How Does A 3D Printer Work?

Posted: Jun 7 2016, 2:46am CDT | by , Updated: Jun 7 2016, 4:33am CDT, in News | Technology News


How Does a 3D Printer Work?
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is an additive process where solid objects are made from a digital file. The first 3D printer was created in the early nineties at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, the concept was initially developed in the mid-eighties by Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems, Inc. The early concept concentrated on the fabrication process of Stereolithography. However, since then various other technologies have been developed.

In the past few years, it has gathered a great deal of interest in the tech space. It can be used to create everything from prosthetic limbs to jewelry, car parts, hearing aids, and gifts. But how do these printers actually work? How does a printer that is available and affordable to individual consumers manage to create complex objects from the comforts of your own home?

It Starts With A Design

In order to make an object, you require a 3D printer, the printing material, and a digital 3D model of the object. You need to design the object before you can begin making it. An original virtual design can be constructed using animation modeling software or with computer aided design (CAD). These programs allow you to create a virtual blueprint of the product you want to print.

The program divides your design up into digital cross-sections. This allows the printer to build the object up layer by layer. The printer works by adding more and more of a building material to create an object from nothing. This is in direct contrast to alternative methods such as the process of sculpture when you shave materials down in order to create something new. This additive process allows you to create complex objects with hollow interiors, or just something as simple as a solid cube.

There are alternatives to creating your own design if you are not the creative type. You can make a digital copy of an existing object with the use of a 3D scanner. These generate 3D models of an object using different technologies, such as volumetric scanning, modulated light, and time-of-flight. Some companies have made it very easy for consumers to perform 3D scanning, such as Microsoft, which allows 3D scanning with Kinect and Google’s Project Tango.

These days, you can also download a ready-made 3D model off of a repository. You can purchase existing files, or have somebody design something unique for you if you need something more specific. The files will usually need to be converted into G-code, a numerical control (NC) programming language. This code is used in both additive and subtractive manufacturing, and it tells a machine how to operate.

The Printing Process

There are various different 3D printing methods that exist today. The most commonly employed method by desktop printers is referred to as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). With this method, the print material is melted using a hot glue gun. The heated material is then extruded through an active tool head.

The printing material is fed as a thin wire, known as a filament, to the nozzle of the printer. The material is deposited onto the build plate to create the final product one layer at a time. The most common print material used is thermoplastics, but you can also use metal clay or porcelain.

While other materials and methods exist, the general principle remains the same. The object is constructed by adding the material in layers, starting from the bottom up. However, not all methods force the heated material through a nozzle.

Besides FDM, other popular methods include stereolithography (SLA) and selective laser sintering (SLS). SLA builds the object one layer at a time using a digital projector or UV laser. These are used to cure a photo-reactive resin, which solidifies once it is exposed to light. SLS methods use powdered material, such as metal, which is sintered by a laser. The material is bonded together to create the solid object.

Applications of 3D Printing

The worldwide 3D printing industry continues to evolve and has a number of applications in several different industries. It can be found in everything from the automotive industry to the medical industry and the aviation industry. In 2015, the additive manufacturing industry grew by 25.9% to reach over $5 billion. It is expected to continue to grow and earn over $21 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020.

Medical industry

The 3D printer has been huge for the medical industry. It has been used to create bones that can be used to fix fractures, a bionic ear, and a lower jaw in the Netherlands. It has even been used to create a more porous pill for epilepsy, which is easier to swallow in high doses than a regular tablet.

Automotive industry

Auto manufacturers were quick to spot the benefits of 3D printing. It has evolved from relatively simple concept models, to fully functional parts used in test vehicles, platforms, and engines. While still mainly used in rapid prototyping, the future could be in the supply chain for spare parts. The LM3D is expected to be the first 3D printed car and is even recyclable.

Aerospace and aviation industries

Another early adopter of 3D printing is the aircraft industry. In fact, just four years after SLA was patented, several companies in this industry started to use the technology. While initially used mainly for creating prototypes, the industry has since taken full advantage of the technology. Leading manufacturer Airbus has over 1,000 3D printer parts on its A350 XWB aircraft. Even NASA is using additive manufacturing and managed to print off a wrench with a 3D printer on the International Space Station.

The 3D printing process has revolutionized the way we produce goods. The technology has come a long way since its early beginnings, and it is now even available to individual consumers. While price is still a big drawback for many, smaller printers can be purchased for as little as $350. They can be used at work, in school, or even just for fun at home.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/2" rel="author">Luigi Lugmayr</a>
Luigi Lugmayr () is the founding chief Editor of I4U News and brings over 15 years experience in the technology field to the ever evolving and exciting world of gadgets. He started I4U News back in 2000 and evolved it into vibrant technology magazine.
Luigi can be contacted directly at




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