How does 3D printing work?

How does 3D printing work?

An overview of 3D printing examples, how it works, and key steps from 3D modeling to production.

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How does 3D printing work?

Think of your desktop printer adding a single layer of ink to a page to print a pattern designed on a computer. Now, imagine that the same printer was able to add multiple layers until that pattern was three-dimensional. That, in essence, is 3D printing, and it’s a technology with almost limitless applications that is opening up endless possibilities in a variety of sectors and industries. 

How does additive manufacturing work?

The term additive manufacturing refers to any technology or process that builds a three-dimensional object layer by layer. As it adds each layer, it bonds the preceding layer with melted or partially melted material until a final object is formed. Depending on the process, the material may be melted, glued or bonded, fused or sintered.

Designs are initially created by Computer Aided Design (CAD) software that is used to create 3D files. There are a number of different 3D file formats available – for example, STL, OBJ, FBX, COLLADA, 3DS, IGES, STEP, VRML/X3D, and 3MF. These files essentially "slice" the designed object or part into ultra-thin layers. This sliced file then guides the path of a nozzle, print head, beam, or laser that is essentially building the object or part layer by layer.

As the material cools or is cured, the layers will fuse together to form the completed three-dimensional part.

What is 3D printing and additive manufacturing used for?

3D printing or additive manufacturing can be used by designers, engineers, or anyone looking to develop a manufacturing project at any scale. It’s especially useful for manufacturers, makers, and designers looking for flexibility, adaptability, and scalability and those looking for operational and cost efficiencies – or design freedom and enhanced innovation possibilities at little to no extra cost. 

Which sectors and industries use 3D printing?

In the modern world, 3D printing is used in almost every sector and industry, at least to some degree. Whether it is for prototyping or final manufacture, 3D printing can be found in aerospace, automotive, industrial, fashion, medical, and entertainment industries, and many more, as you’ll see in our “What can you make with a 3D printer?” article. It has an astonishing variety of uses, though, so this list by no means covers all of the industries benefiting from this remarkable technology.

What are 3D printers?

3D printers are physical machines that translate digital design files into actual objects or parts. 3D printers are helping to reinvent design and manufacturing and allow new possibilities for makers of all kinds.

What types of 3D printers are there?

3D printer is a very broad term as there isn’t just one type of machine. In fact, there are a lot of different machines and printing techniques that vary widely depending on the size, material, and a number of objects produced – ranging from desktop 3D printers to industrial 3D printers. You can read about these in more detail in our “What types of 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies are there?” article.

How much do 3D printers cost?

From entry level desktop 3D printing machines that cost less than $500 to enterprise level industrial 3D printers that can cost over $100,000, or a 3D print service that can produce and deliver your parts, this is a complicated question and depends on your manufacturing specifications, budget, and infrastructure! To answer it fully, we’ve written a full breakdown of the cost of 3D printing machines in our article covering “How much does an industrial 3D printer cost?”.

Why are 3D printers important?

3D printers offer designers and manufacturers remarkable flexibility and almost unlimited innovation possibilities at little to no extra cost compared with traditional manufacturing. They allow companies and individuals to create value-add, customized or high-performance parts and products accurately, quickly, and economically. They can be used at every stage of the product lifecycle, from rapid prototyping for design to final production and even for spare parts post-sales - and can be used to create individual bespoke parts or to print at large, industrial level volumes.

What can you make with 3D printing technology?

The only real limitation to 3D printing is your imagination. In the years it has been available, 3D printing has been used in a wide variety of industries, sectors, and organizations. It can be used to make sturdy, reliable parts for aerospace and aviation, or it can be used to make flexible, soft parts for the toy or cosmetics industry. 

Whatever you’re seeking to make and whatever qualities you desire, it’s a good bet that 3D printing will be able to help you make it. And the technology is progressing at a remarkable rate, and so new materials, possibilities, and efficiencies are being added almost constantly. 

Is 3D printing just for rapid prototyping?

This is a common misconception. While 3D printing is exceptionally useful as a rapid prototyping “tool” during the stage of design and development, it is by no means the only use. Depending on the type of 3D printing technology you work with, 3D printing can be used for everything from prototyping to large-scale industrial manufacture in a wide variety of materials.

What are 3D printed objects like?

In terms of the final output, 3D printing offers a lot of variety. For example, it is possible to create hard-wearing metal or plastic parts for cars or airplanes, but it can also be used to create delicate and stylish plastic objects like glasses frames, or objects with extremely fine detail, like mascara brushes. It is even possible to make flexible objects from rubber-like, elastomer plastic powders, or to make rigid and durable industrial-strength products. Whatever qualities you’re looking to make, it’s likely that 3D printing will be able to deliver, as it enables the manufacture of geometrically complex designs that are simply not possible or economically viable to produce with traditional manufacturing methods.

What are the most common 3D printing materials?

While it is possible to print in a large range of materials, the most commonly used are metals and plastics. Some widely used plastics and polymers include nylon, polypropylene, ABS, PC, AB, HDPE, PS, PMMA, HIPS, and EDP. And commonly used metals include stainless steel, titanium, aluminum, cobalt chrome, and copper. But it is also possible to print in everything from paper to chocolate.

Is 3D printing better than traditional manufacturing?

3D printing has many advantages over traditional manufacturing. This is to be expected, though, as most industries have been disrupted by the switch from analog to digital, so too has manufacturing.

3D printing can offer fast, cost effective and versatile manufacturing. It can also allow for new types of materials, with different properties, geometries, and shapes that are more complex and intricate. The ability to easily mass customize and to print many different or unique parts in a single job unlocks new opportunities for differentiation and can help companies gain a competitive edge. 

If you are focused on sustainability and looking to streamline your supply chain and operations, 3D printing can help reduce inventories and optimize logistical costs. This is because digital files for 3D parts, objects or products can be easily shared around the globe and the parts can be printed locally and on-demand, instead of producing all the parts in one location, warehousing them, and physically shipping the finished products.

What is the 3D printing process?

While it might sound complicated, 3D printing is actually fairly easy to understand, at least in principle. It is accomplished by a series of steps, from design to final production. Here is a brief breakdown of how 3D printing works in practice: 

Step one: 3D modeling

The process of 3D printing begins by making a graphic model of the object or part to be printed. You can opt to download a part design from an online 3D design library if you want to print something generic, or you can create one from scratch if you have a specific design idea or objective. 3D printing files are typically designed using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software packages, of which there are many available, including TinkerCAD, Fusion360, and Sketchup or a variety of Siemens software options for industrial applications.

As with any manufacturing process, the design and modeling stage can be the most labor-intensive part of the process as the finer aspects of your part or product are brought to life. 

Data courtesy2

The modeling stage allows designers to customize every detail of their final part. This remarkable precision is one of the aspects of 3D printing that is most revolutionary, and working in such detail and complexity is opening up new possibilities for designers and manufacturers.

Step two: Testing in simulation

This optional step can help foresee and plan for potential problems in your design. Simulations can test a wide variety of your object’s properties and can help you or your design team hone your design, until you arrive at a design that is ready to be printed.

This stage is especially useful if you intend your product to have certain characteristics. For example, in the automotive and aerospace industry, many 3D printed parts must be aerodynamic. Testing the airflow of a product before printing can help save time and money later.

Once you have a printable file, the next step is to prepare it for your 3D printer.

Step three: Slicing the model

Once a design is finalized, then the next step is to slice it. Since 3D printers work in layers, the printer itself cannot technically work in three dimensions. Instead, each model is sliced, and the printer then creates each individual slice, the result of which is the 3D object. This basically means slicing the 3D model into hundreds or thousands of layers that will be delivered to your printer.

A sliced file will also tell 3D printers where to fill a model and where it is to be left vacant. For example, if your 3D printed object has internal lattices or a net, then the empty space becomes just as important as what the printer actually prints.

This step is accomplished with a specialist slicing software, that might include software like Autodesk Netfabb, Simplify3D, CraftWare, or Astroprint. The slicer software will also add support columns, if they are needed. These columns can be used to form the base of a design or a support structure for printing but can be easily removed post printing. Think of this almost like scaffolding. It goes up to support a building project, and later is removed leaving absolutely no trace on the finished building.

After your file is sliced, it’s ready to be 3D printed. Files are typically transferred to a printer via USB, SD, or Wi-Fi. Once this is accomplished, it’s over to the 3D printer.

If you are running a larger 3D production facility or fleet of 3D printers, then you’ll want to learn more about software that help optimize and streamline the production process:

  • HP Universal Build Manager powered by Dyndrite, a build management software that helps you scale your production through automation.
  • HP 3D Center, a cloud-based dashboard that delivers current and historical data for greater production control.
  • HP 3D API, which optimizes job efficiency, improves process development and streamlines job submission.

Step four: The 3D printing process

After the modeling and slicing of a 3D object, it’s time for 3D printing. In this stage, the printer acts almost the same as a traditional paper printer. It receives the information and prints layer after layer of your chosen material, replicating this process hundreds or thousands of times until the 3D object is completed.

Step five: Post-processing

This optional stage is used for finishing or to remove any support structures required during the printing of your final object.

Are there different types of 3D printers and additive manufacturing processes?

Yes. In fact, over the years that 3D printing technology has been available many different methods of manufacture have been developed, each with different pros and cons. Whether you’re printing one object or printing on an industrial scale, it’s helpful to know the different methods of 3D printing so that you can select the right one for your needs, so take a look at our “3D printing and additive manufacturing processes” article to learn more. 

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Footnotes and disclaimers

  1. Data courtesy of Weerg
  2. Data courtesy of Materialise