In this part of Getting Started with 3D Printing, we’ll give a basic overview of what 3D printing is and how 3D printing works.
One of the first things people ask us is “what is 3D printing?” They’ve heard about 3D printing but are not exactly sure how it is different from other ways of making things. While it sounds magical and mysterious it may also seem, perhaps, out of reach to someone without specialized technical training and equipment. Fortunately, none of that is entirely true and we’ll do our best to dispel these myths. We will start by breaking down the 3D printing process.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is a type of manufacturing called additive manufacturing. 3D printing produces a machine generated model through a process that fuses successive layers of materials together. There are many types of materials and machine processes that are currently available that range from plastics melted in a heated extruder (similar to a hot glue gun), to laser systems that melt powdered metals. Through this process, all sorts of elaborate shapes and sizes are possible beyond what other types of manufacturing have been able to achieve.
This technology been around for over 30 years but has recently become affordable and popular with hobbyists, designers, educators, students, small business owners and innovators. This new creative force of 3D printers owe considerable thanks (and also contribute) to a growing assortment of open-source designs and low cost related technologies. Because of these readily available technologies, from free design software to plans on how build your own 3d printer, getting started with 3d printing has become even more accessible to anyone with an interest.
There has been a lot of excitement around the types of useful, decorative and sentimental things you can make with a 3D printer, from elegantly designed prosthetic limbs and eye glasses to jewelry, to chocolates, miniature lifelike sculptures of your friends and family to furniture and even houses. Maybe you’ve heard about some of these or perhaps you are mainly interested in a certain type of application. As different as all of these items are, because they are created using 3D printing they share a common process.
How does 3D Printing Work?
To summarize the basic steps involved in going from an idea to a tangible 3D printed model, here is a general overview of the basic process.
To create a 3D printed model you need to start with a three dimensional digital (or computer generated) model of your design. You can create this using specialized design programs (some easy to use for beginners and free) or use a scanner to reproduce an existing model.
This three dimensional digital file will need to be converted into another format for the 3D printer. In order for the 3D printer to know how to manufacture or make your model it needs specialized instructions. These instructions are typically in the form of a “stl” file, which is the original three dimensional digital file broken into slices (or layers) that your printer will generate. The program that generates the “.stl” extension file is often included with the same program used to develop your original model (similar to using Word to converting a “.docx” to a “.pdf” file).
The “.stl” file is then sent to another computer program that will communicate with the 3D printer. With this program you can specify the parameters of how you want your design made. For example, you can tell the 3D printer what temperature you want to use (important for different materials), how to orient your model on the printer bed, how thin the layers should be, how fast you want it to print, and even how many parts to print (if small enough, you can print several on the same printer bed) and more. This program is generally associated with the type of 3D printer you are using and is referred to as the 3D printing software.
Different types of 3D printing machines are used with different types of materials. There has been considerable innovation in this arena, and there is certainly room for even more. The materials range from edible (think frosting), to paper, concrete, sandstone and metals. These 3D printing materials all share a basic property, they can be melted and fused together (some at very high temperature).
After the materials are loaded into the 3D printer and once you’ve set the parameters (e.g., the temperature, the orientation, etc.) the 3D printer will “print” your model in very fine layers of material that fuse (or bind) together, one layer at a time, starting with a base layer.
During the printing process, your 3D printer may also need to “print” extra support materials. This support material will adhere to your model and be removed later. It provides a kind of support structure (similar to scaffolding on a building) needed to successfully print models with void spaces and protruding features. After your model has been 3D printed you will likely need to do some cleaning-up and finishing work to make your model look better.
If all went well you’ll have a gorgeous 3D printed part. But, in reality remember that this isn’t magic! 3D printing is a manufacturing technology with several variables (including materials, digital modelling programs, 3D printing machines, etc.) and it may take several attempts before you’re satisfied with the results. Patience is key! And a learning, can do attitude wins the day with this ground breaking technology.
Alas, even if you need to try again here’s the good news! Because you have a digital model, you can tweak it and print it again (several times if needed) in a relatively short timeframe. How cool is that? And that is why 3D printing is also referred to as rapid prototyping.