinze
- Jessican Rosenkrantz at Nervous System
- Lionel Dean
Models and Miniatures
One of the first uses of 3D printing was to create accurate miniatures and models.
All the benefits discussed above also apply to architectural uses for 3D printing, as this allows architects to bring miniature-sized versions of their visions to life.
These mock-up models can be produced in a relatively short amount of time and to a high standard in terms of replicating the intricate details, hence why it’s now used in-house to improve innovation and communications, as well as some companies offering it as a service.
There are even hopes of constructing actual buildings – well, parts of them – using 3D printing, which is currently being researched but is still far off happening.
Perhaps a more unexpected use for 3D printing in fashion, but this technology has enabled the creation of 3D printed accessories – the more ostentatious and eye-catching, the better!
- Smaller bits of detailing
The efficiency of 3D printing also means there’ll be no trouble keeping up with the latest trends and you can experiment with your designs before mass producing something that ultimately flops.
Some designers and other pioneering figures in the fashion world, like Chiara Giusti, have even produced garments like dresses, gowns, and in some cases, underwear indicates the potential 3D printing has to change haute couture in ways we’ve not seen before.
We’ve already briefly mentioned food as one of the more recent additions to 3D printing, but it’s unsurprisingly one of the applications that people are most excited about and it will bring this technology into the public sector through widespread commercial use.
The early research was mainly focused on chocolate, sugar, and other sweet treats, and there are printers already on the market that were designed for these purposes.
These days, there has been more experimenting with non-sweet foodstuff like meat and pasta, which could lead to a total transformation of how food is prepared and presented.
The last application for 3D printing that we’re going to touch on is consumer 3D printing, and whether or not it’s wise to believe that it could actually take off.
As it stands currently, there is little interest in entry-level 3D printers due to the issues that are still being ironed out with consumer machines, and the fact that these are still not accessible to everyone.
However, companies like 3D Systems and Makerbot, which is a subsidiary of Stratasys, are working to improve the production of 3D print machines to make them more user-friendly and reliable, which could potentially see a bigger uptake in consumer machines.
Whether you’re making professional prototypes or products for personal use, a 3D printer can recreate your designs and bring them to life in all their three-dimensional glory.
There are endless possibilities provided by 3D printing to produce products with extreme precision in multiple different shapes, sizes, and materials, and the technology is becoming more advanced every day which leaves the future potential of 3D printing wide open.
I hope that this beginner’s guide to 3D printing has provided you with enough of an overview and an insight into the materials you can use, the different processes, and some of the key benefits of this technology.