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What is 3D Printing?

Updated on April 18, 2013

And why is 3D Printing so exciting!

What is 3D printing? How does it work? What can you print with a 3D printer? Should I get a 3D printer for home use? What about commerical online 3D printing services? What materials can you use for 3D printing?

Maybe you've heard that you should be investing in 3D printing companies? Maybe you think 3D printing could be useful for your business, perhaps you think you could make 3D objects for your hobby. Or perhaps you just want to know what all the fuss is about. If you've been hearing about 3D printing in the news and wondering what it's all about, this article will explain the technology of 3D printing and its practical applications.

I'm very excited about 3D printing. We have a 3D printer at home and I'm also making 3D models to print using commercial 3D printing services. I'm a software engineer by background with an interest in design and making stuff.

Image: Close up of our 3D printer

What is 3D Printing?

Right, let's start from basics. What is 3D printing? 3D printing takes a software model of an object and turns that object into a physical model by printing out the design from raw material.

3D printers work by building up a 3D design one layer at a time. There are various manufacturing methods for 3D printing, and more being tried all the time. We'll look at a couple of common approaches.

3D Printing with Plastic Filament

How Does Home 3D Printing Work

Home 3D printers typically work by heating up a plastic filament and piping it out in layers to build up the design. A 3D print head or extruder is moved along x, y and z axes and lays down melted material to build up the design, the material cools and you have a solid shape.

3D printing sounds complicated and futuristic, but 3D printing with plastic filament is actually fairly straightforward. It has limitations though. You can only build objects that can support themselves during printing, you can print out scaffolding material to extend the technique. (More on 3D printers for home use.)

Here's a 3D printing demo. It's the Cube 3D Printer from Cubify printing a wristband for the iPod Nano. The Cube prints using ABD plastic (many toys including LEGO are made from ABS.)

Selective Laser Sintering

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is a 3D printing technique that is commonly used by online 3D printing services and rapid prototyping companies.

With SLS you take a volume of powdered raw material and then use a laser to fuse just the areas that you want in your finished model. The model is built up layer by layer. Once the model is complete it is removed from the powder (the remaining powder can be reused.)

This is a very cool technique and can be used to build more detailed objects than plastic filament and it can also enable more complex structures as there's no need to build support structures. SLS is a more complex process than using plastic filament and requires a lot of expensive equipment.

3D Printing Materials

What Materials Can you 3D Print With?

You can print 3D objects with a wide range of materials if you use a 3D printing service. This includes various kinds of plastic, glass and resin. Metals including stainless steel, silver and gold are popular. A colored mineral based 'sandstone' material is the main multi-colored material that is available. Ceramic is also possible.

Read more about 3D printing materials.

What Can I Make with a 3D Printer?

3D Printers have lots of applications for fun and business. I've put together a list of 10 things to make with a home 3D printer which I'm working through at the moment.

Here are some ideas of the kinds of things people are printing with a 3D printer:

  1. 3D Printed Jewelry - Jewelry is a popular item to make with a 3D printer. People love to wear unique jewelry and there are lots of suitable materials for 3D printing jewelry including metals, plastics and resin. Jewelry also tends to be fairly small so it is affordable.
  2. Art 3D printed works of art give sculpters and 3D artists a way of making works of art in a variety of materials.
  3. Functional Prototypes Are you an entrepreneur with a cool idea for a new gadget? 3D printing offers a very affordable way to get your first prototype made. It's much cheaper that getting a factory to tool up.
  4. Hobbies and Toys Accessories for hobbies and toys are very popular. Dice for role playing games are very popular. Figures for your own board game? Add ons for popular toys. There are lots of options here.
  5. Household Objects 3D printing is great for making custom versions of everyday house hold objects. Perhaps you need something just the right size, or perhaps you need a replacement for a broken part.

3D Printed Objects for Sale

Visit these stores and galleries of 3D designs to see the 3D objects that people are designing.

The Future of 3D Printing

Will 3D Printing Change the World?

There's lots of interesting discussion happening about 3D printing. Will we stop buying things in the future and just print objects at home? Will we stop importing cheap plastic stuff from China. Will everyday objects become much more personalized and less generic?

At the moment we're very much at the beginning of the 3D printing revolution. 3D printing is expensive and creating custom 3D objects is difficult and time consuming. But the technology is progressing very rapidly.

Yesterday I was chatting to my three year old and he was describing a monster he would like to get 3D printed - his very own monster to his own design. He just thinks it's completely ordinary that we have a 3D printer at home that can make stuff.

I will definitely be teaching my kids to use 3D modeling software - a useful skill to have.

I've often spent hours searching for just the right product. I'll certainly be buying less off the shelf stuff from now on. I'm learning to 3D model so I can create my own designs.

We're starting to see applications that allow people to customize a 3D product - this is much easier than creating one from scratch. And an industry of 3D designers who sell objects made from their designs is starting to emerge.

Thanks for Visiting

What is 3D Printing

I'd love to hear what you think about 3D printing.

Your views on 3D Printing - Comments

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      ArtisanMM 5 years ago

      Hi, I have just posted my first squidoo article also on 3d printing. Couldn't find a good category either, I am suprised there is no technology category. I am a model maker and we use an objet 3d printer as part of our prototyping services. You have an interesting article here, will look out for your next one.

    • MagpieNest profile image

      MagpieNest 5 years ago

      @3DPrintPete: It is quite new and it was tricky to find the right category for this one. I'll be adding a section on multi-jet modeling. Being able to 3D print in color is crucial for mainstream applications.

    • profile image

      3DPrintPete 5 years ago

      Great lens. Can't believe more people haven't liked it! What's your opinion on other methods such as 3DP?