3D Printing: What It Is, How It Works, Software, and Applications

What is 3D Printing

What is 3D Printing?

A process also known as additive printing, 3D printing is where a digital file can be used to create a solid three-dimensional object. The ‘3D printer’ layers successive layers of material until the object is created.

3D-printed objects can be created by an additive process. The printer layers layer upon layer of material until it produces the desired object. Each layer can be considered a cross-section of the printed object. 3D printing allows users to create complex shapes with less material than traditional manufacturing methods.

3D printing operates in a different way from traditional subtractive manufacturing’ where the material is cut or hollowed with equipment like a milling machine. To create physical objects, additive manufacturing doesn’t require a mold or a material block. It stacks layers of materials and fuses them together.

3D printing allows for quick product creation and low costs for the initial fixed infrastructure. It also makes it possible to create complex geometries with multiple material types. This is something that traditional manufacturing methods might not be able to do as effectively.

Timeline for 3D printing

3D printing is often associated with hobbyists and amateurs who do it themselves (DIY). However, the technology has expanded to include industrial and commercial applications. Engineers today use 3D printers to create lightweight geometric objects and prototyping.

3D printing’s roots lie in rapid prototyping. The 1980s were the first year that 3D printing was invented. This was because it was not suitable for producing production components but prototypes. It was actually created to speed up the development of new products by rapid prototyping.

The technology was not well-received when it first appeared. Hideo Kodama, a Japanese inventor, filed the first patent in 1981 for the machine that used UV light to cure photopolymers. Alain Le Mehaute, Jean Claude Andre, and Olivier de Witte were the first to patent a similar technology three years later. General Electric rescinded both patents, stating that the latter lacked notable business potential.

In 1984, Charles Hull, an American inventor filed a patent on an “Apparatus for Producing Three-Dimensional Items by Stereolithography”. Three years later, he created the STL file. He founded 3D Systems in 1987.

The US 3D printing industry saw significant progress in the following decade. Patents were filed for selective laser scanning (SLS) and fused deposition modeling (FDM) respectively. Stratasys and Desktop Manufacturing (DTM), Corp. were both pioneering companies in 3D printing, having been founded at the same time.

The industry changed dramatically as it saw rapid commercialization. These first “3D printers” were expensive and large. They competed to get industrial prototyping contracts with large-scale aerospace, consumer, and automotive manufacturers.

3D Systems introduced the first commercial-grade SLA printer in 1987. DTM and Stratasys released the first SLS and FDM printers in 1992. Electro-Optical Systems (EOS), a German company, introduced the first metal 3D printer in 1994.

Companies in the 3D printing industry were fiercely competing for profits at the beginning of the new millennium. The affordability of 3D printing was made possible by advances in materials science and the expiration of many patents.

Thanks to 3D printing’s advancements, manufacturing processes are no longer owned only by companies that have capital and heavy machinery. 3D printing is a cutting-edge technology that allows for the creation of many types of production components.

Also read: 15 Best 3D Printing Business Ideas for Startup

How Does 3D Printing Work?

The ISO/ASTM 52900 refers to the general principles of additive manufacturing and terminology. It categorizes 3D printer processes into seven groups. Each type of 3D printer works differently.

The type of printing used, the size of the object, the material chosen, the quality desired, and the configuration of the printer are all factors that affect the time it takes to print the 3D object. 3D printing can take from a few minutes up to several days.

There are many types of 3D printing:

1. Powder bed fusion

Powder bed fusion (PBF) uses thermal energy in the form of an electron beam or laser to selectively fuse specific areas of a powder bed to create layers. These layers are built upon each other until one part is created.

PBF can include melting or sintering processes, but the main operation method is the same. A recoating roller, or blade, places a fine layer of powder on the build platform. The powder bed’s surface is then scanned with a heat source. The heat source increases the particle temperature in a specific area to bind it.

The platform descends once the heat source scans the cross-section of a layer. The final output will be a volume with fused pieces, but the surrounding powder remains unaffected. To retrieve the finished build, the platform rises. Powder bed fusion can be done using a variety of standard printing methods such as direct metal laser (DMLS) or selective laser (SLS).

SLS is often used to manufacture prototypes and functional parts from polymer materials. SLS printing uses the powder bed as its sole support structure. Complex geometries can be created because there are no additional support structures. Produced parts can have an inner porosity or a grainy surface and therefore require further processing.

SLS can be used in conjunction with electron beam powder bed fusion (EBPBF), selective laser melting (SLM), and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). These processes can be used to create metal parts. They rely on lasers to fuse powder particles one layer at a time.

DMLS only increases the temperature of the particles up to the point where they fuse, at which point they become molecularly integrated. SLM, on the other hand, melts all metal particles. Both of these processes are extremely heat-intensive and require support structures. The support structures can be removed manually or used for CNC machining after the process is completed. The parts are thermally treated to remove residual stresses after processing.

Metal 3D printing creates components with exceptional physical properties. Sometimes, they are even stronger than the base metal. It is possible to achieve a beautiful surface finish. These techniques can also process ceramics and metal superalloys, which can make them difficult to use in other processes. Both DMLS and SLM can be expensive and have a limited output.

2. VAT photopolymerization

Two methods can be used to photopolymerize VAT. One is digital light processing (DLP), and the other is stereolithography (SLA). These two processes create layers of components by using a light source that selectively cures liquid material (usually resin) in a vat.

DLP is achieved by “flashing” an image of each layer onto the liquid’s surface in the vat. SLA, on the other hand, relies on a single-point UV source or laser to cure liquid. After printing is complete, the excess resin must be removed from the product. The item should then be exposed to sunlight to increase its strength. Post-processing will require the removal of any support structures. Then, one can continue to process the part to achieve a better quality finish.

These methods are ideal for producing high-level dimensional accuracy items. They can produce intricately detailed items with a great finish. SLA and DLP are therefore well-suited to the production of prototypes.

These methods can produce brittle parts, which makes them less suitable for functional prototypes. These parts are likely to lose their color and mechanical properties in UV light. This makes them unsuitable outdoors. Sometimes support structures are required. These blemishes can be removed through post-processing.

3. Binder jetting

Binder jetting involves depositing a thin layer of powdered material such as metal, ceramic, and polymer sand onto the build platform. A print head then deposits adhesive drops to bind the particles. This allows the part to be built layer by layer.

Parts made of metal must be thermally sintered or infiltrated using a low melting alloy such as bronze. Cyanoacrylate adhesive can be used to saturate ceramic and full-color polymer parts. The output will need to be finished with post-processing.

Binder jetting has numerous applications, including large-scale ceramic molds and full-color prototypes as well as 3D metal printing.

4. Material jetting

Material jetting can be conceptually similar to inkjet printers. Instead of printing ink onto paper, material jetting uses one or more printheads to deposit layers. Each layer must be cured before it can be produced. Material jetting is dependent on support structures. However, these can be made using a water-soluble material that can be washed after the building has been completed.

This process can be used to create full-color parts from different materials. It is expensive and can result in a degradable and brittle product.

5. Fused deposition modeling

Fused deposition modeling (FDM) uses a heated nozzle to feed a filament to an extrusion head. The material is heated by the extrusion head, which softens it and then places it in predetermined areas for cooling. The build platform descends once a layer of material has been created and prepares the next layer.

Material extrusion is also known as material extrusion. It has low lead times and is very cost-effective. Its dimensional accuracy is poor and smooth finishes often require post-processing. It is not suitable for critical applications because it is anisotropic (i.e. weaker in one direction).

6. Sheet lamination

Two technologies can be used to laminate sheet lamination: ultrasonic additive manufacture (UAM), and laminated object manufacturing. UAM is low-energy and low-temperature and involves joining thin metal sheets with ultrasonic welding. It can work with aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, and other metals. LOM, on the other hand, places layers of adhesive and material to create the final output.

7. Direct energy deposition

This technique uses an electric arc, electron beam, or another form of focused thermal energy to melt powder or wire feedstock. To create layers, the process is done horizontally. Layers are then stacked vertically for part production. This process is suitable for various materials, such as ceramics, polymers, and metals.

Top 7 3D Printing Software

Software is a key component of 3D printing. You need programs to design the output, slice it into Gcode, and control the printer. Let’s take a look at the best 3D printing software for different applications.

1. MatterControl 2.0

MatterHackers’ solution is an all-in-one printer host, slicer, and CAD software for computers. The CAD section allows users to create new models and then slice them. MatterControl 2.0 allows users to monitor and control printing directly via a USB connection, or via a Wi-Fi module.

It features an intuitive interface that allows users to explore a variety of geometric primitives they can import into their print. These primitives can then be moved to the standard triangle language file (STL) and printed as support structures.

MatterControl users also have access to advanced printing configurations. This makes MatterControl ideal for end-to-end design, support preparation, and control. MatterControl Pro is available for enterprise users. Enterprise users get even more features.

2. Tinkercad

This browser-based tool allows users to create printable 3D models. It also provides a place to practice solid modeling. The block-building feature allows users to create models with basic shapes.

Tinkercad offers many tutorials and guides to assist users in creating the desired designs. These can be exported or shared easily. The library allows users to access millions of files that can be modified or found in the program. It also integrates with third-party printing services.

3. Blender

This open-source, free tool is great for advanced and new users alike. It’s feature-rich and can be used for 3D modeling, sculpting, animation, rendering, video editing, simulation, and motion tracking. It does have a steep learning curve.

4. UVTools

This open-source solution provides comprehensive resin printing software, and a file viewer and is optimized for layer repair and manipulation of masked SLA. It can be used with PrusaSlicer to access many third-party MSLA printer profiles.

The UVTools twin-stage motor control (TSMC), which allows for tiered printing speeds for different moving parts of each layer, is a critical feature. This speeds up print times and increases the probability of printing success.

UVTools also allows users to create custom resin layer cure times calibration prints for testing new resins and setting the right configuration for different layer heights.

5. WebPrinter

You can preview G-code in your browser without opening it in a full-capability cutter. WebPrinter can be used to show the tool path that the G-code file will transmit to the 3D printing machine. Users just need to upload the G code file. This is an easy way to see a possible 3D printer output.

6. Ultimaker Cura

This open-source slicer works with all modern 3D printers. Cura is a great tool for beginners. It is intuitive, quick, and easy to use. Advanced users have access to 200 settings that can be used to refine prints.

7. Simplify3D

Simplify3D can be used to enhance 3D printing quality by slicing CAD into layers. It can slice CAD into layers and correct model problems. The final output is displayed in a preview for the user. These premium features are great for heavy-duty 3D printers in enterprises.

Top 3D Printing Applications

3D printing isn’t a new invention. However, it has been gaining immense popularity across all industries because of its simplicity, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness.

These are the top 3D printing applications:

1. Construction

3D printing is a powerful tool for construction. Concrete 3D printing was first explored in the 1990s by researchers who were looking for a quicker and more economical way to build structures. 3D printing is used in specific construction applications like additive welding, powder bonding, reactive bond, polymer bonds, sintering, and extrusion (foam wax, cement/concrete, or polymers).

Large-scale 3D printers are being used to produce concrete. These printers can also print modular concrete sections for onsite assembly. These solutions enable higher accuracy, greater complexity, faster construction, and better functional integration. They also lower labor costs and minimize waste.

The first pedestrian bridge was printed using micro-reinforced concrete in Spain and measured 12 meters long by 1.75 meters wide. The first 3D-printed residence in Russia was completed a year later. 600 wall components were 3D-printed, assembled, and the roof and interiors were completed for an area of almost 300 square meters.

3D printing can also be used to create architectural-scale models. This technology is being investigated for possible extraterrestrial habitats on Mars or the Moon.

2. Manufacturing and prototyping

Traditional injection-molded prototyping can take up to weeks to make a single mold, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. 3D printing was originally intended to speed up prototyping and be more efficient, as we have already explained.

3D printing technology reduces manufacturing lead times, making prototyping possible in a matter of hours and at a fraction of the traditional cost. This is especially useful for projects that require users to update the design with each iteration.

3D printing can also be used to manufacture products that do not need to be mass-produced and are often customized.SLS and DMLS can be used for the rapid production of final products. Not just prototypes.

3. Healthcare

3D printing is used in healthcare to create prototypes for product development in medical and dental areas. 3D printing can also be used in dentistry to create patterns for dental aligners and casting dental crowns.

This solution can also be used to directly manufacture hip and knee implants, as well as other stock items, and create patient-specific items like personalized prosthetics and hearing aids. 3D-printed surgical guides are being considered for certain operations. 3D-printed bone and skin tissue, organs, and pharmaceuticals are also being investigated.

4. Aerospace

3D printing is used in aerospace for product design and prototyping. This solution is crucially important in aircraft development because it allows researchers to keep up with the rigorous requirements of R&D while still maintaining high industry standards. Some older, non-critical components of aircraft are 3D-printed to fly!

5. Automotive

3D printing is a tool that automotive companies, particularly those that specialize in racing cars, use to prototype and manufacture specific components. This space is also looking at the possibility of 3D printing to meet aftermarket demand. 3D printing allows for the production of spare parts according to customer requirements, rather than stocking them.


The term ‘3D printing’ encompasses many technologies and processes that capabilities offer many options for creating components from different materials. There is one commonality across all 3D printing types: additive layer-by-layer manufacturing process that does not require any subtractive methodology, casting, or molding. As 3D printing becomes more affordable, and efficient, and can penetrate deeply into many sectors and industries, 3D printing is rapidly becoming a popular solution.

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