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What is 3D printing?
How it works | What can be 3D printed | How much it costs
3D printing is a manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital model file. The technology works by adding layer upon layer of material to build up a complete object.
In this beginner’s guide, we take you through everything you need to know to be ready to start 3D printing. To help you find your way, here’s a list of the topics covered in this article.
The 3D printing process was devised in the 1980s and originally known as ‘rapid prototyping’. It enabled companies to develop prototypes quickly and more accurately than with other methods. After over 30 years of innovation, its uses are far more diverse today.
Manufacturers, engineers, designers, educators, medics, and hobbyists alike use the technology for a huge range of applications.
Falling costs and the development of more compact ‘desktop’ 3D printers have also made the technology increasingly accessible over time.
What can you 3D print?
Any technology exists to solve a problem or make our lives better – and 3D printing is no different. Before diving into all the technical details, let’s look at what 3D printing is used for.
True to its origins as ‘rapid prototyping’, 3D printing is still widely used for this purpose. With 3D printing, designers and engineers can print their digital designs and review them within hours.
There are different types of prototyping that 3D printing can be used for. Designers can create multiple early concepts to set the direction of a product development process, or in later design stages create a realistic mockup to evaluate shape and form – for example how a phone feels in the hand.
And engineers can use diverse material options to perform functional testing of their prototypes, such as checking heat or impact resistance, or fit testing the design of a new part.
Most plastic products are created by injection molding – a process where molten plastic is injected into a metal mold, where it sets in the desired shape. While this process can take as little as a few seconds and is easy to repeat, it takes much longer to make the initial mold and only becomes cost effective once you’ve made a lot of parts.
What if you only need a few hundred? Or you need them by the end of the week? That’s where 3D printing can help.
As 3D printers have become more reliable and capable of printing with a wider range of materials – from strong glass or metal composites to flexible rubber-like materials – short-run manufacturing of small batches has become a realistic option.
3D printers give the producer more control and flexibility. If shipment of a component is delayed or there’s a spike in demand for your product, parts can simply be 3D printed so that production schedules stay on track. This is not only useful for manufacturing businesses, but helped to keep medics safe at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when PPE and other supply chains couldn’t meet demand.
Replacement parts are common on manufacturing and packaging lines where any problems and downtime can be very costly. If a part can no longer be sourced, or frequently fails and needs to be optimized, 3D printing means a replacement can be installed in a matter of hours.
Technically a type of functional part, 3D printed tooling is now so widespread it can be considered a category of application. Manufacturers can create and test new or optimized tools whenever they like, as well as custom jigs and fixtures to make the manufacturing process easier and more repeatable, for first-time-right results.
Models to explain concepts
As well as designing and making products, 3D printing is also a useful tool for visualizing concepts in 3D.
One added benefit of 3D printing in education is that students get involved with using the technology, developing essential STEAM skills such as 3D design, and understanding material properties and manufacturing processes.
How does 3D printing work?
As we saw earlier, the 3D printing process involves building up layer upon layer of molten plastic to create an object. As each layer sets, the next layer is printed on top and the object is built up.
To make a 3D print, a digital file is needed that tells the 3D printer where to print the material. The most common file format for this is the G-code files. This file essentially contains ‘coordinates’ to guide the printer’s movements, both horizontally and vertically – also known as the X, Y, and Z axes.
3D printers can print these layers at different thicknesses, known as layer height. A bit like pixels on a screen, more layers in a print will give a higher ‘resolution’. This will give a better-looking result, but take longer to print.
3D printing vs. additive manufacturing?
This adding up of layers gives 3D printing its alternative name – ‘additive manufacturing’.
You will often see the terms used to refer to the same manufacturing process. Additive manufacturing is the opposite of ‘subtractive’ processes where material is removed (or subtracted) from a larger block to create the final object, for example CNC machining.
FDM vs FFF 3D printing – explained
Another thing that may confuse newcomers to 3D printing is seeing references to FDM (fused deposition modeling) and FFF (fused filament fabrication) processes. Again, these are essentially different names for the same thing as they both refer to a specific type of 3D printer.
There are different types of 3D printer? Yes! But no need to be confused – we’ll take a quick look at these next.
What are the different 3D printing technologies?
Plastics are a versatile type of material, and as a result there are many ways of manufacturing with it. 3D printing is no exception, so let’s explore the different methods.
The most widely used technologies are FFF 3D printing, SLA (stereolithography), and SLS (selective laser sintering).
What is FFF 3D printing?
The FFF process involves extruding a thick string of material, commonly referred to as filament, through a heated nozzle. The nozzle is mounted on a motion system that moves it around a build area, where melted filament is deposited onto a build plate. As the material cools and solidifies, the build plate moves down by a fraction of a millimeter layer by layer until the object is complete.
What is SLA 3D printing?
SLA 3D printing uses a UV-curable resin as raw material. The resin is poured into a glass-bottomed container, into which a build platform is submerged. A laser shines UV light on the resin to selectively harden a cross-section of the required shape. The platform gradually raises out of the container to build up the print.
What is SLS 3D printing?
SLS 3D printing uses a powdered raw material, typically a polymer. The powder sits in a container, where a blade distributes a thin layer of material onto the build area. A laser fuses the small particles of material together to form a single horizontal layer of the part, then the container then moves a fraction of a millimeter to start a new layer, and the blade swipes across the build area to deposit a new layer of raw material. This process repeats to create the finished object.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and you may also come across the following:
DLP (direct light processing) – A resin-based process similar to SLA. Instead of a laser curing an individual point of resin at a time, DLP uses light to project an image of the entire layer into the resin
Binder jetting – A powder-based process similar to SLS, except that the powder is fused by a binding agent rather than a laser
Material jetting – A variation on ‘2D’ inkjet printing that can create 3D parts by depositing wax or plastic material then curing it with UV light
SLM (selective laser melting) – One of a few similar variations of SLS technology for metal 3D printing
So, now you know how they work, how do you use a 3D printer step by step? Many share the same basic steps which we’ll cover next, but they can also be more or less easy to use depending on their features (more on this later).
Step 1 – Prepare your design for 3D printing. By this point, it’s important you have a part ready to print and you have chosen your material. This part can be one you designed yourself using CAD (computer aided design), one taken from a 3D scan, or one you have taken from an inventory of existing designs.
Before you start printing, you need to translate your design into ‘coordinates’ the 3D printer can understand, as well as tell it important parameters such as the material you are printing with.
This is known as ‘slicing’, because it involves slicing the 3D design into – you guessed it – layers. This is typically done in a program known as slicing or print preparation software. Our Ultimaker Cura slicing software comes with many preconfigured settings so will normally only take you a matter of seconds to prepare a print. Or if you prefer granular control of the printing process, there are also hundreds of custom settings to use. Once the slicing is done, your file is ready to print.
Step 2 – Set up your printer. You could also do this step first if you like. Or you may not need to at all, for example if you regularly print the same type of parts.
But before you start printing, be sure to check you have the right material loaded. FFF 3D printers like Ultimaker also let you choose different nozzle sizes, with a smaller nozzle giving more detailed prints and a larger nozzle faster print times. If you’re using Ultimaker software together with an Ultimaker 3D printer, it will check your printer configuration and prompt you if anything needs changing.
Step 3 – Send your file to the printer. Once you are ready to go, you need to get the file to your 3D printer. There are two main ways to do this. One is to load the file onto a data storage device (such as a USB drive), put it in the printer, and start your print job via the printer’s interface. The other option is to send the job remotely to a network enabled printer via your local network or the cloud. Remote printing is particularly helpful if you are not in the same location as your 3D printer.
Step 4 – 3D print. Now you can sit back and relax! Or if you’re at work, get on with something else while the printer does its job.
Printing times vary depending on the size and detail level of your printed object and your 3D printer type. On an FFF 3D printer such as Ultimaker, a small component or rough prototype may only take a few hours. Most parts will be ready the next day if you leave the printer running overnight. And if you need a very large, detailed print, you may have to wait a couple of days.
Some 3D printing platforms enable you to monitor your print job. You can do this via the Ultimaker Digital Factory – and with an Ultimaker S3 or Ultimaker S5 printer, even view progress via a webcam feed.
When the print is finished, remove from the printer. Depending on your chosen material and printing process, some final manual steps may be needed before it’s ready to use. With an FFF 3D printer, this ‘post-processing’ is often little more than peeling off a small brim of material around the part. Other methods like SLA or SLS typically need more intricate post-processing, for example removing the loose powder from the chamber of an SLS printer.
Are 3D printers easy to use?
This can depend on a lot of factors, but in general 3D printing is one of the most accessible manufacturing processes available. Compared to injection molding or CNC machining, 3D printers are a much easier way to make parts and models, which is why it works as a desktop technology everywhere from schools to offices.
But, there are a few things to be aware of that will help make your experience of 3D printing hassle-free:
Material choice – Perhaps the key area where all 3D printers are not created equal. Check which materials a 3D printer can print or you may end up surprised to discover you are limited to only one or two. Even worse, some printer manufacturers only let you print with their own material products, so you’re locked into using these forever. Look for a 3D printer that’s compatible with a wide range of materials, including those made by third parties, so you can leverage the near endless options on the market and benefit from open innovation
Automation – There are potentially hundreds of parameters and configurations involved every time you 3D print, such as printer temperatures or how the nozzle will travel to build up the print. But at Ultimaker, we don’t believe this should mean complexity for the user. For example, our material spools come with embedded NFC chips so the printer knows what’s loaded, preconfigured printing profiles in our software dramatically reduce setup time for each print, and you can manage the whole end-to-end process in one place via the Ultimaker Digital Factory
Support and service – If things do go wrong, it can be frustrating and impact your productivity. So be sure to check your 3D printer comes with comprehensive support and a warranty. Check for troubleshooting, FAQs, and other resources so you can easily solve problems yourself and stay productive
What do you need to 3D print?
Your 3D printer should come with everything you need to get started out of the box. Below we list the essentials, as well as the optional extras it’s good to know about:
A 3D printer – OK, this one’s obvious
Material – Your printer should include some in the box or it can be bought from 3D printing vendors
Software – Some printer brands supply their own, or you may have to find a compatible program. Note that there are two types of 3D printing software – print preparation (or slicing) software and printer (or print job) management software
Consumables – In addition to materials, your 3D printer may require or come with other consumables. For example, oil or grease for maintenance, or adhesive aids for the build surface. With Ultimaker, everything you need to get started comes in the box
Tools (largely optional) – Some 3D printers may require one or two basic tools for configuration changes or maintenance. (Again, with Ultimaker everything essential comes in the box.) Otherwise, if you’re going to be using your 3D printers a lot and will need to do some post-processing of prints, it’s useful to keep a few tools handy. We created a guide to tools for FFF 3D printers
Peripherals (optional) – These can add more functionality to your 3D printer. For example, for some of our printers you can also add an Air Manager, which encloses the 3D printer and filters up to 95% of UFPs (ultrafine particles), or Material Station which stores filament in an optimal environment and automatically loads material when a spool runs out
Next to this, all you need is a power supply and a clean, safe workspace for your 3D printer. You can find more advice on these topics in our free, in-depth white papers.
How do you use a 3D printer at home?
Hobbyists and entrepreneurs have been using desktop 3D printers at home for years, but at a time when remote working is more common than ever, this is an important question.
Generally, the same setup advice as above for a workplace is recommended. But think carefully about two key considerations – safety and space. SLS and SLA printers require careful processing of hazardous chemicals before unused resin or powder can be disposed of with your household waste. And as space is likely at a premium in the home, choosing a large format printer like the Ultimaker S5 Pro Bundle may not be practical compared to a smaller unit like an Ultimaker 2+ Connect or Ultimaker S3.
What materials are used in 3D printing?
Plastic polymers are the most common material used in 3D printing. Using other materials is possible. For example, there are dedicated metal 3D printers, but these are niche compared to polymer printers. And super-sized machines based on 3D printing technology are starting to be developed for construction materials like concrete.
Mainstream 3D printer types such as FFF and SLS can print blends of polymers and other materials (such as metal, glass, or wood). These are known as composites and offer some of the properties of the blended material.
In the context of FFF 3D printing, you may see the terms ‘3D printing material’ and ‘3D printing filament’ used interchangeably. This is because the raw material comes on spools of thin filament.
In the following sections, we will look at some 3D printing filaments in more detail by category.
Starter 3D printing materials
Derived from organic, renewable resources and easy to print with, PLA is the go-to beginner’s filament. PLA also has great visual properties. But its low temperature resistance and the fact that mechanical properties can degrade over time mean PLA is often overlooked for functional and mechanical applications.
A well-balanced mix of properties has seen PETG grow to become one of the most widely used 3D printing materials. It could easily be classed as an 'engineering material', but it's also a good option for beginners thanks to good printability. Combining impact and chemical resistance with good thermal properties, while also being cheaper than many other engineering materials, it’s the go-to filament for engineering applications for many users.
Engineering 3D printing materials
Possessing chemical resistance and able to withstand significant mechanical stress, nylon is a versatile option for end-use parts.
Offering superior mechanical and heat resistance properties compared to PLA, ABS is a material for more demanding applications. However, it can be difficult to print with, especially on a cheaper, open-frame 3D printer. An enclosed build chamber and controlled temperature give a much more reliable experience.
Flexible 3D printing materials
With its rubber-like properties, TPU can be twisted, stretched, and withstand impacts without problems.
Semi-flexible and fatigue resistant, PP (or polypropylene as you may know it) is ideal for applications that need some flexibility, such as hinges or liquid containers.
Specialist 3D printing materials
These filaments combine a polymer with fibers of another material to give enhanced properties. There are two main categories. Engineering composites including glass, carbon, or metal fibers offer enhanced mechanical properties such as strength and stiffness. And for unique visual properties, there are composite options like ceramic or wood filaments for 3D printing, or even glow-in-the-dark. (Note: the fibers in composite filaments can cause abrasion, so check your printer is compatible before using any).
While they sometimes overlap with the categories above, there are many more specialist 3D printing filaments to discover on the market, such as ESD-safe or flame-retardant materials.
First, let’s quickly explain what these are.
Each new layer of a 3D print requires the layer underneath to support it. Issues arise when a print’s design requires an overhang, or an element that’s suspended in mid-air. So these materials literally ‘support’ it during the printing process and are removed after. Supports can be printed with the same material as the rest of the print, but their removal can affect its surface quality and dimensional accuracy. To avoid this, specialized support materials have been developed.
Soluble support material
Soluble support materials are dissolvable, so there is no risk of damaging your part during manual removal. PVA support material dissolves in water, while HIPS requires the solvent d-limonene.
Somewhere between the options mentioned so far, a material like Ultimaker Breakaway is a distinct support material that is manually removed. This makes the process faster than waiting for it to dissolve, while retaining the part’s dimensional accuracy.
3D printer price: All the costs explained
Now you know the ins and outs of how 3D printing works, let’s talk money. A 3D printer should be a long-term asset for your organization that delivers value for years after you buy it.
This return on investment is a benefit that sets 3D printing apart from other solutions like outsourcing. But as with any long-term asset, it pays to be aware of all the associated costs that come with owning a 3D printer, and which expenses you need to plan for into the future.
The list below should help you understand the costs involved, how they differ depending on the technology, and which are one-off or repeating. (Prices are indicative and subject to change – so we recommend doing your own research too.)
3D printer price – With products on the market for anyone from a home user to the R&D divisions of blue-chip companies, this varies a lot. Typically, FFF offers the greatest variation in price, from hobbyist machines costing a few hundred dollars to higher-performance desktop printers in the $2,000 to $6,000 range. Desktop SLA printers start from around $2,000 to $3,000, while an SLS printer typically costs $10,000 plus. Larger-scale industrial machines of any technology will cost significantly more
Peripherals – These can add extra functionality, but also extra expense. Post-processing peripherals are almost essential for SLA and SLS printers. For example, SLA prints will otherwise have to be manually washed in isopropyl alcohol and left in the sun to cure – so in practice, these printers often require purchase of post-processing stations unless that appeals to you! For FFF, peripherals can streamline workflows such as material handling, but are up to you depending on your needs
Maintenance and service – Typically, this should only be the cost of replacing the odd consumable part over time. Check what support your seller includes as part of the price – they may offer installation and maintenance included. Some products also come with extended warranty options or an annual service plan. These plans can add certainty for some customers, but be sure to read the fine print in detail to understand the terms and exactly what support you get if something goes wrong
Energy – For regular use for an Ultimaker 3D printer, we calculated this to be around $50 per year. But if you want a more precise figure, check the power consumption specs of a 3D printer and make a calculation based on your likely usage and local energy prices
Materials – Think of material costs like gas for your car. While not considerable in isolation, over the long-term it will be one of the biggest running costs. For FFF 3D printing, an everyday filament like PLA or PETG will cost around $20 to $50 per kilogram, or $60 to $120 for specialized engineering or support filaments. Entry-level SLA resins cost around $50 per liter, and most professional options cost around $150 to $400. SLS powder can cost around $100 to $200 per kilogram
Software – Most professional level 3D printers come with some software included, usually so you can prepare your prints and manage printers. Many cheaper 3D printers don’t come with adequate software, but luckily our Ultimaker Cura software is compatible with hundreds of machines and free to download. And if you really want to scale 3D printing in your business unit or even entire organization, consider an enterprise software plan with added features like direct support, online training courses, and cloud storage for your parts and projects
We hope you found this guide to the basics of 3D printing useful.
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What is FFF 3D printing?
While it has its origins as a proprietary manufacturing technology from the 1980s, desktop FFF really took off just over 10 years ago when patents expired and projects like the open-source RepRap initiative led to greater innovation and affordability.