How does 3D printing work?
Every 3D print starts as a digital 3D design file – like a blueprint – for a physical object. This designed file is sliced into thin layers and later sent to the 3D printer.
From here on the printing process varies by technology, starting from desktop printers that melt a plastic material and lay it down onto a print platform to large industrial machines that use a laser to selectively melt metal powder at high temperatures. The printing can take hours to complete depending on the size, and the printed objects are often post-processed to reach the desired finish.
Available materials also vary by printer type, ranging from plastics to rubber, sandstone, metals and alloys - with more and more materials appearing on the market every year.
3D Printing Concepts
Inkjet printers produce images by projecting ink onto a flat sheet of paper. Other media can be used, such as fabric or plastic, but the image remains a 2D image formed by ink.
3D printers use essentially the same method with a couple of important differences:
The material used for printing is a powder or liquid that becomes solid after printing
Multiple layers are printed on top of one another, each adding some height to the printed product
The surface on which the printing is done could be paper but more likely is a fixed solid surface. This is a work surface and the printed object will be removed from it when completed.
Printing with Plastics
The process used by most 3D printers today is called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). Both terms refer to essentially the same process, but the first term is the original name and is trademarked.
The material used for printing in FDM/FFF is usually a plastic material (several types are used) initially supplied as a long coiled filament. The plastic is fed into a nozzle, which heats it to the melting point and extrudes it onto the object being built. The plastic then solidifies when it cools.
Advanced 3D Prototyping
Before 3D printing had its foothold in the creation of prototypes, it would take normal prototyping procedures a few days to create a single complete prototype. Additive manufacturing however takes only a few hours, substantially increasing the number of prototypes that can be created a day. This has sped up industrialization processes to a great extent because it is now quite easy to Create a Prototype, make modifications and then produce the final product. Essentially, the technology has made it easy to convert an idea into the actual product.
Using 3D printers for these purposes is called rapid prototyping.
In short: it’s fast and cheap. The world famous sportswear brands used to spend thousands of dollars (and wait weeks) on a prototype before they could hold it in their hands. Now, the cost is only in the tens or hundreds of dollars, and changes can be made instantly on the computer and the prototype reprinted on the same day.