48 Park Avenue, East 21st Street, Apt. 304
London NY 10016
Phone: +1 408 996 1010
Fax: +1 408 996 1010
3D printing, also known as desktop fabrication or additive manufacturing, has been widely touted as the next big thing in the world of technology, and a game changer with far-reaching effects across multiple industries. Many take this as gospel truth, while others are more skeptical of the technology’s cost efficiency and sustainability.
Whether you are completely new to the 3D printing revolution, or just want to brush up on a few facts, this article will serve as a comprehensive guide to the world of 3D printing technology.
By now, most people, yourself probably included, have heard of—at some level—the amazing abilities and possibilities of 3D printing. This guide, however, will offer in depth insights on all things related to 3D printing, including, but not limited to:
Regardless of whether you are a beginner or someone with your very own 3D printer at home, this guide should prove useful as an information resource on the subject. By the end of this guide, you should be able to determine what 3D printing is, whom it is for, and whether or not you should consider getting your own home 3D printer.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into the world of 3D printing.
3D printing refers to a wide range of technologies and processes involving the creation of real, tangible objects from a diverse assortment of constantly evolving materials.
As its name suggests, these processes and technologies are dependent on a three-dimensional design, which guides the machine in ‘printing’ the real object, layer by layer. The 3D printing machine takes a 3D model—typically a CAD design in STL format—and prints the object from bottom to top. As such, the 3D printing process is in stark contrast to casting and molding technologies, which essentially involves carving away at a base material to create the intended object—a process known also as subtractive manufacturing.
3D printing turns the concept of traditional manufacturing—molding, casting, and machining—on its head, breaking free of its many restrictions, such as:
In contrast, 3D printing offers a lot more freedom, requiring, at the very least, a computer with widely available design software and a 3D printer, the cost of which has dropped to an accessible price point for regular consumers.
3D printing has also emerged as a sustainable manufacturing process, using materials efficiently to create light but durable models. Where 3D printing gets interesting is in the incredible variety of potential applications for the technology, which paves the way for a virtually limitless number of solutions across industrial, manufacturing, and consumer markets. Even today, we are still scratching the surface of 3D
printing applications, with the technology only beginning to become accessible to regular
From once being exclusive to scientific facilities and universities, you can now purchase your very own 3D printer for as low as $1,000—about the same price as a high-end notebook computer.
Despite only recently making waves in the consumer world, 3D printing technology is actually older than you think.
In 1981, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published a first-of-its-kind report on a working rapid prototyping system using photopolymer materials. The process involved creating layer upon layer of a crosssectional segment of a design model.
In 1984 , Charles Hull, who would later go on to co-found 3D Systems (one of the biggest names in 3D printing today), invented his first stereolithography apparatus (SLA), a revolutionary prototyping machine that allowed him to create real 3-dimensional objects from digital information. The technology allowed users to build a 3D model from a 2D image, which in turn could be used to prototype designs prior to entering large-scale manufacturing.
Hull was not the only inventor tinkering with 3D printing at the time. In 1987, Carl Deckard filed a patent for his Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology, later issued and licensed to DTM Inc. a few years later. Deckard’s SLS machine worked much like Hull’s SLA did, but differed by using a powder instead of a liquid resin. Through the course of the 90s and the arrival of a new millennium, more companies would continue to introduce innovative technologies that served as a precursor to modern 3D printing.
These processes would diversify into two sectors:
The advent of open source 3D printers would mark the boom of entry-level 3D printing machines. The B9Creator and FORM 1 emerged as one of the first few “DIY” 3D printers—both were launched on the crowdfunding site KickStarter to much success.
Looking for a high quality consumer-grade 3d printer? Visit our Shop
Perhaps the easiest way to simplify how 3D printers work is to think of your average everyday 2D printer.
Instead of ink, however, a 3D printer adds the appropriate material in layers to create a tangible object based on a digital 3D model. It is a process similar to how a child stacks LEGO bricks (your 3D printing material) from the bottom up, creating a 3-dimensional shape or model.
But because there is no standard in 3D printing technology, different machines use different processes and materials to create 3D printed objects.
In any case, these methods have one thing in common: they add or deposit materials into thin layers until the desired shape is created. Because a 3D printer can print practically any kind of shape, users can produce intricate and highly detailed real objects, often as a single piece, which eliminates the need for assembling multiple parts.
Of course, 3D printed objects are not exactly perfect off the printer. Items may require finishing touches, ranging from sanding, to lacquering and painting. All these require some level of skill, not to mention a considerable amount of time.
The variety of materials suitable for 3D printing at home continues to grow by the day. Moreover, these materials come in varying raw forms:
Different materials also offer different advantages, and some can be used only for highly specific applications. The sheer variety of 3D printing materials deserves a comprehensive guide of its own. For now, however, let us focus on the most popular materials compatible with most desktop 3D printers.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) – ABS is perhaps the most popular plastic material for 3D printing, usually coming in filament form. ABS advantages include durability, a wide range of colors, and available from third party suppliers.
Polylactic Acid (PLA) – PLA is a biodegradable type of plastic often derived from sustainable sources such as corn and potato starch, sugar cane, and even root crops like tapioca. This makes PLA an attractive alternative to chemical based plastics.
Polyamide – Polyamide, also known as nylon, can be used to create flexible but durable materials capable of withstanding impact and bending.
Metals – Powdered metals like stainless steel, gold, silver, and titanium are popular 3D printing materials in the world of jewelry.
Ceramics – Ceramics are a relatively new material in the world of 3D printing, used to create food-safe
cups, plates, glasses, and other food and beverage containers.
Wood – 3D printed models are made from powdered wood chips, creating objects with a granular and sandy texture that can be sanded, painted, and lacquered after printing.
Food – As crazy as it sounds, food ingredients in powdered form can be converted into food items. This has paved the way for unconventional ingredients like algae, leaves, and even insects to be used for “food customization.”
As mentioned earlier, 3D printing, particularly at the consumer model, has opened the door to exciting applications and solutions. These include:
Medicine – Biodegradable PLA materials can be used to 3D print a wide range of solutions in the medical field. These solutions include sutures, surgical implants, screws, pins, and rods, all of which transform into harmless lactic acid after several months—about the same length of time for full recovery after a surgical procedure.
Dentistry – 3D printers can be used to create custom braces (in the same style as Invisalign), retainers, and even dentures and dental implants.
Plastic Parts – 3D printers can be used to create a wide variety of objects made from plastic, such as food-safe containers, custom toys, and even complete consumer electronics devices like televisions.
Jewelry – For many years, the creation of custom jewelry required the services of an expert jewelry designer, who did the molding, fabrication, cutting, and engraving of jewelry pieces. This can now be done with a computer, a 3D printer, and the appropriate materials (e.g. gold, silver, steel, bronze, and even synthetic diamond).
Art – Artists are experimenting with 3D printers to create works of art in a myriad of novel ways. 3D printing, modeling, and scanning technologies allow artists to bring unique and previously impossible ideas to life. This is especially true when it comes to reproducing intricate replicas of ancient sculptures for study.
Architecture – 3-dimensional models have always been a staple in architecture, which makes it no surprise that 3D printing first carved its niche in architecture and design. With a printer, architects can easily build accurate representations of models straight from digital data formats that are already common in the industry.
Regardless if it is for industrial or personal applications, 3D printing introduces a plethora of benefits you would be hard pressed to obtain through traditional prototyping and manufacturing methods.
Faster turnaround times – The 3D modeling and printing process allows you to bring ideas to fruition faster than ever. Today, you can develop a 3D model and print it on the same day—a feat that would have taken several days to a few months with traditional methods. For enterprises, this kind of speed allows them to stay ahead of the competition, expediting the development, prototyping, and mass manufacturing process of goods.
Cost savings – Traditional molding and fabricating tools are expensive and often bulky instruments. In contrast, 3D printers, especially models built for home and personal use, are becoming more affordable, almost by the day.
Safer prototypes – The ability to verify 3D printed models before finally bringing designs to mass production is a godsend to many companies. The ease of 3D printing a prototype for testing, and altering it if necessary, not only boosts designer confidence, it allows the creation of verified products that are better and safer.
Personalization – Traditional mass production of manufactured goods gives little room for personalization, as it requires all parts coming off the assembly line or mold to be the same. 3D printing allows fast production of personalized objects for just about any application—fashion, medical, dental, and electronics among others.
Looking for a high quality consumer-grade 3d printer? Visit our Shop
While average everyday people can definitely benefit from 3D printers, the important question to ask yourself is whether you even see a use for your own 3D printer at home. If you are an avid builder or DIYer, then 3D printing should be right up your alley.
You can start by buying your very own desktop 3D printer, or bring your CAD models to your nearest pay-as-you-print provider. Either way, the possibilities for creating your own objects and 3D printed parts for larger objects are virtually limitless. For starters, you can easily create household items like photo frames, lamp fixtures, figurines, or broken electronics items like remote controls and appliance mounts among many others.
Fortunately, more and more companies are developing “all in one” 3D printers that allow ordinary people with little to no 3D printing experience to create physical items in a manner similar to how you would print photos using an inkjet printer.
When most people think of 3D printing at home, they probably think of people making figurines, trinkets, and other doodads made of plastic. While these ornaments and paperweights are fun to design and print, they are not exactly the most useful 3D printed objects you can make for household use.
Here are a few examples of creative, but practical 3D printed household goods that can make your life at home easier and more convenient:
If you are unsure about what project to start with, you can browse through a collection of digital models that are ready for printing.
The cost of 3D printers can be prohibitive, especially if you are someone who is not really into creating a wide range of projects and putting the printer through its paces. Depending on your needs, you could be looking at a printer as cheap $600, which is right around the price range of the Printrbot Simple Metal , an ideal entry-level 3D printer built with beginners in mind.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a machine that is more powerful, the MakerGear M2 is
an ideal option, boasting of outstanding engineering, so much so that it is widely claimed by
reviewers to be “built like a tank.” This 3D printer, however, does not come assembled out of the
box, requiring some experience and knowledge to use to its fullest potential. This machine’s
price tag is a little over $1800.
If you want to print objects made from a variety of materials, the LulzBot TAZ 6 , coming in at
$2,500, is compatible with a wide range of new materials, ranging from your standard ABS,
nylon, and polycarbonate, to the more exotic, like wood, HIPS, and much more.
Generally, the more powerful the 3D printer and the more materials it is compatible with, the
more expensive and sophisticated it will be.
As mentioned earlier, 3D printers do not come cheap. And even the cost of an entry-level printer can be hard to swallow, especially if you are only going to use the machine a few times or so.
If investing in your own 3D printer is out of the question, then by all means, do not buy one. Fortunately, you can still get into the world of 3D printing through services that allow you to pay only for every printed model you order. Here are two alternatives for you to consider:
Online providers of 3D printing services like Shapeways , iMakr (in the UK) and even Amazon allow you to send your 3D models, with the finished product shipped to your doorstep. If you are only printing 3D objects occasionally, this service serves as a viable alternative to procuring your own machine.
In the old days, if you wanted to print photos every now and then, you did not buy your own photo printer. Instead, you took your rolls of film to the nearest photo development center to have them printed.
The same concept applies to pay-per-print facilities found in brick and mortar establishments like Staples and UPS , which offer 3D printing services to customers. You can even visit your nearest university, which probably has its own 3D printer up for rent.
“Which 3D printer should I buy?” is a question we have been asked a countless number of times. Here are the important factors to consider before making your purchase.
Although 3D printers come in a wide variety of technologies and processes, the most popular machines come in two types:
Materials are a crucial factor to consider when choosing a 3D printer. Popular intermediate level printers are usually compatible with PLA, ABS, nylon, TPE, and polystyrene among many others. Entry-levelprinters, on the other hand, are usually only capable of printing ABS (plastic) models. The more materials a printer can work with, the more expensive it will be.
It is also worth noting that FFM printers have more options for materials than SLA printers do. Moreover, when using a 3D printer, be sure to use only the approved materials by the manufacturer.
Because 3D printers come in different sizes, they all have restrictions on the size of 3D models they can create. The size of the print bed and length of printhead movement will determine the volume of your objects, which are usually measured in cubic inches. Check your printer’s specifications before making a purchase decision, especially if you are looking to create large models.
If 3D printers have a weakness, it is that they can be slow. For starters, the more affordable the machine, the slower its print speed usually is. Speed also depends on the quality of the printer’s output. Slower printers may take more time to build models because they create thicker layers, which result in stronger objects. Conversely, lighter and more fragile objects have thinner layers, and may be faster to print.
Is there such a thing as a perfect 3D printer? No. At least not yet. As is usually the case when buying any kind of tool or piece of equipment, different 3D printers come with their own advantages and disadvantages—it all depends on what you are looking for in a machine.
As mentioned earlier, we are still scratching the surface of the possibilities of 3D printing. Today, it is possible to print models as large as a functioning car , and something as “out there” as actual edible food.
The next phase will involve the widespread adoption of 3D printers, similar to when the personal computer first made its way into our homes. As it stands, 3D printing is still very much the domain of builders, DIYers, and modelers, all of whom are truly interested in creating real objects with their own designs.
The future will see non-hobbyists growing more aware of 3D printing, much in the same way that families finally saw the value of having their own computers in the 80s and early 90s. But first, 3D printing needs to become more accessible. Printers have to come down to a price point compelling enough for average consumers to want to buy them. More importantly, the process of designing models also needs to be easy enough for the average person’s level of skill and experience with the technology.
Already, we are seeing enthusiasts downloading free STL files to create anything from toothbrushes to car interior parts. Simply put, 3D printers are quickly becoming cheaper, easier to use, and faster, which can only be a good thing for regular consumers.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) – A popular plastic material for 3D printing, usually coming in filament form. Advantages include durability, wide color range, and availability from third party suppliers.
Additive manufacturing – The process of creating a 3-dimensional object layer by layer.
Bed – Also known as the print bed, which refers to the area of the printer where the object is created
Belt – A toothed gear belt that transfers movement from the motors to other parts of the 3D printer.
CAD (Computer aided design) – Design software used to create 3-dimensional models of objects.
Filament – Refers to the solid material used to print 3D objects. The filament is fed to the printhead and exposed to a heat source to be melted and printed on the bed.
Fused filament manufacturing (FFM) – A type of 3D printer that uses a heat source to melt a plastic filament within a printhead, which then creates the model’s layers.
Polylactic acid (PLA) – A biodegradable type of plastic derived from sustainable sources such as corn and potato starch, sugar cane, and even root crops like tapioca.
Stereo lithography (SLA) – A type of 3D printer that typically uses a laser to turn a liquid resin into a solid layer.