Technology Explained

What Is 3D Printing And How Exactly Does It Work?

Joel Lee 31-08-2012

what is 3d printingImagine if you could print out three-dimensional objects straight from a printer in your home. When I was a kid in primary school, I thought it would be awesome if I could print pizzas out of my InkJet. That’s not where I’m heading in this article, but it’s an interesting thought–printing out three-dimensional objects, that is. It sounds like borderline science-fiction, and for a long time, it was. Not anymore.


The process is (not surprisingly) called 3D printing. Like traditional printing, which takes a blank piece of paper and creates two-dimensional images and text out of seemingly nowhere, 3D printing creates fully realized objects out of nothing. It’s a fascinating procedure that can be useful in a number of fields.

Last year, James determined that 3D printing is no longer a myth Ultimate Beginner's Guide to 3D Printing 3D printing was supposed to be the new "Industrial Revolution." It hasn't taken over the world yet, but I'm here to talk you through everything you need to know to get started. Read More or farfetched idea. Just in the last 12 months, he’s been proven correct: 3D printing is just getting started. Join me as I explore the ins-and-outs of 3D printing technology to learn how it works and what benefits it could bring to us as consumers.

Brief History of 3D Printing

what is 3d printing

Back in 1986, a guy named Charles W. Hull filed a patent for stereolithography, which became the first known method of creating 3D objects out of thin air. The invention of this method ushered in a new age of machining processes. Whereas most objects are built using a subtractive process (i.e., whittling, drilling, carving, slicing, etc.), 3D printing uses an additive process (i.e., by adding material).

3D printers are expensive. Traditional paper-and-ink printers will cost you hundreds of dollars, but 3D printers will set you back tens of thousands. Fortunately, you don’t need to own a personal 3D printer since there are already a number of services that will print 3D objects for you. If you’re interested, check out Shapeways and Sculpteo.


Due to the expensive nature of stereolithography, other forms of 3D printing have been pioneered. These newer techniques have their own advantages and disadvantages, but most of them are far cheaper and more accessible to the everyman.

3D Printing Techniques

how 3d printers work

Stereolithography (SLA) is the first 3D printing technique that was developed. It creates objects out of thin air by printing layers and layers of a particular photopolymer on top of itself. The material begins as a liquid and changes to a solid when hit by a concentrated beam of ultraviolet light.

Digital light processing (DLP) is similar to stereolithography in that it uses light to harden a liquid into a solid. However, in digital light processing, the object starts as a vat of full liquid. A portion of the liquid is exposed to light, which hardens, then the build plate is lowered by a small amount. Another shot of light hardens more of the liquid, and this process repeats. Leftover liquid is drained, leaving behind a solid model.


how 3d printers work

Selective laser sintering (SLS) uses a high power laser to fuse material particles (e.g., plastic, glass, ceramic, and metal) into a mass that takes the desired three-dimensional shape.

Electron beam melting (EBM) is a 3D printing process used for metal parts. The process takes place in a vacuum and begins by spreading down a layer of metal powder (most often titanium). An electron beam then melts the powder into a solid layer. Objects created this way are surprisingly dense and strong.

how 3d printers work


Multi jet modeling (MJM) works in a similar manner to modern InkJet printers. It spreads a layer of resin powder and then sprays a colored binding glue-like substance that hardens the powder into a single layer. Multi jet modeling is extremely useful because it is fast and supports colored printing.

what is 3d printing

Fused deposition modeling (FDM) uses a heated extrusion nozzle that melts a material (e.g., plastic) as it comes out. The nozzle can move around both horizontally and vertically through computer-aided controls. As the material exits the nozzle, it hardens almost immediately.

Nearly all forms of 3D printing require an STL file. An STL file is a specific format of 3D model that allows 3D printers to conveniently and effectively slice up the object into the individual layers used in the actual printing. Most STL files are first created in a computer-aided design (CAD) program and then converted.


Benefits of 3D Printing

3D printers are useful in both a commercial and personal capacity. The only real barrier to personal 3D printing is the extraordinary cost involved and the technical know-how necessary to create working STL models. If you can get over that initial hump, then you’ll see the many benefits.

Design-related work is made much faster and easier with 3D printers. Designers can take concepts and ideas and quickly produce a working three-dimensional representation–called rapid prototyping. As the design evolves over time, each iteration can be prototyped almost immediately.

Companies can also benefit by using 3D printers in creating their final products, not just prototypes. Subtractive processes end up with a lot of wasted materials in the form of shavings, drilling debris, and cut pieces that are too small to be used anywhere. The additive process of 3D printing eliminates most, if not all, forms of waste.

The nature of 3D printing allows for ease of customization. Typical assembly lines require the difference pieces of an object to fit together in a specific way or else the line fails. With a 3D printer, personal customizations are made in the STL file–the printer doesn’t need to be altered.

And the level of detail that can be achieved through 3D printing is phenomenal–unmatched by any other manufacturing method except for objects designed and crafted entirely by hand. The accuracy of a 3D printer can go so far as 4-micron resolution. That’s thinner than a human hair.

3D printing technology is not exactly a world changer, but it’s certainly fascinating and valuable. Companies all over the world already employ 3D printing in their manufacturing processes. Hobbyists already print out singular objects for their own enjoyment. Within the next decade, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see household printers that create 3D objects at our own behest.

Image Credit: 4 Colored Balls Via Shutterstock, MJM Diagram Via TurkCADCAM

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  1. Joel Lee
    December 12, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    You're welcome. :)

  2. Dee Wheat
    September 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Honestly, these are incredibly cool, but a couple of things come to mind. First,I don't see this being a viable home use item in my lifetime. Secondly, and this is a major problem, paper sculpture is cool, but it has extremely limited uses. To be commercially useful, these "printers" are going to have to be able to "print" with a wide variety of materials, which in turn brings up the problems of maintaining a multitude of mediums and even just the storage of this much material to be used just in case is really going to be a problem.

    Then again, I may well be overthinking the whole thing LOL.

    • Joel Lee
      September 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm

      I'm not sure if you were implying that 3D printers print out 3D paper sculptures. If so, then I'm happy to inform you that that's not what they do! In fact, 3D printers can "print" in a number of materials, mostly plastic and metal. See one of the reader's comments to see a 3D-printed gun! :)

      But I agree with you in that home use may not be available for a while. It's entirely possible to build your own 3D printer, but it's still going to cost more than an ink printer. We'll just have to see where this technology goes in the near future, I suppose.

      • Dee Wheat
        September 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm

        I wasn't really clear, I see, although honestly, the demo's I've seen online appeared to use paper only. However, I readily admit that at my age....63 LOL....I don't expect to see these available at a price for either the printer or the materials that would lend itself to a home use application. At the same time, though, most objects are from mixed materials, and something that requires paper, plastics of several kinds, as well as metal, and possibly multiple metals, and regardless of how far technology has come (and believe me, I have seen it leap light years worth of progress!) it still seems to me that it is going to be a costly and unwieldy process for a long, long time. Now, I realize that two years is a long time for you youngsters, but I well remember when a SINGLE computer required its own building and cooling system. ;)

  3. Eike H
    September 5, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Ive always wanted to know how it worked. Great article. Thanks :)

  4. druv vb
    September 4, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Nice article.
    Thats a whole new level of model designs.
    By having a digital creation printed in 3D where you can physically touch is really nice.
    Guys who like to create new things from scratch will surely love this.
    Am waiting for such a service in my country.

  5. Ale Bendersky
    September 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Great article

    • Joel Lee
      September 4, 2012 at 5:56 am

      Thank you!

  6. fatihamzah
    September 3, 2012 at 12:36 am

    Wow, good article,
    is every 3D Printing do like this? it is somewhat awesome! Laserbeam!

  7. Naoman Saeed
    September 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    It is impressive

  8. Ganesh Kumar
    September 1, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    i feel ubuntu show exactly see real 3d effectes

  9. Ashwin Ramesh
    September 1, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    nice article :)

    • Joel Lee
      September 4, 2012 at 5:57 am

      Thanks! I appreciate it.

  10. Jason Williams
    September 1, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    thanks for the info. i have seen the 3D printer and always wanted to know how they work. now I know and knowing is half the battle.

  11. Muhannad Agha
    September 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Could you guys recommend/review a good 3D printer for us?

    • Joel Lee
      September 4, 2012 at 5:57 am

      I personally have not used a 3D printer so I am vastly underqualified to give you a recommendation. Hopefully someone might know one, but you may be better off searching on Google. Sorry!

  12. Jay Maynard
    September 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    So now when I watch a DVD and the FBI warning about illegal copying plays, and they ask: "You wouldn't download a car, would you?" , now we can say "Hell yeah!". :)

  13. Adam
    September 1, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Hmm 3D printed hobby items...Epic World of Warcraft items 3D printed! Imagine swinging a 3D Printed Titanium sword, mace, or warhammer! Or, hmm, I forget my keys all the time, 3D print me a new set!

    • Joel Lee
      September 3, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      3D printing a backup set of keys... that's an interesting one. I wonder what the consequences of that could be. ;)

  14. James Bruce
    September 1, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Just a small correction: consumer level 3d printers can be had for as little as $500 nowadays (, with the most expensive being a dual colour replicator makerbot at about $1750 . The "tens of thousands of dollars" only refers to pro-grade equipment.

    • Joel Lee
      September 1, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      Perhaps I should've said "can" instead of "will." Thanks for the correction, James.

  15. Steve Doa
    September 1, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Here is a video of a titanium printer:

  16. xbalesx
    September 1, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Great explanation and walk presented a complex topic in simple and easy to understand terms...Thank you Joel

    • Joel Lee
      September 1, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      You're welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Your words are very encouraging. :)

  17. Thegreatvinay
    September 1, 2012 at 4:43 am

    can i get the link for this research paper ? i can present a seminar at my college about this topic. so if you can please provide me the link.

  18. Desdemona
    September 1, 2012 at 3:35 am

    I believe I read NASA was looking into printing food with this technology with the idea it could be used on long duration space trips to print "fresh" tasting, nutricious food of all kinds including "meat-like" substances.

    • Elijah Swartz
      September 1, 2012 at 7:44 am

      Some people over at MIT came out with an open source DYI macaroni printer.
      [Broken Link Removed]

      • Joel Lee
        September 1, 2012 at 4:30 pm

        Now if only there was a printer that could print finished meals... :D

  19. Randy Luczak
    September 1, 2012 at 3:35 am

    Great article!
    3D printing is such an interesting field and is so good for product prototyping and even product manufacture as evidenced by the video you have included.

    For-what-it's-worth . . .
    The original stereolithography process as developed by Charles W. Hull actually has it's most basic roots in the offset printing process called Flexography. This process dates back to the 1890's but became more modern and updated in the early 1980's with the use of photopolymers that were initially developed by researchers at Dupont in the late 1960's, early 1970's.

    Stereolithography is very, very cool !!!!

    • Joel Lee
      September 1, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      Interesting to trace back the history of technological advancements. Thanks for sharing. :)

  20. Bartholomew Ikechukwu
    September 1, 2012 at 1:15 am

    Wonderful technology here, let me ask this silly question, can it print a gun?

  21. Kylee Kanavas
    September 1, 2012 at 12:36 am

    OMG. Thats awesome, thanks sooo much for putting this together sooo well. This is Awesome.

    • Joel Lee
      September 1, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      Thank you for your kind words!

  22. Kaashif Haja
    September 1, 2012 at 12:15 am

    In one Ted Talk, a guy Massimo Banzi showed a small clip of 3D Printing!

  23. Frederick Doe
    August 31, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    It's interesting to see how 3D printing ("Additive Manufacturing" as the industry prefers to be called) has moved from almost exclusively prototyping to mainstream manufacturing. Additive manufacturing has the huge advantage that it works well with curved surfaces; techniques like milling hate anything that's not angular.

    • Joel Lee
      September 1, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Good point on the curved surfaces. Additive manufacturing does get around that very conveniently. :)

    • Frederick Doe
      September 2, 2012 at 8:38 pm

      Someone please delete this spammer