Skip to main content

A Beginner's Guide to 3-D Printing

The term "3-D printing" refers to a variety of processes in which a computer is used to control the addition of material layer by layer to create a 3-D object. Initially, the term referred to the creation of objects in which inkjet printer heads deposited binder materials onto a bed of powder. Now, the term refers to a variety of techniques, and the term "additive manufacturing" is used to encompass the various methods currently in use. Typically, the process begins with an object being designed using CAD (computer-aided design) software. Three of the most popular 3-D printing processes are fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS), and stereolithography (SLA). FDM is the 3-D printing process that's used most frequently.

What Is 3-D Printing?

The terms "3-D printing" and "additive manufacturing" are sometimes used interchangeably, but 3-D printing is a subset of additive manufacturing. In this process, layers of material are stacked upon each other, slowly building the desired object. Scientist David E.H. Jones first proposed the idea of 3-D printing in a 1974 column published in New Scientist. By the 1980s, 3-D printing was in use and quickly becoming the preferred method to make prototypes for the automotive and aerospace industries. In 1988, 3-D Systems began selling an industrial 3-D printer using stereolithography technology. By the early 1990s, several companies were producing these machines, and by 2009, 3-D printing had crept into the mass market. Since then, FDM has become the most common type of 3-D printer available, and there are now consumer-grade 3-D printers available at various price points.

How Does it Work?

All 3-D printed objects are created using an additive process. Layers of material are laid upon each other and fused until the desired object is complete. The field of 3-D printing has its own vocabulary, and important terms to know include:

  • Bed: The surface that 3-D printed objects are formed upon
  • Extruder: The part of the printer that melts the material to form the layers
  • Filament: A material, usually plastic, that comes in a long, cable-like strand. Some 3-D printers use filaments to create objects.
  • G-Code: A term used beyond 3-D printing that describes the instructions given to the 3-D printer, describing every movement needed to manufacture an object
  • Heated Bed: When the printer bed is heated before manufacturing begins to provide better adhesion
  • Nozzle: A small opening where melted filament is extruded from
  • RepRap: The term used to describe machines that can 3-D print copies of themselves
  • Stepper Motor: The powerful type of motor that powers the printer

What Can 3-D Printers Make?

A 3-D printer can manufacture almost any item that can be created from hard materials. The producers of the James Bond movie Skyfall printed a 1:3 scale Aston Martin that they then destroyed for a scene in the film. People who love photography are experimenting with making different kinds of camera lenses. Musical instruments like acoustic guitars and flutes have been printed. One use parents and educators enjoy is having a child draw a picture and then using a 3-D printer to bring the image to life. Even fabric and clothing items have been created using 3-D printers. One useful application is using a 3-D printer to make a hard-to-get part for an item that needs repair. However, regulations that apply to conventionally manufactured products don't typically apply to 3-D printed goods, so there has been concern about how to apply regulatory oversight to items that once could only be made in factories, such as weapons.