What is 3D Printing?

Think of your printer at home, or one of the printers at school.  Chances are, your printer uses ink to draw the letters and pictures that you end up seeing on the paper that comes out at the end.  3D printing is kind of like that, except that instead of using ink, a 3D printer uses plastic, and instead of printing a single layer of ink on paper, 3D printers print multiple layers - hundreds of layers, one on top of the other - to make a 3-dimensional object.  Check out the time-lapse videos below to see how they work.  These videos are really quick, but most 3D print jobs take hours to finish.

There are many 3D printers out there, but they mostly work the same.  They take thin strands of plastic (called filament), heat them up to very high temperatures - think oven temperature! - so that the plastic liquifies.  The liquified plastic is pushed through the nozzle of the extruder, and onto the build plate.  Once extruded, the filament cools, hardens, and sticks to either the build plate or the plastic layer that was printed below it.  The extruder moves on a track, laying down hot filament in its path.  This process continues on, layer by layer, until you have a finished 3-dimension object.  See the pictures below to see what it looks like.  Click on them to view them larger.


To make objects for 3D printing, we use CAD, or Computer-Aided Design, software.  CAD software helps us come up with designs for 3D prints, and then gives us a file that we can send to the printer.  That file contains directions for how the printer should travel and extrude filament, so that the finished product will look like we want it to.

CAD is used in a number of different fields, including automotive, computer, and aerospace engineering, as well as architecture and even medical technology, as 3D printing technology is being used for creating prosthetics and transplants.  To learn more about how 3D printing is being used in the real-world today, check out my 3D Printing in the News page.

In order to make accurate and successful prints, it is important to take measurements of what we want to make, and we often begin with drawings out ideas by hand before we get into the CAD process.  See my guide for the 3D Design and Printing Process on how to get started with 3D printing.