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.

    Want to find out more about why businesses are adopting 3D printing and its different applications?


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