how 3D printing works

How 3D Printing Works and How to Get Started

October 18, 2022 - Emily Newton

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If you’re interested in how 3D printing works and how you can try it out, this guide will cover all the basics. 3D printing has become a popular, mainstream, and crucial technology over the past several years. It is used in virtually every industry, with new applications emerging every year. Consumer 3D printers keep getting better and more affordable. So, there has never been a better time to join the 3D printing community. First, you’ll need to learn how 3D printing works and what kinds of printers are out there. 

How 3D Printing Works: Models, Houses, Organs, and More

People use 3D printing for all kinds of things today. Scientists and engineers have developed advanced 3D printers and materials. Today’s printers can create everything from a working 3D printed heart to rocket engines and even entire houses! You can 3D print almost any material, too, including various plastics, polymers, wood, metal, concrete, and even cells. 

The general idea with 3D printing is to use some robotic method to shape liquid or granular material into solid objects. This is usually done in layers – the printer creates thin, precise layers of material and stacks them on top of each other until a complete object is formed. It is almost as if the printer is simply stacking a whole bunch of 2D prints. 

Exactly how 3D printing works depends on the type of 3D printer being used. There are actually many different types of 3D printers today. Not all of them are fit for enthusiast applications, though. Some types of 3D printers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the cost of materials to print with. Printers for industrial applications or medical applications will be more precise and fine-tuned but also far more expensive. 

So, where should someone who is new to 3D printing get started? The best way to learn how 3D printing works is by getting some hands-on time with a 3D printer. The easiest one to start with is a Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM, 3D printer. 

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

By far the most common type of 3D printer today is Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM. This is the type of 3D printing that most people imagine when they think of 3D printing. FDM 3D printers use strings of filament, such as plastic, to create models from digital designs. 

The filament gets fed into the nozzle of the printer, where it is warmed just enough to make it flexible and allow it to fuse with the filament around it. The filament is pumped out of the extruder of the printer as the printhead is moved around the printing platform. Most FDM printers use a Cartesian plane system to move the printhead around correctly. The printer will map out specific 3D coordinates (X,Y, and Z) for each movement as it prints. 

FDM printers need somewhere to start, though. Before beginning a print, you will need to create a design using some type of CAD software. For beginners, it may be helpful to use an open-source CAD design instead. Members of the 3D printing community frequently share their model designs online for others to print for free. So, if you are new to 3D printing or don’t have experience with CAD yet, try a premade model to start off. 

FDM Printing Process and Materials

There are many factors that will impact how long models take to print. With an FDM printer, these factors include print speed, nozzle diameter, and layer height, to name a few. Overall print speed is an important factor to pay attention to with FDM printers because slower print speeds can actually result in less sharp or precise models. 

As for the printing material, PLA filament is generally the way to go for beginners. It’s non-toxic, doesn’t leave a bad smell in the air, and there are tons of affordable options on the market due to its popularity. It’s also fairly safe for beginners to use since PLA requires a lower heat setting to be melted in the printer nozzle. Plus, PLA is universally compatible with any FDM printer you’ll run into. 

You will need to preheat the printer and load the filament before you start an FDM print. Every printer is a little different, so you’ll need to check your specific printer’s instructions. However, there are some best practices for loading filament that can help, such as being careful not to let your filament unspool or tangle. Both the nozzle and the printing platform, or “bed”, will need to preheat before starting a print, but your printer should have a built-in preheat function that makes this step easy. 

Once the printer is rolling, it could take minutes or hours to finish a model, depending on how big or complex it is. The printer will move along one 2D layer at a time until the print is complete. It’s best not to interrupt the printing process, even if it’s taking a while. When the model is complete, you can let it cool off then sand it or paint it however you like. 

Other Types of 3D Printing

FDM might be the most popular type of 3D printing tech, but it’s not the only one. There are many others out there, with a few in particular that are worth knowing a bit about. 

Stereolithography (SLA)

Stereolithography, or SLA, 3D printing is a very close runner-up in popularity right behind FDM. It has actually been around since the 1980s, although only in recent years has SLA become affordable for enthusiasts. It involves using a UV laser to harden liquid resin according to precise cross-sections of a model. Just like FDM, SLA 3D printing goes one tiny layer at a time. 

SLA works upside down, though. SLA printers dip the build platform into the pool of resin at the bottom of the printer, where the UV laser hardens the resin in the right pattern. Then the platform and the model are lifted again, fresh resin is poured in, and the process repeats. SLA models tend to be higher quality than FDM, with greater precision and detail. SLA printing can be more expensive than FDM, though, so it isn’t always the best place for beginners to start. However, SLA does open up a whole new world of possibilities for makers who are ready to give it a shot. 

Digital Light Processing (DLP)

Digital light processing, or DLP, 3D printing is very similar to SLA. In fact, DLP is in many ways simply a second-generation version of SLA. Where SLA printers use a laser to trace out each layer, DLP printers essentially flash the whole layer at once using a projector beneath the pool of resin. As a result, DLP is much faster than SLA. While it will come at a higher price, DLP printers can produce some of the best quality around, making for great models. 

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Where SLA and DLP print by shining light on liquid, SLS prints by shining light on powder. The printer precisely melts granular plastic, like plastic sand, one layer at a time. After each layer, the printer brushes fresh powdered plastic over the build platform and the process begins again. This is a process known as powder bed fusion. 

SLS is most commonly found in manufacturing and engineering since it can produce detailed, durable models for functional components. It’s not particularly affordable for enthusiasts, but SLS can create incredible builds with real durability. 

How to Get Started With 3D Printing

If you’re just starting out and learning how 3D printing works, there’s a few things you can do to get some practice. The best way to give 3D printing a try and get some guidance from experienced community members is to look for a Maker Space in your area. 

Maker Spaces are like gyms, but for creating things. Usually you can pay a single day fee or get a membership, either of which will give you access to all the tools, gear, and materials the Maker Space has, including 3D printers. Conveniently, many Maker Spaces also offer classes for beginners where you can learn things like 3D printing basics and CAD skills. 

A Maker Space will allow you to try out 3D printing without investing too much money. You will likely be able to use a few different 3D printers, as well, which can help you figure out which printer would be best for you. Plus, the staff at Maker Spaces and the other members will be able to offer help and answer questions when you’re still learning the ropes. Make sure to check local libraries, as well – some larger public libraries have Maker Spaces or equipment that you may be able to use. 

When you’re ready to invest in your first 3D printer, go with something that has good value, not necessarily the lowest possible price. A good value 3D printer is one that has an affordable price but also offers consistent print quality, plenty of affordable filament or resin options, and a user-friendly design. Quick print speed and plenty of printing area are great features to look for in your first 3D printer. There are many entry-level 3D printers available today for around $200 USD, so you shouldn’t have to spend too much to get your first printer. 

Learning How 3D Printing Works

3D printing opens the door to a world of creative possibilities. It can be a little intimidating at first, but the great thing about 3D printing is that it has a welcoming and collaborative community, always willing to help out beginners. 3D printing is all about creating things that excite your imagination, so choose a first project that interests you and gets you excited to learn more. With a basic understanding of how 3D printing works, you’ll be ready to create anything you want!

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Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She enjoys reading and writing about how technology is changing the world around us.

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