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A finished 3D print removed from a 3D printer

What is 3D printing?

Everything you need to know

    3D printing is an innovative technology that lets you create a physical object from a digital model. All you need to do is make a design, transfer the file to a 3D printer, then bring your object to life.

    The 3D printing process was devised in the 1980s and was initially called ‘rapid prototyping’. It enabled companies to speedily develop prototypes to precise specifications. Nowadays, its uses are far more diverse. Businesses, educators, medics, researchers, and hobbyists alike use the technology for a huge range of different applications.

    Here’s more information.

    What is 3D printing?

    In its simplest terms, it’s a form of additive manufacturing (material is added, not removed).

    This is how it works, step by step.

    1. Create a digital design: The first stage is to create a digital model in a 3D modeling program (CAD – Computer Aided Design) or by using a 3D scanner. Another option is to find a pre-existing 3D model design, for example from a company database or design-sharing website.

    2. Import: Next, import the design to 3D printing software, such as Ultimaker Cura. This free and open-source software slices the digital model into layers, and converts these into a G-code file, which can be ‘read’ by the 3D printer.

    3. Save / transfer: The Ultimaker Cura file is saved to a USB, which is inserted into your machine. Alternatively, the file can be saved to the cloud, then sent to the printer.

    4. 3D print: The final step is to press print. The printers produce layers of material, one on top of the other. This forms the finished object. Desktop printers usually use plastic filaments, which are fed in, then melted in the print head. This liquid substance is extruded onto the build plate. (This can vary between technologies – more on this later.)

    A 3D model being prepared for printing
    The 3D printing process starts with a digital model which is then prepared for 3D printing (or 'sliced')
    The 3D printing process up close
    3D printing is a form of 'additive manufacturing' as layers of material are extruded and build up a model

    What is 3D printing used for?

    3D prints can be used in several different ways, across many different industries. These are just a few examples.

    Product development

    It’s not easy (or cheap) to develop a product. Having an in-house desktop 3D printer enables businesses to test out different iterations, at a fraction of the cost. Idea Reality’s case study highlights how beneficial rapid prototyping for product development can be.

    On-demand manufacturing

    Manufacturing companies have to be reactive to their clients’ needs. 3D printing lets packaging company Gerhard Schubert GmbH develop customized tools on demand, helping them to offer a more responsive, adaptable service for their clients.

    Explaining complex concepts

    Architects and designers like Dubai-based Killa Design create detailed 3D models to showcase complicated designs to contractors, manufacturers, and engineers. This ensures everyone has full understanding of the project.

    A product prototype
    A 3D printed prototype – testing a tablet holder device
    3D printed part in use on a snow machine
    A 3D printed end-use part – the nozzle on a movie effects snow machine

    Industries where 3D printing is most used

    The industries where 3D printing is most used are automotive, aerospace, consumer goods, industrial goods, medical, and education.

    The main business benefits include being able to:

    • Create custom models

    • Rapidly create prototypes

    • Design 3D models with complex geometry

    • Reduce costs and speed up key processes

    • Make tooling for manufacturing

    • Print end-use parts

    For more information about how various industries use 3D printing to support their business, take a look at our page all about 3D printing applications.

    Different types of 3D printing technology

    There are several different types of printing technologies. The most widely-used are:

    Stereolithography (SLA)

    This was the first 3D printing technology to be developed. It uses a stereolithograph apparatus to transform liquid material into a solid printed object. Digital light processing (DLP) is very similar.

    Selective laser sintering (SLS)

    Selective laser sintering is similar to stereolithography, but uses powdered material (stereolithography uses a liquid resin). Selective laser melting (SLM) is a subcategory of this type of 3D printing process, and Electronic Beam Melting (EBM) is another, though it uses an electron beam instead of a laser.

    Fused filament fabrication (FFF)

    Ultimaker’s desktop 3D printers use fused filament fabrication. The filament is heated through a nozzle, then deposited on the build plate below. FFF builds the printed object up, layer by layer, using a heated thermoplastic filament.

    This useful guide provides more information about FFF, SLA, and SLS technologies.

    Different 3D printing materials

    Ultimaker has a wide range of filaments, all suited to specific tasks. If you’re looking for a deep dive into 3D printing materials, their use cases, and filament product, be sure to check out our three-part blog series.

    Architectural 3D printed model
    PLA material brings out fine details and smooth surfaces on this 3D printed architectural model
    Packaging line part made with flexible material
    Flexible material (TPU 95A) means this part can safely move items on a packaging line without causing damage

    Examples of 3D printing filament include:

    Polylactic acid (PLA)

    This biodegradable polymer has a good surface quality. It’s ideal for concept models and visualization aids.

    Co-polyester (CPE)

    CPE is chemical-resistant, with a high tensile strength. As such, it’s great for mechanical applications. It’s also odorless, which makes it one of the safest choices for printing. CPE+ is stronger, and suitable for functional prototyping.

    Polycarbonate (PC)

    Polycarbonate is super-tough, making it ideal for engineers. It’s also heat-resistant.

    Nylon (polyamide)

    Nylon is flexible and strong, so it’s good for printing tools and end-use parts. It’s also abrasion-resistant.

    Polypropylene (PP)

    This is the second-most commonly used polymer, and is tough and low-friction. It’s also semi-flexible.

    Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU 95A)

    This semi-flexible material performs similarly to rubber, and can withstand impact without breaking or deforming.

    Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)

    PVA isn’t used for the finished printed product. Instead, it’s a removable support structure that dissolves in water. Useful in the 3D printing process for creating features like overhangs.

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    • Ultimaker 3 Jorge Valle product design studio

      In the spotlight: Jorge Valle, 3D artist and product designer

      We spoke to product designer Jorge Valle about how 3D printing helps him turn his ideas for new products into reality in next to no time, and how it fits into his 3D design workflow.

      • Applications
    • The five key 3D printing applications

      The five key 3D printing applications

      Integrating a desktop 3D printer into your workflow can yield impressive results, from creating concepts and prototypes for products to small batches of tooling, or even medical models for surgeons. Here’s a look at five of the ways 3D printing can improv

      • Applications
    • Architects looking at a 3D model

      Six reasons why every architect needs a 3D printer

      From helping you present concepts to clients faster to allowing for more iterations during the process, 3D printing in architecture makes a lot of sense. Here are six reasons why you should consider one.

      • Applications
    • RepRap printer

      Reminiscing about RepRap: 10 years on

      Today, May 29th, 2018, marks the 10 year anniversary of the RepRap project. 3D printing has undergone an immense journey – inspiring minds, encouraging collaboration, and influencing the way we think about production.

      • News
    • Ultimaker S5 applications: Scaling up small batches

      Alliances with leading material companies to deliver choice and quality

      Ultimaker is forming collaborative alliances with global material companies to meet the growing demand for industrial-grade engineering materials compatible with Ultimaker 3D printers.

      • News
    • PLA materials og

      How to 3D print with PLA and which materials to choose

      Thanks to its accuracy, reliability, and cost-effectiveness, PLA (polylactic acid) 3D printing material is a great choice for many industries.

      • Applications
    • Ultimaker 2+ in Sierra Leone

      Empowering locals in Sierra Leone with Ultimaker 3D printers

      While aid initiatives involving 3D printed functional prosthetics in Sierra Leone already exist, they are not time and cost-efficient. Surgical resident Lars Brouwers believed that there must be a better way to get aid to those affected.

      • Applications
    • Jabil-Ultimaker

      Jabil Auburn Hills sees 80% reduction in production time with Ultimaker

      Jabil, one of the largest manufacturing service providers in the world, is overcoming production challenges with cost-efficient Ultimaker 3D printers.

      • Applications
    • Print detailed objects faster using adaptive layers in Ultimaker Cura

      Print detailed objects faster using adaptive layers in Ultimaker Cura

      Most slicing software will assign a constant spacing between each layer–known as the layer height. Very fine layer height will result in a high-resolution model, but each extra layer will add time to the printing process. A thicker layer height will print

      • News
    • Firmware 4.3

      Firmware 4.3 available for the Ultimaker 3

      Get the latest features and a better Cura Connect experience by upgrading your Ultimaker 3 to Firmware 4.3. The latest firmware release takes your hardware further with a new accessibility feature. Learn more here.

      • News
    • Ultimaker 3 and 3 Extended 3D printer

      Bosch announces global investment in Ultimaker 3D printers

      Electronics and engineering giant Bosch is investing in Ultimaker 3D printers for its global facilities to drive innovation while cutting manufacturing and design costs.

      • News
    • PVA filament on Ultimaker 3D printer

      3D printing tips: How to store PVA material

      Storing your PVA in optimal conditions is key to a high-quality 3D print. If stored improperly, PVA can absorb ambient moisture and cause failed prints. Follow our storage and care tips.

      • Applications
    • SolidWorks integration

      Ultimaker Cura 3D printing software - SolidWorks integration for a better workflow

      One of the benefits of Ultimaker Cura is the ability for users to extend the core functionality of the software to streamline the 3D printing workflow. Users can experiment and deploy modifications to Ultimaker Cura to integrate different software, read c

      • News
    • Ultimaker support material 3D prints

      Which 3D printing supports to use: PLA, PVA or Breakaway

      With the launch of Ultimaker’s Breakaway support material, there are now even more options for supporting your 3D prints. But which one is right for your design? Let’s take a look at the different options and when to use each one.

      • Applications
    • Firmware 4.1 and Cura Connect

      Ultimaker Firmware 4.1 released

      Ultimaker Firmware 4.1 release adds new functionality, features, and printing performance to your Ultimaker 3 and Cura Connect. Discover what's new in this blog post.

      • News
    • Siemens PLM

      Recap: Siemens PLM Connection 2017

      At the Siemens PLM event, Ultimaker exhibited innovations that aim to enhance manufacturing. We showcased several successful business cases, including custom-made jigs and fixtures developed by Volkswagen Autoeuropa.

      • News
    • pittsfield-public-library

      Library Stories: Growing opportunities with 3D printing

      Andrea Puglisi is a serials and reference librarian from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In this library story, she shares her experience of how 3D printers can be used as powerful educational outreach tools for the local community.

      • Applications
    • What’s an automotive minute worth?

      What’s an automotive minute worth?

      To demonstrate the potential financial impact of the newfound efficiencies brought on by 3D printing, Ultimaker sought out to answer: what exactly is an automotive minute worth?

      • Trends
    • Developments and trends in 3D printing

      Company update: Ultimaker receives major funding to fuel global expansion

      We are excited to announce an agreement for major funding from NPM Capital. With this new funding, we are able to accelerate product development and further grow the company.

      • News
    • Ultimaker 3

      Hardware designs for the Ultimaker 3 and Ultimaker 3 Extended released

      At Ultimaker, we believe in the value of openness, collaboration, and accessibility. That is why today, we are making the hardware designs for the Ultimaker 3 and Ultimaker 3 Extended available.

      • News
    • Ultimaker Cura 3.0

      Welcome to Ultimaker Cura 3.0

      With a fresh new interface, Ultimaker Cura 3.0 offers the easiest and most accessible 3D print preparation experience for users, whether they are novices or professionals.

      • News
    • Beginner’s guide to 3D printing with PP

      Beginner’s guide to 3D printing with PP

      Despite being one of the most used plastics in the world, PP or polypropylene can be hard to use for 3D printing. With Ultimaker’s optimized PP filament and these helpful tips, you’ll be ready to start exploring the possibilities of this material.

      • Applications
    • Back to school round-up

      Back to school round-up

      Summer is over and school is starting again! Here is a collection of resources to inspire your students with 3D printing in the classroom.

      • Applications
    • Druxbury free library

      Library stories: A librarian's journey of going from zero to maker

      In this article, Jessica Lamarre, a librarian and makerspace coordinator, reflects on her experiences about how a 3D printer in a local community can be a powerful educational tool.

      • Applications
    • 3D hatching: Grayscale printing on the Ultimaker 3

      3D hatching: Grayscale printing on the Ultimaker 3

      In collaboration with the Delft University of Technology, one of our engineers has developed a technique to achieve grayscale printing using an Ultimaker 3. This enables users to print an object with varying tones using two colors.

      • Applications
    • Library stories: Marin City Library

      Library stories: A lot more is happening in the library than just borrowing books

      In over two years of our 3D printing program at the Marin City Library, we've had great success. Our intention was to bring new technologies to a community that lacks access to resources that others take for granted.

      • Applications
    • Building a 3D printed T. rex with your class

      Are you ready to build a 3D printed T. rex with your class?

      If there’s one topic guaranteed to excite students, it’s dinosaurs. In tandem with Ultimaker, Naturalis Biodiversity Center has created an exhilarating, interactive lesson plan, showing you how to build a T. rex skeleton in the classroom.

      • Applications
    • Essential tools for every 3D printing professional

      Essential tools for every 3D printing professional

      To get the best from your 3D printer, you need to be armed with the right tools for the job. From removing support material to improving build plate adhesion, here’s a list of must-have tools, all designed to make your life easier.

      • Applications
    • Ultimaker company update

      Company update: Ultimaker files first patents

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • News
    • Understanding-Ultimaker-firmware

      Understanding firmware

      What is firmware? What does it do? In this article, we'll clear things up and explain how firmware operates inside your Ultimaker printer and how to update it. Let's get started.

      • Applications
    • Ultimaker 3 dual color drill

      Get started with Cura: Printing with two colors

      Printing with two colors not only looks visually impressive but makes it easier to highlight aspects of your 3D printed model. Here’s a handy guide, explaining how to create a dual color print.

      • Applications
    • 3D print farm

      Start your 3D printing lab in school

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • Applications
    • Ultimaker 2+ and Ultimaker 2 Extended+ source files available

      Ultimaker 2+ and Ultimaker 2 Extended+ source files available

      The Ultimaker brand is deeply rooted in our open source community. By sharing knowledge we will all ultimately have better products. The source files of the Ultimaker 2+ and Ultimaker 2 Extended+ are now available on GitHub.

      • News
    • Jeffrey Wijkhuisen

      Inside Ultimaker: Meet Jeffrey Wijkhuisen

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • News
    • Jasper van Damme

      Inside Ultimaker: Meet Jasper van Damme

      Our Inside Ultimaker series is designed to provide a deeper look at our talent here at Ultimaker across a variety of different roles, teams, and experience levels. Today, the spotlight is on Jasper Van Damme.

      • News
    • Anouschka Wodrada

      Inside Ultimaker: Meet Anouschka Wodrada

      Ultimaker has a great team of people – who work together to make our company what it is: exciting, dynamic and forward-thinking. Our Inside Ultimaker series provides insight into our talented crew – across a range of different roles and skill-sets.

      • News
    • Marcel Buter

      Inside Ultimaker: Meet Marcel Buter

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • News
    • Jacqueline Vulto

      Inside Ultimaker: Meet Jacqueline Vulto

      Our Inside Ultimaker series offers the chance to hear from our team members and find out what it’s like to work with us. If you phone Ultimaker HQ, you’re likely to be greeted by a friendly voice. That’s Jacqueline Vulto, our amazing receptionist.

      • News
    • Lenneke de Penning

      Inside Ultimaker: Meet Lenneke de Penning

      Our series, Inside Ultimaker, is designed to give you some insight into the people who work with us. Meet Lenneke de Penning, our assembly team leader, who leads our group of talented assembly operators; and ensures that our production line runs smoothly

      • News
    • Layla Smid

      Inside Ultimaker: Meet Layla Smid

      Every company needs a great team behind it – which is why we feel very fortunate to have so many talented, passionate people working with us. Our Inside Ultimaker series gives you the chance to meet our team and discover what it’s like to work here.

      • News
    • Ultimaker wins print competition with SLA torture test

      Ultimaker wins print competition with SLA torture test

      We're proud to announce that the Ultimaker 2 Go and Ultimaker 2+ won the first and second prize in the competition, proving that they're up to printing complex models originally designed for SLA printers.

      • News
    • Ultimaker Original upgrades

      Ultimaker Original upgrades

      We owe a lot to our trusty Ultimaker Original. It’s where our journey into 3D printing began and we’ll continue to support it well into the future, just as we know our wonderful community will.

      • News
    • An introduction to the 3MF file format

      An introduction to the 3MF file format

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • Trends
    • windmill-hero

      3D printed Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT) model

      When we introduced the Ultimaker 2+ printers we asked popular modeler Jacky Wan, also known in the community as Valcrow, to create a model that would show off the new features of the Ultimaker 2+ line. He immediately came up with this beautiful model.

      • Applications
    • 3D Printed Fallout 4 Mini Nuke

      Designing, 3D printing and painting the Fallout 4 Mini Nuke

      Do you love Fallout 4? In this detailed walkthrough, you will find out how to make your own Fallout 4 Mini Nuke. It covers everything from designing the 3D models to post processing.

      • Applications
    • Ultimaker Schooling 3D Printing Blog

      Ultimaker Schooling - 3D printing

      When preparing a print, choosing the right 3D printing profile makes a really big difference. To help give you the lowdown on 3D printing best practices we’ve combined the knowledge of our experts with our online knowledge base.

      • Applications
    • ultimaker 2 family of 3d printers

      Releasing our source files: the Ultimaker 2 Go and Extended are now available

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • News
    • Ultimaker Original upgrades

      Sharing the Ultimaker Original+ files

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • News
    • Close-up of Ultimaker Original modified with a pen to become a plotter

      Transform your Ultimaker in a Pen Plotter

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • Applications
    • Close-up of 3D printed Ducati motorcycle drivetrain

      3D Printed Ducati 1199 Superbike

      If it’s happening in Ultimaker’s world, you can find out about it here. 3D printing stories about inspiring moments, original 3D printed projects and much much more.

      • Applications
    • Close-up of an airbrush to paint 3D models with

      Painting 3D-printed models

      Painting 3D-printed models is a great way of adding detail and production value to your models, often making the difference between a ‘cool print’ and a real piece of art.

      • Applications
    • Side view of the 3D printed Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber by Valcrow

      3D-printed lightsaber design philosophy and printing tips

      For May the 4th, I designed a 3D printed lightsaber in commemoration of Star Wars day in collaboration with Ultimaker. In this guest blog I will explore some of the design nuances and share some tips.

      • Applications