What is 3D Printing?

What is 3D Printing?

First invented in the 1980s by Chuck Hull, an engineer and physicist, 3D printing technology has come a long way. Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the process of making an object by depositing material, one tiny layer at a time.

The basic idea behind additive manufacturing can be found in rock formations deep underground (dripping water deposits thin layers of minerals to form stalactites and stalagmites), but a more modern example is a common desktop printer. Just like an inkjet printer adds individual dots of ink to form an image, a 3D printer only adds material where it is needed based on a digital file.
In comparison, many conventional manufacturing processes -- which have recently been termed “subtractive manufacturing” -- require cutting away excess materials to make the desired part. The result: Subtractive manufacturing can waste up to 30 pounds of material for every 1 pound of useful material in some parts, according to a finding from the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Lab.  
With some 3D printing processes, about 98 percent of the raw material is used in the finished part. Not to mention, 3D printing enables manufacturers to create new shapes and lighter parts that use less raw material and require fewer manufacturing steps. In turn, that can translate into lower energy use for 3D printing -- up to 50 percent less energy for certain processes compared to conventional manufacturing processes.
Though the possibilities for additive manufacturing are endless, today 3D printing is mostly used to build small, relatively costly components using plastics and metal powders. Yet, as the price of desktop 3D printers continues to drop, some innovators are experimenting with different materials like chocolate and other food items, wax, ceramics and biomaterial similar to human cells.


Additive manufacturing technology comes in many shapes and sizes, but no matter the type of 3D printer or material you are using, the 3D printing process follows the same basic steps. It starts with creating a 3D blueprint using computer-aided design (commonly called CAD) software. Creators are only limited by their imaginations. For example, 3D printers have been used to manufacture everything from robots and prosthetic limbs to custom shoes and musical instruments. Oak Ridge National Lab is even partnering with a company to create the first 3D printed car using a large-scale 3D printer, and America Makes -- the President’s pilot manufacturing innovation institute that focuses on 3D printing -- recently announced it was providing funding for a new low-cost 3D metal printerOnce the 3D blueprint is created, the printer needs to be prepared. This includes refilling the raw materials (such as plastics, metal powders or binding solutions) and preparing the build platform (in some instances, you might have to clean it or apply an adhesive to prevent movement and warping from the heat during the printing process).

Once you hit print, the machine takes over, automatically building the desired object. While printing processes vary depending on the type of 3D printing technology, material extrusion (which includes a number of different types of processes such as fused deposition modeling) is the most common process used in desktop 3D printers.

Material extrusion works like a glue gun. The printing material -- typically a plastic filament -- is heated until it liquefies and extruded through the print nozzle. Using information from the digital file -- the design is split into thin two-dimensional cross-sections so the printer knows exactly where to put material -- the nozzle deposits the polymer in thin layers, often 0.1 millimeter thick. The polymer solidifies quickly, bonding to the layer below before the build platform lowers and the print head adds another layer. Depending on the size and complexity of the object, the entire process can take anywhere from minutes to days.

After the printing is finished, every object requires a bit of post-processing. This can range from unsticking the object from the build platform to removing support structures (temporary material printed to support overhangs on the object) to brushing off excess powders.


Over the years, the 3D printing industry has grown dramatically, creating new technologies (and a new language to describe the different additive manufacturing processes). To help simplify this language, ASTM International -- an international standards organization -- released standard terminology in 2012 that classified additive manufacturing technologies into seven broad categories. Below are quick summaries of the different types of 3D printing (with material extrusion explained in the previous section).

  • Material Jetting: Just like a standard desktop printer, material jetting deposits material through an inkjet printer head. The process typically uses a plastic that requires light to harden it (called a photopolymer) but it can also print waxes and other materials. While material jetting can produce accurate parts and incorporate multiple materials through the use of additional inkjet printer nozzles, the machines are relatively expensive and build times can be slow.
  • Binder Jetting: In binder jetting, a thin layer of powder (this can be anything from plastics or glass to metals or sand) is rolled across the build platform. Then the printer head sprays a binding solution (similar to a glue) to fuse the powder together only in the places specified in the digital file. The process repeats until the object is finished printing, and the excess powder that supported the object during the build is removed and saved for later use. Binder jetting can be used to create relatively large parts, but it can be expensive, especially for large systems.
  • Powder Bed Fusion: Powder bed fusion is similar to binder jetting, except the layers of powder are fused together (either melted or sintered -- a process that uses heat or pressure to form a solid mass of material without melting it) using a heat source, such as a laser or electron beam. While powder bed processes can produce high quality, strong polymer and solid metal parts, the raw material choices for this type of additive manufacturing are limited.
  • Directed Energy Deposition: Directed energy deposition can come in many forms, but they all follow a basic process. Wire or powder material is deposited into thin layers and melted using a high-energy source, such as a laser. Directed energy deposition systems are commonly used to repair existing parts and build very large parts, but with this technology, these parts often require more extensive post processing.
  • Sheet Lamination: Sheet lamination systems bond thin sheets of material (typically paper or metals) together using adhesives, low-temperature heat sources or other forms of energy to produce a 3D object. Sheet lamination systems allow manufacturers to print with materials that are sensitive to heat, such as paper and electronics, and they offer the lowest material costs of any additive process. But the process can be slightly less accurate than some other types of additive manufacturing systems.
  • Vat Photopolymerization: Photopolymerization -- the oldest type of 3D printer -- uses a liquid resin that is cured using special lights to create a 3D object. Depending on the type of printer, it either uses a laser or a projector to trigger a chemical reaction and harden thin layers of the resin. These processes can build very accurate parts with fine detail, but the material choices are limited and the machines can be expensive.

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