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Types of 3D printers and Their Uses

Updated on January 5, 2014
By EdytaZwirecka (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By EdytaZwirecka (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

What Are 3D Printers?

3D printers add a third dimension to your projects, enabling you to create solid objects. This means that unlike regular printers, which can only print in 2D (two dimensions), 3D printers can print in three dimensions. 3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing because the printer works by adding successive layers of material until it finishes printing the object. By using various 3D printing techniques, you can create virtually any solid object. For example, you can print an entire dress, such as the one you see in the image to the right. However, you need a 3D digital model of the object you wish to print. There are also some limitations to what additive printing can do.

Printed Objects at Print Show London 2012

3D Printing Technologies

Different 3D printers use different 3D printing technologies and each printing technology uses a different method to add the layers of material to the object. There are three popular printing technologies that are used most often in modern 3D printing: SLS, FDM and SLA. FDM printing is usually slower than SLS or SLA printing also requires you to use two different types of printing material.

Rsabbatini at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
Rsabbatini at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons | Source

SLS 3D Printers

SLS stands for "selective laser sintering." SLS printers use a relatively powerful laser to heat and fuse together the 3D printing material -- which may be glass, plastic or ceramic powder. The laser heats the powder that is dispersed in a thin layer over the printing platform and traces a cross-section of the object to be printed. After each cross section is added to the object, the platform lowers (usually less than 0.1 millimeters or 0.004 inches) so that another thin layer of 3D printing material is exposed to the laser.

By CharlesC [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
By CharlesC [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

FDM 3D Printers

FDM stands for "fused deposition modeling." Plastic filaments are extruded through a hot extrusion nozzle onto the build table (also known as a base). After an entire layer of material is added to the object, the printer lowers the base and then adds the next layer. Printers using this technology need two types of 3D printing materials: a modeling material for the object itself and a support material in which the object is built. FDM printers are slower than SLA and SLA printers.

By Zorro2212 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Zorro2212 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

SLA 3D Printers

SLA stands for "stereolithograhpy." SLA printers use a high-powered light source and a tank of light-sensitive liquid plastic. The light source hardens the plastic in the tank, one cross section at a time, until the object is completely printed. The 3D printer raises the platform each time a new cross section is added. Solid objects appear to emerge from a tank full of goo, which is visually impressive. Most entry-level printers use SLA technologt because it is not as complex as SLS and FDM and materials are relatively cheap.

Which One Would You Choose?

Which printer would you use?

See results
By Zorro2212 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Zorro2212 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

What Do You Need to Print 3D Objects?

Well, the obvious answer is "you just need a computer and a 3D printer." However, 3D printing is not as simple as that. To begin printing solid objects, you will need a computer, a 3D printer, 3D printing materials and a digital 3D model. Chances are you already have a computer if you're reading this article, so we'll skip the buying a computer part.

You can purchase a new 3D printer from eBay or Amazon for as little as $299 -- the Printrbot Simple 3D Printer. Faster and larger printers are more expensive, with high-end units selling for over $2000. However, you can find many entry-level 3D printers for under $800.

Printrbot Simple 2013 3D Printer Kit, PLA Filament, 1.75mm Ubis Hot End, 4" x 4" x 4" Build Volume
Printrbot Simple 2013 3D Printer Kit, PLA Filament, 1.75mm Ubis Hot End, 4" x 4" x 4" Build Volume

At under $300, this PLA printer is a great entry-level 3D printer. It prints objects at maximum dimensions of 4x4x4 inches and is shipped as a kit. Size: 7x8x9 inches. Weight: just 5.25 lb (2.38 kg). Printing speed: 80-100mm/min


3D printing materials are the materials you need to print your objects. In general, printer manufacturers also sell materials for their printers. There are also a number of third-party manufacturers that focus on creating new materials. Remember, each printer type requires different materials. For instance, FDM printers use two types of materials: modeling materials and support materials.

You can create your own Digital 3D models, as long as you know how to use a 3D modeling or computer-aided design application such as AutoCAD or Blender. However, most printers use the STL and OBJ formats. If your 3D software can't output these file formats, you will surely find a free converter on the Internet. Printers that can print color 3D objects work with the VRML format. If you have a 3D scanner -- like the VIUscan -- its PLY files can be used by most 3D printers.

VIUscan 3D Scanner

By Creative Tools from Halmdstad, Sweden [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Creative Tools from Halmdstad, Sweden [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

What Can You Print Using Your New 3D Printer

A nice thing your 3D printer can print is a car. Well, you won't be able to print a fully functional car yet -- we all wish we could! -- but your car's doors, bonnet and trunk can open. If you create or download a good digital model, you may even be able to turn the wheels when you turn the steering wheel. Let's not forget that you can print various parts for your car in case they break.

Other people like printing gun parts. Some are even experimenting with printing an entire gun using their 3D printer. This is a cool idea, but it's also something you should avoid! Creating and using specific gun parts is illegal in many countries and states and can get you in real trouble.

NASA recently created a 3D printer that is able to print... pizza! So, guess what, you can print your own pizza. For now, the pizza contains only dough and some ketchup and cream cheese. However, we hope NASA will add some more ingredients to the list of ingredients in the near future. It makes sense for NASA to invest time and money in 3D printer technology; it's a lot easier to transport dehydrated materials for the printer into space instead of transporting the pizzas.

Your new 3D printer can help you build the acoustic guitar you always dreamed about. All you have to do after you print it is fit the strings and start playing. You can 3D print guitars for your friends, if you feel like making a nice gift. The 3D printer is also capable of building other instruments, such as flutes.

UP! Mini Fully Assembled 3D Printer, 4.75" x 4.75" x 4.75" Maximum Build Dimensions, 0.20-mm Maximum Resolution, 1.75-mm ABS, PLA
UP! Mini Fully Assembled 3D Printer, 4.75" x 4.75" x 4.75" Maximum Build Dimensions, 0.20-mm Maximum Resolution, 1.75-mm ABS, PLA

This entry-level PLA 3D printer can print objects with maximum sizes of 4.75x4.75x4.75 inches. It has a metal enclosure that greatly reduces temperature fluctuations, as well as noise and odor.


A photographer managed to 3D print an entire camera lens. Well, he used some other tools and parts to assemble the lens, but the end result was fully functional. He used acrylic instead of glass, so the image quality wasn't stellar to say the least. However, the possibilities are endless. If you don't create an entire lens, you can print caps and hoods for your lens.

You can create 3D toys for your children. Imagine you could create the perfect toy; the toy YOU think would be most suited to your child. In the past, we were forced to buy whatever toys we could find in toy shops and hope our kids will like them. Not anymore!

Are you pregnant? If you manage to get your hands on a 3D model of your unborn child, you could print it in 3D. There are already companies that specialize in creating 3D prints of fetuses.

I am happy to let everyone know that 3D printers can now print... chocolate. Well, chocolate sculptures, but still 100 percent eatable. The chocolate sculptures were created in South Africa as part of an Android KitKat promotion campaign.

You can print medical models using your own 3D printer. If you study anatomy, you could even print an entire skeleton. You would need some strings and other parts to hold it together though. Remember that 3D printers can print joints, so the bones will move naturally.

Do you love your phone or tablet? Then protect is by printing cool covers in 3D. You can paint the covers or use a 3D printer that can print using multiple colors. You can also print gear wraps for your cables and card holders for your credit cards. Let's not forget you can print entire tablet stands.

3D print your own hanging lights and kaleidoscope clocks. Your 3D printer can print them if you create or download a digital model. You can use them around your house and color them the way YOU -- not the manufacturer -- like them. Don't forget you can print simple things like cabinet door handles and any plastic thingy that broke.

Love coffee? Your 3D printer can print coffee cups. Tee instead? Not problem, you can print tea cups as well. Although plastic may do the trick, you might want to consider a printer that can create ceramic objects.

If you have a 3D scanner, you can scan your face. And then PRINT it in 3D! A little bit of paint and there you have! Jokes aside, the truth is you can print anything using a 3D printer, as long as you can create or download a 3D digital model. The technology is advancing rapidly. Manufacturers already have printers that can print using aluminum. New materials will be added over time until we will be able to 3D print anything we need. Only the future can tell where the 3D printing technology will take us.

You can print clothes and shoes. You know what you like to wear, so it should be pretty easy to design something you will enjoy every day. You can take your own measurements and create the most conformable shoes you'll ever wear.

As a final note, the medical industry is working hard to use human cells instead of plastic. If they succeed -- and they will! -- 3D printers will be able to print real human organs. Transplants will be cheaper and organs will be available quicker; the 3D printing technology can save thousands of lives each year.

Your Questions and Feedback

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      5 years ago

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