You’re likely familiar with how an inkjet or laser printer works. You create a document or take a photo, press the Print button and the printer creates the image on paper. However, understanding how a 3D printer works is much more complicated.
You’ve likely heard of 3D printing – maybe you or someone you know even has a 3D printer – but how does an image go from a computer screen, to the printer, to 3D form? It’s a step by step process that involves taking an image and slicing it into many pieces and gluing everything back together again. The 3D printing process is referred to as making bread but in reverse.
What Is a 3D Printer?
To understand how a 3D printer works, you must first understand what one is and what it can do. These printers can create everyday objects. One machine can make different objects in different colors.
People have used 3D printers to make things from ceramic cups, to tools, to vases. You can even use them to make cars, human organs, and even food. You simply create a digital file of what you want to print, and the object is created in 3D form.
While 3D printing – also referred to as additive manufacturing – may appear to be a relatively new technology, the first 3D printer was created back in 1986 by Charles Hull. The process has been around for more than 30 years, but advances in technology are making it more mainstream, less expensive, and easier to use.
Basics of Operation
Just like printing a document on the traditional inkjet printer you have at home, you create the document, make sure the printer is connected, press Print, and watch as your document is printed. The same process applies to a 3D printer, but objects are printed in a different way.
When you print a document, you may notice that the letters are sitting on top of the page. If you were to print over that same document thousands of times, the ink would create layers, and the letters would start to take on a 3D shape. 3D printers work on the premise that tiny layers can create a model of 3D proportions.
A whole object is turned into thousands of slices. The 3D printer then prints the object starting from the bottom. Each slice composes a layer, and each layer sticks together to create the final object. Since these layers can be composed of moving parts, they can be quite complex. It’s possible for a 3D printer to print power tools, cars, bikes, and lawn mowers fully assembled.
Creating the File
Before you create anything with a 3D printer, you must first design it. You have to use a 3D application such as a 3D scanner or a program that supports computer-aided design (CAD) files. Blender and Tinkercad are a couple of options to consider. You can find tutorials online to help you make a 3D rendering.
One you have a 3D model of what you want to create, you’ll then need to prepare it for printing. This involves slicing, which is creating hundreds of horizontal layers. The modeling application
can usually take care of this step, although some 3D printers may require special software.
When you’re done slicing the model, you can then send it to print. Depending on the printer’s capabilities, this can be done via USB, Wi-Fi, or SD card.
As you can imagine, no ink is used for 3D printers. While not all printers use the same technology, most use plastic filament to create the objects. There are two main types of filament: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polylactic acid (PLA). You can buy filament in a variety of colors, but it’s important to buy filament that’s compatible with your printer.
Printing the object is most commonly done by a process called Fused Deposition Modeling. The filament is fed to an extrusion nozzle, which is heated to melt the filament. The nozzle can move both vertically and horizontally. The melted filament hardens and forms layers.
There are many other types of 3D printer technologies that are used, such as stereolithography, continuous liquid interface production, material jetting, and binder jetting. While the processes are all very different, the end result is the same.
3D Printing Uses
Nowadays, many consumers have 3D printers and use them as a hobby to create fun designs and useful tools for around the house. Besides the ability to tinker around, 3D printers offer many opportunities to consumers.
For example, have you broken or lost an important item that has been discontinued or is out of stock at every store? Simply print a new one. You can also create items to fit your very specific needs. Have trouble finding jeans that fit? Not anymore. With a 3D printer, you can create clothing that fits your body type and specifications.
3D printing also creates limitless mealtime possibilities. You can create your own food without having to go to the store, face traffic, or wait in line. No matter what you’re craving, you can eat it anytime you want.
3D printers are also useful tools in many industries. 3D printers were originally created for prototyping. By creating their own molds and prototypes, companies are able to save time and money. They can make simple design changes on their own and create better products without having to involve a third party.
The medical field is especially interested in 3D printing technology since being able to create human organs would most definitely be a game changer. Instead of viewing replicas of organs on a computer screen, a 3D printer allows doctors to feel a printed organ.
Patients would no longer have to wait for a heart or liver transplant. Instead, a doctor could create one in a matter of hours. This could be a real possibility in the next decade or so, making a 3D printer a potentially life-saving tool.
3D printers are already being used to print artificial limbs. Companies are printing hands, arms, and legs for not only humans but animals as well. 3D printers can create tortoise shells, jaws for turtles, and legs for dogs and ducks.
The automotive industry is also using 3D printing to make prototypes. Some companies are even using this technology to make cars. However, due to strict highway codes, it could be a while before these 3D printed cars make their way onto roads in the United States.
3D printing will also revolutionize the arts and education fields. Artists will have access to 3D printing as a new medium for expressing their creativity. In the education field, schools will be relying on 3D printers to help students visualize their ideas. High schools and colleges will likely be teaching classes on 3D printing to help students develop skills that may be of use to them as they embark on careers.
3D printing is also big in the aerospace field. NASA and aircraft agencies use these printers to cut fuel costs and reduce overall weight.
3D printing is an amazing technology, but it can’t do everything. A 3D printer may be cheaper than a factory, but having to print each product individually is still more costly and time-consuming than other forms of manufacturing. 3D printing is not as refined, so it’s difficult for products to retain a smooth finish. Size and variety of materials are also limited with 3D printing, but, as technology improves, these limitations will not be as problematic.
Buying a Printer
3D printers are more common than they were several years ago, so buying one has never been easier. You can now buy them at big box retailers such as Staples, Best Buy, and Walmart. Shop online, and you can find a thousand different models from Amazon and other online retailers.
Prices range widely based on features, usability, and reliability. If you’re starting out, it’s best to try a lower-end model rather than diving into an industrial grade model that’ll set you back several thousand dollars. You can buy a 3D printer for as low as $200 or spend as much as $5,000 on one.
The choices can be overwhelming, so it’s recommended that you peruse a user guide before attempting to wade through the numerous choices online. For a consumer, a good rule of thumb is to look for a 3D printer in the $500 to $1,000 range. Surprisingly, you’ll find a good variety of decent quality printers at this price point. Schools and libraries may want to invest in higher-end printers that fall in the $1,500 range. For professional and industrial use, it’s important to get the best quality possible. This may mean investing in a printer priced upward of $3,500.
Services and Marketplaces
If you’re interested in a 3D printer but feel you aren’t technically savvy enough to create models of objects, don’t let that stop you. You can find 3D model files online that you can download and print on your 3D printer. Many of these files are available for free, while some may require a small charge.
Many 3D printers come with limited support and instructions, so it may be difficult to get one up and running. Fortunately, there are also many websites online that can help you get started. From tutorials, to tricks, to guides, to step-by-step instructions, it should be relatively easy to find what you need.
Even if you ultimately decide not to purchase your own 3D printer – whether due to cost or some other reason – you can still enjoy the various benefits one has to offer. You can still create models of objects and have a third party printing service print and deliver the object. All you have to do is upload the file online. The cost is typically reasonable.
If you own a medical business, art studio, architectural firm, or any other type of business, you can also use business to business services that will create a 3D model for your use. Just present a file with your model, and the business will print a scale model.
Making Money from 3D Printing
The world of three-dimensional printing opens the door to business opportunities. You can use a printer to make and sell your own creations. You can also provide printing services for businesses. Many industries could benefit from having someone create objects for them.
If you’re considered an expert in the field, you could share your knowledge with others. You may be able to teach classes, offer demonstrations at schools, or give lectures at industry conferences, for example.
The Future of 3D Printing
By next year, it is predicted that the 3D printing industry will grow to nearly $13 billion in revenue. By 2020, that number is expected to surpass $21 billion.
Unless you’re an engineer or product designer, you may not understand what the hype is all about. It takes a lot of time and skill to create a product and then have to wait for it to be printed.
Like smartphones, people will be skeptical about 3D printers for a while. Although they’re growing in popularity, they’re not quite mainstream yet. They won’t be the “next big thing” for at least a few more years.
In time, 3D printers will be a mainstay in homes, schools, libraries, and workplaces worldwide as more and more industries and companies find uses for them. They will continue to decrease in price, and their affordability will make them accessible for virtually everyone. Just like almost every child nowadays has a tablet or smartphone, soon every child will own their own 3D printer as well. 3D printing technology is here, and it will continue to grow in popularity.