What is 3D Printing?

3D Printing is a process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, usually by laying down many thin layers of a material.
There are many methods of melting or softening the material to produce the layers. Fused Filament Fabrication or FFF is the most common type of 3D printing. Whilst the technology has been around for 30 years it’s only in the last 5 years, and the rise of desktop 3D printers, that people have become aware of its game changing potential across all industries.

3d printer

How does 3D printing work?

It all starts with making a virtual design of the object you want to create. This virtual design is made in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file using a 3D modeling program (for the creation of a totally new object) or with the use of a 3D scanner (to copy an existing object). A 3D scanner makes a 3D digital copy of an object.  There are also lots of online file repositories where you can download existing 3D files that will help get you started.

The 3D printing process turns an object into many, tiny little slices, then builds it from the bottom-up, slice by slice. The layers then build up to form a solid object.  The process of building objects in this way is also referred to as Additive Manufacturing.

Material Extrusion

The most commonly used technology in this process is Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) The FFF technology works by using a plastic filament or metal wire which is unwound from a coil to supply material to an extrusion nozzle which can turn the flow on and off. The nozzle is heated to melt the material and can be moved in both horizontal and vertical directions by a numerically controlled mechanism, directly controlled by a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software package. The object is produced by extruding melted material to form layers as the material hardens immediately after extrusion from the nozzle. This technology was historically  most widely used with two plastic filament material types: ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (Polylactic acid) but many other materials are now available ranging in properties from recycled, wood filled, conductive, flexible, dissolvable, chemical resistant, biological and even food!  The development of materials has become a huge area of growth with more applications becoming possible thanks to the advancements. 

Processes and technologies

Not all 3D printers use the same technology. There are several ways to print and all those available are additive, differing mainly in the way layers are built to create the final object.

Some methods use melting or softening material to produce the layers. Selective laser sintering (SLS) and fused deposition modeling (FDM) are the most common technologies using this way of 3D printing. Another method is when we talk about curing a photo-reactive resin with a UV laser or another similar power source one layer at a time. The most common technology using this method is called stereolithography (SLA)