3D printer. Source: WhiteClouds
3D printer. Source: WhiteClouds

3D printers have been around since the 1980s when Chuck Hull invented the technology. But how do they work?

Think of the paper printer in your office. But instead of printing ink on paper, 3D printers create actual objects, like a vase, a car part, or an action figure. The first step is to create a CAD or 3D model in 3D modeling software, such as Maya or Blender.

The 3D file is sent to the 3D printer’s interfacing software, which slices the model into layers and determines exactly how the model will be printed. Then, the printer extrudes material, such as plastic or metal, much like an inkjet printer extruding ink. The object is built layer by layer until the part is complete.

The main benefit of 3D printing is that the process allows objects to be created that could not be manufactured in any other way. Since the part is built up layer by layer, complex geometries can be built up. 3D printers use support materials as the object is built up so that the design stays in place. The support material is removed once the print is finished. Traditional subtractive or injection molding has limits with what can be created, whereas 3D printing does not have restrictions on overhangs, cavities, or intricate details.

There are many applications for 3D printing, such as 3D printing food, prosthetics, customized car parts, rapid prototyping, and jewelry. There are commercial-grade and industrial 3D printers that can create parts in metal, rubber, plastic, or resins, as well as consumer 3D printers that create objects in plastic or UV-cured resin.

If you don’t know how to 3D model, you can still 3D print. Sites such as Thingiverse offer free 3D models for users to download and 3D print. Consumer 3D printers are coming down in price and more and more people are buying them for home use. But if you don’t own a 3D printer, 3D printing services such as WhiteClouds can 3D model and 3D print your idea for you

3D printing is taking off and the technology is getting better and better. NASA plans to bring 3D printers into space and scientists are working on 3D printing tissues using the patient’s own cells.

For more information about the various technologies, read our article, 3D Printing Methods and Technologies Explained or check out our 3DPedia Index for a list of terms.