3D Printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design. There are different 3D printing technologies and materials you can print with, but all are based on the same principle: a digital model is turned into a solid three-dimensional physical object by adding material layer by layer.
In this guide you’ll find everything you need to know about 3D printing, starting with the very basics before diving deeper to give you expert knowledge that’ll be essential once you decide to get started.
Every 3D print starts as a digital 3D design file – like a blueprint – for a physical object. Trying to print without a design file is like trying to print a document on a sheet of paper without a text file. This design file is sliced into thin layers which is then sent to the 3D printer.
From here on the printing process varies by technology, starting from desktop printers that melt a plastic material and lay it down onto a print platform to large industrial machines that use a laser to selectively melt metal powder at high temperatures. The printing can take hours to complete depending on the size, and the printed objects are often post-processed to reach the desired finish.
Available materials also vary by printer type, ranging from plastics to rubber, sandstone, metals and alloys - with more and more materials appearing on the market every year.
Although 3D printing is commonly thought of as a new ‘futuristic’ concept, it has actually been around for more than 30 years.
Chuck Hull invented the first 3D printing process called ‘stereolithography’ in 1983. In a patent, he defined stereolithography as ‘a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of the ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other’. This patent only focuses on ‘printing’ with a light curable liquid, but after Hull founded the company ‘3D Systems’, he soon realized his technique was not limited to only liquids, expanding the definition to ‘any material capable of solidification or capable of altering its physical state’. With this, he built the foundation of what we now know today as additive manufacturing (AM) – or 3D printing.
So, why all the 3D printing hype today?
Until 2009 3D printing was mostly limited to industrial uses, but then the patent for fused deposition modeling (FDM) – one of the most common 3D printing technologies – expired.
Through the RepRap project’s mission to build a self-replicating machine, the first desktop 3D printer was born. As more and more manufacturers followed, what once cost $200,000 suddenly became available for below $2000, and the consumer 3D printing market took off in 2009.
3D printer sales have been growing ever since, and as additive manufacturing patents continue to expire, more innovations can be expected in the years to come. There are now roughly 300,000 consumer 3D printers in the world – and this figure is doubling every year.
It’s crucial to understand that 3D printing is a rapidly developing technology, which comes with its set of inherent benefits, but also lags behind traditional manufacturing processes in some aspects. We collected examples from both sides to help you get a grasp of these factors and to see where the technology is headed in the near future.
Pro Create complex designs
3D printing lets designers create complex shapes and parts – many of which cannot be produced by conventional manufacturing methods. By the natural laws of physics, manufacturing through additive methods means that complexity doesn’t have a price; elaborate product designs with complicated design features now cost just as much to produce as simple product designs that follow all the traditional rules of conventional manufacturing.
Pro Customize each and every item
Have you ever wondered why we purchase our clothing in standardized sizes? With traditional production methods, it’s simply cheaper to make and sell products at an affordable price to the consumer. Alternatively, 3D printing allows for easy customization; one only needs to change the design digitally to make changes with no additional tooling or other expensive manufacturing process required to produce the final product. The result? Each and every item can be customized to meet a user’s specific needs without additional manufacturing costs.
Pro No need for tools and molds, lower fixed costs
When metal casting or injection molding, each part of each product requires a new mold – a factor that can balloon manufacturing costs very quickly. To recoup these upfront manufacturing costs, most companies rely on thousands of the same item being sold. Alternatively, since 3D printing is a “single tool” process there is no need to change any aspect of the process and no additional costs or lead times are required between making an object complex or simple. Ultimately, this leads to substantially lower fixed costs.
Pro Speed and ease of prototyping, faster and less risky route to market
Since there is no expensive tooling required to create objects through 3D printing, it is particularly a cost effective method for designers or entrepreneurs who are looking to do market testing or small production runs – or even launch their products through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. At this stage, it is also easy for design changes to be made without compromising more formal – and expensive – manufacturing orders. Thus, 3D printing offers a much less risky route to market for those who are looking into manufacturing a product idea.
Pro Less waste
Many conventional manufacturing processes are subtractive: you start with a block of material, cut it, machine it, and mill it until it has been processed as your intended design. For many products – such as a bracket for an airplane – it’s normal to lose 90% of the raw material during this process.
Alternatively, 3D printing is an additive process; you create an object from the raw material layer by layer. Naturally, when an object is manufactured this way, it only uses as much material that is needed to create that particular object. Additionally, most of these materials can be recycled and repurposed into more 3D printed objects.
Con Higher cost for large production runs
Despite all of the benefits of manufacturing through additive methods, 3D printing is not yet competitive with conventional manufacturing processes when it comes to large production runs. In most cases, this turning point is between 1,000 to 10,000 units, depending on the material and the design. As the price of printers and raw materials continue to decrease, however, the range of efficient production is expected to increase further.
Con Less material choices, colors, finishes
Despite there being more than six-hundred 3D printing materials available today – most of which are plastics and metals – the choices are still limited compared to conventional product materials, colors and finishes. However, this field is rapidly catching up, the number of new materials added to the 3D printing palette is growing rapidly every year including wood, metals, composites, ceramics, and even chocolate.
Con Limited strength and endurance
In some 3D printing technologies the part strength is not uniform due to the layer-by-layer fabrication process. As such, parts that have been 3D printed are often weaker than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. Repeatability is also in need of improvement as well; parts made on different machines might have slightly varying properties. However, as technical improvements continue to be made on new continuous 3D printing processes like Carbon3D, these limits will likely to vanish in the near future.
Con Lower precision
Although we may not be able to 3D print objects that have cutting edge tolerances like an iPhone, 3D printing is still a very capable method of creating objects at a precision of around 20-100 microns – or about the height of a single sheet of paper. For users who are creating objects with few tolerances and design details, 3D printing offers a great way for making products real. For objects requiring more working parts and finer details – such as the silent switch on the iPhone – it’s difficult to compete with the high precision capabilities of certain manufacturing processes.
One of the greatest things about 3D printing is that it can be beneficial for anyone, regardless of industry or profession. Here we collected some common examples to show how people use 3D printing and why they chose the technology as their preferred prototyping of manufacturing method for specific use cases.
3D printing is no stranger to the automotive industry when it comes to both prototypes as well as finished parts. Among others, many Formula 1 racing teams have been using 3D printing for prototyping, testing and ultimately, creating custom car parts that are used in competitive races. Similarly, Swedish car manufacturer Koenigsegg uses 3D printing to manufacture the variable turbocharger for their One:1 model – a car that has an astonishing 1:1 HP-to-Kg curb weight ratio. The fully metal part is not only extremely lightweight, but can also endure the brute force of hypercar combustion and demanding racetrack conditions.
Did you know that the majority of today’s hearing aids are 3D printed? The medical and prosthetics field has largely benefited from the adoption of 3D printing. Custom shapes such as hearing aids no longer require manual labor, with 3D printing the can be made with the click of a button. This means substantially lower costs and lower production times.Read more
Similar to hearing aids, prosthetics and other assistive medical devices, braces and retainers are tailored specifically for the needs of their end user. Unsurprisingly, this used to pose a problem due to the time and energy required to manually produce each product. With the introduction of 3D printing in the dental and orthodontics fields, this is now a problem of the past. Today, a dental surgeon or orthodontist can now 3D scan a client’s jaw and teeth and digitally construct and manufacture custom braces unique to the end user. The dental industry as a whole has fully embraced 3D printing and there are even dedicated 3D printer models designed specifically for manufacturing dental aids and molds.Read more
Perhaps one of the most telling examples of how 3D printing is revolutionizing the lives of many for the better comes in the form of the e-NABLE prosthetic hand. The free and easy-to-make 3D printed prosthetic hand is designed to be easily created for children in need of a prosthetic device. Among other reasons why the e-NABLE project is revolutionary is because as children grow, they also outgrow their prosthetic devices. When produced through conventional manufacturing methods, these devices can cost tens of thousands of dollars. With 3D printing, the children – along with a global community of engineers and designers who have generously donated their time and resources – can create their own custom prosthetic devices and manufacture them at very affordable prices.
GE Aviation and Safran have developed a method to 3D print fuel nozzles for jet engines. The technology allows engineers to replace complex assemblies with a single part that is lighter than previous designs, saves weight and boosts a jet engine’s fuel efficiency by up to 15%. GE’s new LEAP engines embody 19 of these 3D printed fuel nozzles and will power new narrow-body planes like the Boeing 737MAX and the Airbus A320neo.Read more
Elon Musk’s commercial space company SpaceX used 3D printing to manufacture the engine chambers for their SuperDraco engine; the engine that will be installed on the company’s Dragon spacecraft. This decision cut lead-time drastically and took the concept from the drawing board to first firing in only three months. The engine chambers are printed using Inconel, a high-performance super alloy, and has been tested successfully dozens of times.Read more
Since the earliest days of cinema, the props used in movies were the domain of professionals working by hand for large movie studios. With the introduction of 3D printing, however, making props has become more accessible and affordable for everybody. This particular prop is made by Vitaly Bulgarov, a concept designer from California in collaboration with Factor 31, a Los Angeles-based digital fabrication studio.Read more
As a small business that creates modular wall art, Mak Goods needed a solution for creating a high-quality prototype for a new product concept. Using selective laser sintering (SLS), the company was able to 3D print a short production run of 4,000 pieces which were used to gain valuable feedback from their user test group. At this stage, it was easy to make design refinements and solve problems before committing to more formal – and expensive – conventional manufacturing orders.
Before the introduction of 3D printing into the field of architecture, creating scale models was an extremely laborious and time-consuming process that was vital for architects to communicate their design intent. Today, both large firms and independent architects can quickly and easily create 3D printed scale model directly from their existing CAD data that is used for developing blueprints. Depending on the desired level of communication, these 3D printed models can be printed in multiple materials and realistic colors.
3D printing offers students from multiple fields of study an affordable solution to make their concepts tangible in the early stages of the design process. Through working iteratively with prototypes, students can quickly learn from the models, refine them and gain practical experience towards developing the ideal design solution. This particular bicycle project was made by Industrial Engineering students from the Fontys Technical University of Applied Sciences who translated their digital design into a 3D printed scale model.
Are you a student? Get your 25% discount on all your 3D prints here.Read more
As a design entrepreneur, Omar Rada founded his company with one goal: to create a professional chef’s knife on a home cook’s budget. The result is the Misen Kitchen Knife, which went on to raise a staggering $1,083,344 USD from 13,116 backers on Kickstarter. The use of 3D printing in their design process helped Omar and his design team refine the knife into a suitable design that could be manufactured at a low cost that was then passed onto the consumer. “We started printing just the knife handle as a toe-in-water approach” explains Rada. “Once we were comfortable with the handle design, we then started thinking about the blade. After many 3D prints later, we combined everything into a final knife design that we were able to use as a reference for our final material prototypes.”Read more
As an engineer with an eye for good design, Rob Halifax felt that some common product categories are universally “ugly”. With his engineering knowledge, he was able to take matters into his own hands and began the process of redesigning his own razor. Using 3D printing, he was able to work on multiple iterations until he arrived at a design solution that he felt was the best. Soon after, he turned his idea into a successful Kickstarter campaign, which led to a sustainable business. “3D printing has been instrumental in turning my idea into a business,” says Halifax. “There is no other way we could have got this far so quickly while managing to keep costs down.”Read more
As an industrial designer, Ken Giang enjoys designing and 3D printing drones as a hobby in his free time. “One of the benefits of using 3D printing is that I can produce unlimited spare parts without relying on external vendors except for the electronics,” he explains. “Furthermore, I can develop and customize my multi-copter designs around my particular needs. This motivates me to keep designing parts and be creative to develop new and better concepts.”
Although it’s taken awhile to get here, mass customization of consumer goods is becoming more achievable through 3D Printing. A pioneer on this front is Adidas, who developed the first 3D printed midsole as a component in a ready-to-wear shoe. This midsole is tailored specifically to the needs of the individual end user and can be manufactured on-demand, thus eliminating the need for shipping, factories, and excessive raw materials. Soon, Adidas could customize and build each unique shoe design at a rate that could still be considered “mass producing” them.Watch video
One of the first examples of 3D printed consumer products is the Print+ headphones. They’re shipped as a kit, which includes all the electronics and the ear cushions in an environment friendly box that’s the fraction of the size of a regular headphone. The rest of the parts are sent to the customer digitally, which they can 3D print themselves or get 3D printed locally. The end product is a headphone that’s fully customizable, upgradeable and easy to fix.
All 3D printing technologies create physical objects from digital designs layer by layer, but each using its own proprietary method. To shed the confusion, we’ve created an infographic highlighting all the main technologies starting from the high level grouping, guiding through the printing process, exact technology titles, material options and ending with the key industry players.
How do these technologies work exactly and what does their output look like? What are the benefits of each process and what are the flaws?
In the following section, we’ll be introducing the most common 3D printing technologies in detail.
The FDM printing process starts with a string of solid material called the filament. This line of filament is guided from a reel attached to the 3D printer to a heated nozzle inside of the 3D printer that melts the material. Once in a melted state, the material can be extruded on a specific and predetermined path created by the software on the computer. As the material is extruded as a layer of the object on this path, it instantly cools down and solidifies – providing the foundation for the next layer of material until the entire object is manufactured.
As the cheapest 3D printing technology on the market, FDM also offers a wide variety of plastic-based materials in a rainbow of colors including ABS, PLA, nylon and even more exotic material blends including carbon, bronze or wood.
FDM is a great choice for quick and low-cost prototyping and can be used for a wide variety of applications. More recent innovations in FDM 3D printing include the ability to manufacture functional end products with embedded electronics and mechanical parts such as drones. Due to some design and material limitations, FDM 3D printing is not recommended for more intricate designs.
Materials: General Purpose Plastics
Both Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP) create 3D printed objects from a liquid (photopolymer) resin by using a light source to solidify the liquid material.
To create a 3D printed object, a build platform is submerged into a translucent tank filled with liquid resin. Once the build platform is submerged, a light located inside the machine maps each layer of the object through the bottom of the tank, thus solidifying the material. After the layer has been mapped and solidified by the light source, the platform lifts up and lets a new layer of resin flow beneath the object once again. This process is repeated layer by layer until the desired object has been completed. There are two common methods today differentiated by the light source: SLA uses a laser, whereas DLP employs a projector.
These 3D printing technologies are also available in desktop 3D printers. Materials are limited to resins, but new varieties have appeared recently providing strength or flexibility to the final objects.
SLA & DLP 3D printers produce highly accurate parts with smooth surface finishes and are commonly used for highly detailed sculptures, jewelry molds, and prototypes. Because of their relatively small size, they are not recommended for printing large objects.
Materials: High Detail Resin
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) uses a laser to melt and solidify layers of powdered material into finished objects.
These printers have two beds that are called the pistons. When the printing process begins, a laser maps the first layer of the object in the powder, which selectively melts – or sinters – the material. Once a layer has been solidified, the print bed moves down slightly as the other bed containing the powder moves up; and a roller spreads a new layer of powder atop the object. This process is repeated, and the laser melts successive layers one by one until the desired object has been completed.
SLS is mostly used for industrial 3D printing applications. However, the first desktop versions have already appeared on the market, and the technology is expected to move further into the mainstream. Materials include various plastics such as polyamides (nylon), polystyrenes and thermoplastic elastomers.
SLS is widely used for producing functional prototypes and parts as well as some end products. The biggest advantage of laser sintering is the almost complete design freedom; excess unmelted powder acts as a support for the structure as it is produced, which allows for complex and intricate shapes to be manufactured with no additional support needed. As a side effect of this process, finished objects require more time to cool and thus, cause longer lead times.
Materials: SLS Nylon
Material Jetting (Stratasys PolyJet and 3D Systems MultiJet Modeling) technologies are similar to inkjet printing, but instead of jetting drops of ink onto paper, these 3D printers jet layers of liquid photopolymer onto a build tray and cure them instantly using UV light.
The build process begins when the printer jets the liquid material onto the build tray. These jets are followed by UV light, which instantly cures the tiny droplets of liquid photopolymer. As the process is repeated, these thin layers accumulate on the build tray to create a precise object. Where overhangs or complex shapes require support, the printer jets a removable gel-like support material that is used temporarily, but can be removed after the print is completed.
Material Jetting is used in industrial 3D printers. Material choices consist of liquid photopolymers that can provide the final objects various properties including toughness, transparency or rubber-like flexibility. The most advanced systems can even use multiple jets that allow for the combination of different material properties and colors.
Material Jetting offers many advantages for rapid tooling and prototyping, as it allows users to create realistic and functional prototypes with fine details and precision. These are the most precise 3D printing technologies today, printing with up to 16-micron (that's thinner than a human hair) layers.
The binder jetting technology is similar to SLS in the way that the printer uses thin layers of powdered material to build up an object, but instead of using a laser that sinters the layer together, these printers use a binding agent extruded from a nozzle to bind the powder together.
The process starts with a nozzle spreading the binding agent across the first layer of the object and binding the powder together. Once the first layer has been fused with the binding agent, the printing bed moves down slightly and a thin layer of new powder is spread atop the object. This process repeats until the desired object has been fully formed. After it is removed from the print bed, the object is cleaned from excess powder and coated with an adhesive glue to give it strength and to make it resistant to discoloration.
Binder Jetting is used in industrial 3D printing, with the most common material being (full-color) sandstone. It is relatively affordable compared to SLS as the printing process requires less energy, but the printed objects are less strong.
The ability to print in full color has made sandstone popular for architectural models and lifelike sculptures. Similar to SLS, the benefit of this process is that the excess unmelted powder acts as a support to the structure as it is being produced, which allows for complex shapes to be made and no additional supports are required.
Materials: Full Color Sandstone
Selective Laser Melting and Electron Beam Melting (SLM and EBM) are two of the most common metal 3D printing technologies. Just like SLS, these processes create objects from thin layers of powdered material by selectively melting it using a heat source. Due to the higher melting point of metals they require much more power – a high power laser in the case of SLM or an electron beam for EBM.
During the printing process, the machine distributes a layer of metal powder onto a build platform, which is melted by a laser (SLM) or an electron beam (EBM). The build platform is then lowered, coated with new layer of metal powder on top and the process is repeated until the object is fully formed. Both SLM and EBM requires support structures, which anchors the object and overhanging structures to the build platform and enables heat transfer away from the melted powder. In addition, SLM takes place in a low oxygen environment and EBM in vacuum, in order to reduce thermal stresses and prevent warping.
SLM and EBM are used in industrial 3D printing. Materials include various metals and alloys including steel, titanium, aluminum, cobalt-chrome and nickel.
Metal printing is considered the “holy grail” of additive manufacturing and 3D printing; it is widely used in the aerospace, aircraft, automotive and healthcare industry for a range of high-tech, low-volume use cases from prototyping to final production. 3D printed metal parts allow for monolithic construction (reducing the quantity of components), miniaturization and mass reduction. SLM and EBM have evolved to a stage where these prints are comparable to traditionally manufactured parts in terms of chemical composition, mechanical properties (static and fatigue) as well as microstructure.
Materials: Industrial Metals
Selecting the right 3D printing material for your project is very important. Which material is most suitable is largely dependent on your specific use case. In this section, you’ll find the most common 3D printing materials. Learn more about them, compare them side-by-side and pick yours.
Ready to join the next industrial revolution? That’s the spirit! So, let’s see how you can get from an idea to your first 3D print. You’ll need a 3D printable design to begin with, and then you can either buy a 3D printer, or use an online service to get you idea materialized. To make it simple, we’ll explain all the steps for you.
Let’s start with the basics. To 3D print something, first you need a 3D model – the mathematical representation of any three-dimensional surface of an object. 3D models are created using computer-aided design (CAD) tools, various specialized software tools that simplify the design process on computers, tablets or even smartphones.
From here, you have three options: create a design yourself, have someone else design your idea for you, or browse thousands of existing designs on 3D printing content platforms.
Have an idea and want to design it? We’ve collected some of the most popular tools you can use:
Do you have friends or colleagues who can design in CAD or another 3D tool? Are there any design or engineering agencies that you know of in town? The first step of making that idea real is to get in touch with somebody who can help you and get the ball rolling.
Getting started here is easy; simply browse their work on 3D Hubs, contact the one you like, and explain to them your idea and how you would like to have it created.
If you don’t have a 3D file ready for printing, or if you just want to try 3D printing without having to design something, you can also explore multiple content platforms that offer thousands of free 3D printable designs.
Here are some of the most popular ones:
Once you have your design ready, it’s time to print! You have two options: either buy your own 3D printer or outsource the printing and use an online service. It’s an important decision to make, so we’ve collected arguments for both sides to help you make the right choice based on your specific needs.
P.S. Your local library may even have a desktop printer available for use.
|Buy a 3D printer if…||Use an online service if…|
|you’d like to 3D print regularly (2+ a week)||you’re new to 3D printing and you’re not yet sure how many prints you’ll need|
|you have a specific application that you’ll be using your printer for||you’d like to print using multiple technologies and materials|
|you are ready to make a sizeable investment||you’d like to access the latest technologies right from the launch|
|you love tinkering and making with machines||you’d like to focus your time on creating and perfecting your design|
|you have a garage or a free room to set the printer up||you’d like to test and learn first before deciding which printer to buy|
Yes, that’s one of the most common questions we’re asked at 3D Hubs. To answer it, we reached out to our global community to learn from their experiences and find out more about the 3D printers they own.
With reviews from over 8,624 verified 3D printer owners having a collective 4,982 years of 3D printing experience, coupled with 1.14 million prints completed on 513 different 3D printer models, the result of our research is the 2017 3D Printer Guide – the most comprehensive 3D printer guide available.
With 3D Hubs, there’s no need to own a 3D printer. We connect you with local people and businesses (our Hubs) that run their own 3D printers and have experience printing.
Getting started is easy: simply upload your 3D model and search for Hubs in your city or neighborhood. We automatically calculate pricing and help you throughout the entire order process.
Okay, it’s time to print! Do you know how layer height influences the surface quality of your print? Or which printer to choose for intricate models? The articles linked below will provide you with the essential knowledge needed to get the most out of your 3D prints.
You are almost at the end of our 3D printing guide. But fear not, there’s always plenty more to learn about in our knowledge base – a collection of practical tutorials written by 3D printing experts. A comprehensive resource that will help you understand the advantages of 3D printing, select the right additive manufacturing process and much more.
Supports in 3D Printing: A technology overview
Learn what a 3D printed support structure is, when support is needed and how support might affect the quality and price of your print.
Design optimization for 3D printing
A collection of practical tutorials teaching you how to optimize your design for 3D printing
Selecting a 3D printing technology & material
Compare 3D printing technologies and materials on a variety of properties and find the best match for your design and budget
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