An Introduction to 3D Printing

Even if we’re only talking about the last decade, 3D printing has made extraordinary progress and is on its way to achieve things we can’t even imagine today. In this article I’ll be giving you a brief overview of 3D printing and some of its capabilities.

Photo by Mink Mingle on Unsplash

Right now, a heart transplant patient would probably have to wait years for a healthy heart. But imagine that in five years, a new heart can be custom made for them with the click of a few buttons. The little boy with a prosthetic leg, the war veteran who lost his arm to a grenade: they can get a new leg or arm within a few minutes. If you don’t really read into how it works, 3D printing seems like something right out of a movie. The idea of being able to print anything your heart desires from a little machine? Immediately I thought of that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs machine that turned water into food. Seems too good to be true, doesn’t it? Yet, this might all be possible thanks to something we know as 3D printing. From toys to prosthetic legs, 3D printers have got your back. Although still in its developmental stages, 3D printing is the revolutionary technology that will completely change just about every industry out there.

The “Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator” (FLDSMDFR).

Whether you’re just reading this article for fun or seeing what all the hype over 3D printing is about, I hope that in the next ten minutes, I’ll be able to teach you all about the basics of 3D printing. Either way, here’s a quick breakdown of what I’m gonna be talking about that might help guide you through this article:

  • What is 3D printing?
  • How does it work? (three main steps)
  • Different methods of 3D printing
  • Application of 3d printing in different industries
  • Future uses and development
  • Key takeaways

What is 3D printing?

So, what really is 3D printing? Essentially, 3D printing is just the process of going from a model on your computer to a physical object in front of you. It’s all part of a little process we like to call Additive Manufacturing. As its name implies, this just refers to manufacturing something by adding one part at a time. Simple enough. What basically happens here is you’re creating your object by putting different layers of materials on top of each other. Try thinking of each layer like a slice of bread that you’re putting together to make a loaf.

The only limit with this technology is your imagination — the possibilities are endless. Just think about it! With a bit more research and development, everything you could ever need — scratch that, things you didn’t even know you needed can be made. I need you to think bigger than small plastic toys, which is generally what comes to mind we talk about 3D printing. Think big. Let’s take housing, for instance. Statistics show that the average price to build a house is around 300 grand. But with 3D printing, even back in 2014, China printed ten houses in under a day, with a budget of only five thousand dollars per house. Yep, you heard that right. Five thousand.

Melting metal in Additive Manufacturing.

“With 3D printing, complexity is free. The printer doesn’t care if it makes the most rudimentary shape or the most complex shape, and that is completely turning design and manufacturing on its head as we know it.”

— Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D systems

How does it work?

Part 1:

Now that you know there are basically no limits with this technology, how does all this work? Honestly, for something that can do so much, the process isn’t as complicated as you might think. Let’s divide it into 3 main steps. First, it all starts with a simple 3D model on your computer. There are loads of ways to do this, one being using 3D modeling software. You can take a picture of a real life object and design a replica based on the photo. You can start from scratch and build something entirely new. More advanced softwares even let you animate your designs. It’s all up to you, the designer.

Creating a 3D model of a train using 3D modeling software.

You can also use a 3D scanner to produce a digital image of an object you may already have. Believe it or not, 3D scanners have been around for nearly fifty years, and they’ve come a long way. 3D scanners capture the size and shape of your object with a laser, and create what is known as “point clouds” of data. These are basically just a set of data points the scanner picks up: the scanner responds when this light touches a surface by producing a point, kind of like coordinates. This process is super fast and very precise, scanning up to 750,000 points per second. Then, a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file connects these points to create a physical interpretation of your object, which appears on your screen. It’s kind of like that connect the dots game you played as a kid, except 3D.

Part 2:

Now that we have our model, we can actually print it. The first thing you wanna do is choose the material you’re going to use. Depending on your product, you can choose a 3D printing method, which can then help you decide what materials you want to use. Under each printing method there are different types of technologies. Now, let me just give you a brief overview of some of the main technologies used for 3D printing today.

An example of a home 3D printer using FDM technology.

First up, we’ve got Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology, sometimes known as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). FDM is probably one of the most popular methods because there are loads of these in the market, plus it’s super affordable. Think of the process like using a glue gun. We first have the model materials, which is what your product is actually going to made up of. Then, we have the support materials, which acts as a support for the object being printed.

The object (grey) and the support material (white).

The model materials are heated until they melt, then pushed out through what is called the extrusion nozzle. Pretty similar to how you would melt the glue, then push it out the nozzle of the gun. The nozzle then prints each layer of the model with the melted material, onto what is known as a build platform, AKA the base. After it draws a cross section of your object, the heated material cools, sticking to what’s under it. The base moves down, makes room for the next layer, and so on. Once you’re done printing, you would remove the support material by either dissolving it or just snapping it off.

3D printed objects printed with Stereolithography technology using wax.

Next up, we have Stereolithography (SLA) technology. Similar to FDM, you also start with the build platform. With SLA, the platform starts in a tank of liquid photopolymer resin. Photopolymer resin is just a fancy term to mean that its a bunch of sticky material that changes its properties when it’s exposed to light. SLA uses this property by directing laser beams at the material, using mirrors called galvos, which are super useful when it comes to getting it accurate. This way, when the parts of the material needed for each layer of the product is exposed to the laser, it solidifies as a reaction to the light.

Hang in there! Next we’ve got Digital Light Processing (DLP). This is basically the same as SLA, except for one key difference. Instead of directing a laser beam at every part of the material, DLP projects the entire picture of a layer at once. Think of it like a projector that you might use to give a presentation: the light touches an entire surface at a time, which means it has a similar effect to but prints much faster than SLA. And once all the liquid has hardened, we’ve got our final product.

Another very common and low cost method is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). What basically happens is that we have a polymer powder (like the resin but powder form), which is heated until just below its melting point. This powder is then thinly spread onto our build platform by a recoating blade, like a windshield wiper. We learned earlier that polymer powder solidifies to form a cross section (a layer) of your object, so similarly, we direct a CO2 laser beam at the area you want to solidify. Conveniently, the leftover powder that wasn’t sintered (made into solid material through heat) can act as a support structure. Just like with the other methods, the build platform moves down after each layer is complete. If you want to print something metal, it’s basically the same thing but you use metal powder instead, and it’s called Direct Metal Laser Sintering. We’re getting real creative with the names, that’s for sure.

Here’s a method that works kind of like your standard 2D printer: Material Jetting (MJ) technology. See, with a regular inkjet printer, what happens is a layer of ink is printed onto your paper. With a 3D printer, the same thing happens, except it’s a bunch of layers printed on top of each other, and it’s a build platform instead of paper. Again, we start with a heated tank of photopolymer resin. Small amounts of this are positioned where you want it, solidified, you know the drill. However, the difference with this technology is that MJ has a bunch of inkjet heads attached together. This not only improves efficiency and speed, but allows for different materials and colors to be dispensed.

Different examples of using Binder Jetting to create colored prints.

Next up to bat is Binder Jetting (BJ). Remember SLS? Quick review: polymer powder is spread onto the build platform, then solidified with a CO2 laser. Basically the same thing happens with BJ, except instead of using a laser, the print head moves over the build platform. As this happens, a binding material (acts as glue) is dropped on the areas needed, solidifying the powder. The build platform moves down, more powder (usually sand or metal) is spread, and so on. Keep in mind that with metal, you have to go through an extra process (ex: sintering) for the product to actually be functional.

Last but definitely not least, we have Electron Beam Melting (EBM). This one’s a bit different, because instead of the traditional laser, EBM uses an electron beam, controlled by these electromagnetic coils. This is really great because the coils make sure the beam isn’t only super fast, but very accurate. What basically happens here is when tungsten is heated in a vacuum, electrons are released. These electrons, with the help of the coils, are able to fuse the metal powder.

So now that I’ve bored you with all these methods, which method is best? Really, there isn’t one. The “best” method really just depends on what you’re printing. For example, if you want to print something in color, it might be good to consider BJ. If you just want to print a standard figurine, try your luck with FDM.

Part 3:

The final step is just to add a few finishing touches. I talked about some of them in the second step, but this basically just means sanding or painting your object, as well as removing the support structures. Like I mentioned, support structures can often just be snapped off, but sometimes requires putting your object in a solvent until the material dissolves.

Application of 3d printing in different industries

Older aircraft parts can be recycled to print new ones.

This little technology is applicable in almost every field. In manufacturing, 3D printing can be used to make prototypes of larger scale productions. In aviation, large aircraft parts and even entire aircrafts can be made through 3D printing. Again, prototyping is easily done, which is a huge advantage because aircraft parts can be easily remade for a lighter, more efficient model. In the automobile industry, similar results are achieved. With the help of this technology, the Volkswagen was able to cut down development times by a whopping 95%, and costs by 91%.

A detailed model of a city created through Additive Manufacturing.

Like I mentioned earlier, 3D printing has proved to be a huge asset for architecture. Models of entire cities, prototypes, and entire buildings can be easily, quickly, and efficiently made.

A huge setback for fashion has always been the fit. You’ve definitely bought a shirt before that you loved and was your size, but just didn’t fit right. With new technologies, that won’t be a problem anymore — with 3D scanning, clothing, shoes, and accessories can be custom made to fit the buyer p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y.

You can find more information on Foodini here.

Products of unique finishes and combinations of materials can be made easily. In the filmmaking industry, costumes, props, as well as staging can be easily arranged. Meanwhile in the food industry, Natural Machines went full cloudy-with-a-chance-of-meatballs when they came up with Foodini, a food printer.

Medicine is a huge one. With how customizable and cheap 3D printed products are, it should come as no surprise that 3D printing has been used in the medical field since the start of the century. What started as maybe dentures or walkers has quickly become much more complex. Models can be made not only to explain concepts to patients, but for doctors to practice on. 3D printing is used for a couple main things: tissues and organs, prosthetics and implants, as well as models and research.

An example of bioprinting vital organs.

Before this, the only thing people with tissues and organs that don’t function properly could do was just wait. See, they relied on either getting new organs from dead people with good organs, or just if someone living decided to do humankind a favour and donate an organ. As you can imagine, there’s no way the number of people who needed an organ can match up with how many organs there are actually available. You’ve probably been told that every body is different and beautiful in its own way. In this case, that’s not a good thing, because this means in order to receive an organ from someone, you have to fit all the requirements. Will your blood types match up? Will your body reject their organ? There are so many things that might not work out, but 3D printing has really changed the game. When you print the organ, not only can it be totally customized for that person, but you can take actual cells from the recipient, lowering the chances of their body rejecting the organ by a lot. This whole process is known as bioprinting.

The 3D printed prosthetic leg in the United Arab Emirates.

“I’ve only been wearing this 3D printed limb for a few days but it’s amazing. It is very comfortable. I could put it on straight out of the machine, rather than go through casting, a test socket and the many different consultations that are needed. There isn’t much I can’t do with this leg.”

— Belinda Gatland, first person in the United Arab Emirates to receive a 3D printed prosthetic leg.

Moving on to implants and prosthetics. Let’s say someone gets into a car accident, and a part of their skull is shattered and has to be removed so the brain can have room to recover. When the skull is replaced, it has to fit the space exactly. 3D printing allows for that precision, and with some x-rays and scans, a perfect customized skull can be printed. This actually happened, by the way, and you can read all about it here. And of course, if even a piece of someone’s skull can be printed with such precision, dental implants and printed skin should be a piece of cake.

Even before any of these surgeries, 3D printing proves itself useful yet again by providing models and prototypes for the doctors to practice on. With the variety of materials that can be easily 3D printed, models that are super similar to the real thing can be made, both in shape and size to the particular patient, as well as composition and texture.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand pictures.”

— Unknown

Future uses and development

So far, I’ve been talking about the more traditional aspects of 3D printing. With the advancements of technology nowadays, 3D printing is capable of so much more. Back in 2013, neurotechnological design took a huge leap when the first mind-operated 3D printed object came into the picture. Imagine that! Being able to print objects just by thinking about it. Let’s say in 10 years, you could create a rubik’s cube, a machine, a whole house — all with a simple thought. You’re lying in bed, thinking you want a donut — — and bam, that’s what you’ve got.


So, what does the future of 3D printing look like? Apart from continuing to advance basically every industry, let me just highlight some areas 3D printing is predicted to do some good in.

We learned earlier that printing entire buildings and making a menu of 3D printed foods is soon going to be a piece of cake. We can take those abilities and use them to better our society by providing resources for refugee camps and shelter for our nation’s homeless. Something similar is already being implemented: the United Nations is using 3D printing as disaster relief supplies, in the case of a natural disaster. Field Ready (an NGO) was able to quickly print different parts to rebuild communities where the earthquake had the largest impact.

3D printing is also making a contribution to protect our environment and help the ecosystem: it basically takes any old material and transforms it into something completely new. Just think: we could scoop up plastic polluting the ocean, and recycle that plastic to print a new water bottle! If a turtle lost its shell: bam! We can print it a new one. A huge problem right now is trying to save the coral reefs that are affected by rising sea levels. Currently, we are working on developing structures similar to corals. This way, coral polyps, which work kind of like a dandelion seed and grow a reef by latching onto something, have something to latch onto. Even though right now 3D printing is mainly used for design and creating prototypes, it will undoubtedly save lives in the future.

Key Takeaways:

  • 3D printing is part of a process known as Additive Manufacturing, which basically just refers to manufacturing something by adding one part at a time.
  • The process includes creating a model using 3D modelling software/scanning a real life object, printing said model, and polishing the final result.
  • 3D design and printing is a very powerful developing technology full of potential that is applicable in almost any field.

Thanks for reading! Constructive criticism is always welcome. This is more of an introductory article, so if there’s anything you want to hear about that I haven’t covered, please leave a comment below!