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3D Printing: The Definitive Guide

3D Printing: The Definitive Guide

Not so long ago, 3D printing was a novelty reserved for tech companies, Universities & Governments. 

Now, estimates predict that around 8.04 million 3D printers will be shipped worldwide by 2027.

3D printing or otherwise known as additive manufacturing, has taken the world by storm, growing increasingly popular as access to technology, machinery and materials improve. Today, virtually any business from any industry can benefit from 3D printing. 

Here’s your guide to how 3D printing works.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a manufacturing process that involves creating 3D objects with the directions provided by a digital file. This process is often referred to as “additive manufacturing” because it involves an additive process, where an object forms through the use of various successive layers. 

Each layer created in 3D printing is a small cross-section of the overall project, and the digital software guides the machine on where to lay down the additive material. 3D printing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing, where companies cut and shape a piece of plastic or metal. 

With 3D printing, companies can create complex designs using less material than typical manufacturing methods. 

2D vs 3D Printers

The main difference between 2D and 3D printers is in the way they function and the materials they use to print. Standard printers including wide format printers and office printers use ink cartridges and toners to produce images, words and designs usually on paper materials such as bond paper or special inkjet coated paper depending on the type of printer you use.

When it comes to 3D printing, images will need to go through a rendering process whereby it is converted from a 2D image into a 3D render usually with the help of software. 3D printers also use a different type of printing material, often plastic and they don't require any inks. 

Another key difference between 2D and 3D printers is their application and use. 3D printers are often used in manufacturing, medical and hobbyists while 2D printing is used for making items such as brochures, books, banners, flyers and business cards.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

3D printing is an additive process that involves various steps. 

Step 1: Designing a 3D model

First, companies require a Blueprint to begin 3D printing. This works as an input for the 3D printer, just like a document file works for inkjet printing. In 3D printing, experts use CAD software, or Computer-Aided Software, to tell the printing machine what to do. 

Developers and designers can use CAD software to create blueprints for 3D design files. It’s a similar software to the tools that architects use to design floor plans and homes. Easy to use and effective, 3D printing software is similar to things like Photoshop, with shapes and tools that assist with your design. 

Step 2: Creating an STL file

Once you’ve designed something for your 3D printing session, you’ll need the STL file – which is essentially the digital guide to the model that you want to build. You can create this file on your own using tools like FreeCAD and Sketchup. 

Alternatively, if you’re not comfortable creating something on your own yet, then you could look at directly downloading the file from something like Cuts3D. The only problem here is that you might not find the exact download you want. 

Step 3: Slicing with a Slicer software

With your design ready to go, the next step is preparing your design for exporting as an .STL file format. To do this, you’ll need a slicer software. You can change the settings for the printing using this software and determine which nozzles or materials you want to use. 

The slicer creates the step-by-step instructions that your printer needs to get started. By using this software, you get full control over your printing process. Some 3D printers come with their own slicer software attached, or you can find options online. 

Step 4: Printing the 3D model

Finally, the last step of 3D printing is the actual printing process. You should be able to simply click “print” on your software and your device will get to work. There are occasions where you may need to load a file to a specific part of your memory banks to get started. 

Printing is a relatively easy process when you have all the file information required, but it can take a little while, so be patient. 

What Materials Are Used for 3D Printing?

The options available for 3D printing materials used to be very limited, but the evolution of technology today means that new options are gradually becoming more accessible. Today, some of the materials you can choose include:

  • Metal: An increasingly popular choice for 3D printing, metal is great for printing large parts for machines and various complex projects. Experts are experimenting with everything from tungsten to steel. 

  • Polymer powder: This material is often the top choice for printing flame retardant objects and certain parts for machinery. 

  • Resin: This was one of the first materials to appear in the 3D printing landscape. The material was ideal for creating visual prototypes and casting molds. 

  • Filament: The Filament materials for 3D printing are often used by FDM processes. You can use a range of different kinds of filaments, depending on your needs, including ABS, Polycarbonate, and Nylon. 

What are the Benefits of 3D Printing?

3D printing is an extremely valuable process with a lot of potential. The more we experiment with this technology, the more advantages we discover. The technology still has some limitations, but new technology and tools are quickly removing any barriers to amazing projects. Some of the biggest benefits of 3D printing include:

  • Cost saving: Unlike other methods used to create prototypes and casts, 3D printing is an extremely affordable option. There’s no need to invest in unique tools and expensive systems to create an object from scratch. 

  • Faster development: Because printing prototypes is quick and affordable, teams can test ideas faster and accelerate the go-to-market process. 3D printers can make dozens of different parts in a matter of hours, allowing for agile business processes. 

  • Minimal risk: Experimenting with complicated equipment to create new prototypes isn’t always a safe process. 3D printing, however, is easy and straightforward, with minimal risk to the employees or the business. 

  • No waste: With traditional manufacturing procedures, it’s common to waste a lot of material when it’s chipped away from the main project. On the other hand, with 3D printing, there’s virtually no mess and no waste involved in creating the shapes you need. 

  • Simplicity: Printing 3D objects is very simple once you have the right software and technology in place. Most of the time, companies can create and print prototypes in a matter of hours, reducing the amount of work that goes into production. 

  • Versatility: Not only can 3D printers create a wide range of shapes and designs that are far more flexible than the objects created through standard manufacturing processes, but it’s easy to customize those objects too. You can customize every part of your 3D object with minimal burden in terms of cost and time. 

3D printing opens the door to creating complex projects and shapes with minimal waste, and a reduced cost. In any environment, this incredible technology can quickly transform the production process, and allow for innovation on a rapid scale. 

What Is 3D Printing Used For?

We’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of 3D printing’s potential. The versatility, flexibility, and affordability of this technology makes it an incredible tool for all kinds of manufacturing and innovation. We can use 3D printing to create complicated shapes and parts for machinery, without having to worry about excessive waste. 

Companies also experiment with 3D printing when they’re looking for opportunities to create products or parts from different, more environmentally-friendly materials. With the right additive manufacturing process, you can experiment with which materials work best for your specific situation, without spending a fortune. 

In many circumstances, 3D printing is also an excellent tool for rapid prototyping. Companies can take a concept from an initial idea all the way through to prototyping in a matter of days, rather than spending days or weeks. Iterations are much easier and cheaper to make without the need for expensive tools and molds. 

Beyond prototyping, 3D printing is also a fantastic tool for rapid manufacturing, where companies use the additive printing method to run small batch and custom manufacturing processes, fast. 

What can you make with a 3D printer?

The opportunities for innovation with 3D printing are practically endless. Today, countless companies are using additive manufacturing technology to create everything from industrial products like manufacturing tools to architecture scale models, prosthetics, movie props and more. Just some of the available options include:

  • Automotive design: Car manufacturers were some of the early adopters of 3D printing technology. These companies cause the tech to print spare parts, jigs, tools, fixtures, and even parts for end-use. Printing allows teams to create complex car components that would be impossible or expensive to design with traditional methods.

  • Aviation: GE Aviation is just one example of a company using 3D printing for aviation. The company product 30,000 fuel nozzles for aircraft engines that helped to improve efficiency and reduce expense. The components are also 25% more lightweight and five times stronger than previous iterations. 

  • Consumer products: Adidas has been experimenting with 3D printing for a while now, creating 3D midsoles and similar consumer products. 3D printing could be the key to designing everything from new footwear to eyewear. 

  • Health and dentistry: In the healthcare landscape, 3D printing is excellent for creating casts and tools for healing, as well as 3D implants and prosthetic limbs. Some innovators are even using additive manufacturing to design more effective hearing aids. Similarly, in the dental landscape, additive manufacturing allows for more accurate designs for fillings. 

  • Food: Pioneering companies in the food landscape are experimenting with edible filaments for 3D printed food. Restaurants like food ink use this functionality to attract more consumers from across the globe. 

Do I need software for 3D Printing?

To take your ideas from paper to plastic, you’ll need a 3D printing slicer software to help create your designs. 3D printing slicer software is the link between your model and the printer and is required as it prepares the selected model for your 3D printer. There are lots of different slicer software available and the good news is most of them are free. Almost all 3d Printers accept files in STL (stereolithography) format. You can either use the software that comes with the printer or any other commercial software such as AutoCAD, Google SketchUp or Blender depending on your expertise.

How much does a 3D printer cost?

Though an enterprise-grade 3D printer has long seemed to be an unaffordable option for many businesses, that’s beginning to change. High-resolution tools for additive manufacturing are increasingly becoming more intuitive, reliable, and accessible. There are now various kinds of 3D printer that are affordable for even smaller companies.