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3D Printing - An Introduction: What is 3D Printing?

This guide will provide a general introduction to 3D printing.

Quick Overview

Watch this short video for a very quick overview of 3D printing.

Factory to End User

Industrial

3D printing is being used heavily in the realms of industrial prototyping and engineering. Industrial grade machines can be gigantic, and printers are sometimes packaged together in a farm format. These machines can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $50,000 and up. These machines produce parts and prototypes for engineering, automotive, medical, and other industrial applications.

Picture of a large sized 3D printer, with a man removing printed parts from inside

Desktop

3D printers are also going in the other direction. Much like the personal computers of the past, they are growing smaller, more user friendly, and affordable. Once the realm of industry, then of hobbyists, many printers are now making their way into the average home. These machines cannot offer everything the industrial printers can, but they are still powerful machines and can often be customized. Desktop printers typically run anywhere between $200 and $2,500. They're usually small enough to fit on a desktop or to run comfortably in a garage.

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Images

How Does it Work?

  • Uses melted, liquid, or semi-liquid material built layer by layer to create an object.

  • 3D objects are ‘sliced’ using specialized software and fed to the printer as X/Y/Z coordinates that tell the printer how to build the object.

  • Considered a disruptive technology, allowing people to design and create their own objects and parts.

  • Lowering prices are bringing 3D printers into homes and small businesses.

  • Businesses from aerospace to medicine are finding new and interesting ways to leverage the technology.

Filaments and Materials

3D printing uses various different types of materials to create objects with. Usually these are referred to as filament when the material is solid. Liquid resin and other materials are also commonly used.

Plastics

  • PLA
  • ABS
  • Nylon
  • Flexible plastics
  • Carbon fiber

Other Materials

  • Liquid resin
  • HIPS/PVA (dissolvable)
  • Woodfill
  • Metalfill (copper, brass)
  • Bio-materials (collagen, alginate)
  • "Paste"

Filament Types

Image of a green 3D printed boat in PLA material

PLA

This model is printed in PLA, one of the most common 3D printing materials. It is a bioplastic made of corn, or other plant based materials, and is considered to be the safest material to print with. PLA offers many different settings for printing, allowing users to create all manner of objects. Due to how common it is, it can be found in a huge variety of colors, including metallics and glow in the dark.

There are other types of plastic filament, such as ABS and PETG, which have different chemical makeups. These have pros and cons of their own, and are both also readily available on the market.

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3DBenchy

Image of a boat 3d printed in translucent resin

Resin

This model is printed in resin, using a process called SLA printing. The material begins as a liquid and is hardened using lasers into the pattern fed into the printer. After printing the model must be cleaned using isopropyl alcohol, and then UV cured. The quality of resin prints tends to be higher than that of many other materials.

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3DBenchy

Image of a miniature wooden pallete, 3D printed in woodfill filament

Woodfill

This model is printed in woodfill. This filament uses a base of plastic (usually PLA), that is mixed in with wood particles. Bamboo is a common mixture, but other materials are also available. This filament prints much like plastic but had a grained texture like wood. It comes in a variety of different 'finishes' and can be sanded to produce a more natural look.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/creative_tools/12574067205

Image of a flexible wrench 3D printed in black filament

TPU Flexible

TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) is a flexible material that allows you to print items that have give and flex to them. It is a more difficult material and requires specialized equipment to print with. It is particularly good for printing seals, gaskets, and anything that would benefit from flexibility.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/creative_tools/16361116506

Image of 3D printed lions statues, printed in copper fill filament

Metalfill

Metalfill is similar to woodfill, in that it is a secondary material mixed with PLA plastic to create something new. Metalfill is usually copper, bronze, or steel though special magnetized iron filament also exists. These can be printed on standard 3D printers, but do take advanced settings to turn out correctly. Finished prints benefit a great deal from post-processing cleanup, including sanding and polishing.

Image of a glass container holding a 3D printed heart.

Biomaterials

Bioprinting is still relatively new but promises to open up many new avenues in healthcare. Printing is done in a sterilized environment, using biomaterials such a collagen or alginate. The material is deposited into a gelatin-like base using a needle-like extruder, rather than a typical 3D printing nozzle. The base material is needed so that the print can hold it's shape and structure through the printing process.

Learn more about how bioprinting works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bpsDhbCDJc

Image: https://www.3dnatives.com/en/3d-print-heart-160420195/

"Paste"

Paste printing is a relatively new area of 3D printing, that includes printing with any material with a paste-like consistency. This can include things like silicone, latex, clays, concrete, frosting, and chocolate. This is achieved by printing using a syringe, instead of a normal heated metal nozzle. The material is pushed through the syringe tip using compressed air or a plunger while the printer bed and/or gantry moves to create the object.

This technology is currently being used in the food industry to create detailed and intricate chocolates and other confections. In the art world clay and other materials are being explored for creating pottery and sculptures, while concrete is being used to build full-sized, functional buildings. Silicone printing is being explored for various uses in the health care industry, from anatomical models used in practice surgery to perhaps one day implantable organs.

Further Reading