What is a 3D Printer?

What is a 3D Printer

Our most commonly asked question is 'What is a 3D Printer?'

In simple terms, a 3D Printer is a printer that can produce physical 3D objects. The objects are produced using an additive process of layering materials on top of each other, gradually building the object.

The objects can be produced from various materials including plastics, resins, metals and ceramics with plastic being the most popular.

A vast array of objects can be produced, using designs that are uploaded to the printer, the main limiting factors are the printer quality and the size of object (build size) that a printer can produce, each printer has different capabilies.  To learn more about the popular printers and their capabilities, head over to our 3D Printer information page.

How does a 3D Printer produce objects?

A 3D printer is a specialised piece of equipment designed to build a model or prototype from a digital 3D design by successively laying materials.

The process of 3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing, and can be used for prototyping and full-scale commercial use. The 3D printer usually works from a virtual image created by computer aided design, or CAD. The widely used standard format for the CAD input is the STL file format, although more recently the AMF (Additive Manufacturing Format) is making an appearance in some CAD software (this format is an improvement over the STL format as it includes support for colour, materials, lattices & constellations).

The 3D printer works in a similar manner to an ink-jet printer, except rather than dots of ink it deposits powder, liquid or sheet material one cross-section at a time to construct a 3D model. The dots of material are usually about 50 to 100 microns in diameter.

What can a 3D Printer be used for?

For Business use, this type of equipment is often used in engineering and design applications such as architecture, aerospace engineering and automotive engineering.

Domestic uses for the 3D printer include home-made machinery, toys, decorative pieces, practical items such as an iPhone case or hobbyist building of parts for say remote control cars, pinball machines, etc. Recently home users have been using 3D printers to create cases for their Raspberry Pi computers.

How much does a 3D Printer Cost?

The prices of these machines have dropped considerably since their introduction, and some companies aiming to make them affordable for many households. Many small printers are now available for around £1000, and the price of 3D printers is expected to fall further as the demand increases and thus the production of the printers increase. However their is a trade-off between price and quality, so do not expect to obtain perfect quality 3D objects from a relatively cheap printer. The higher end quality printers and multiple material printers are still extremely expensive, currently in the 20K and upwards price range.

To find out more about what printers are available and how much they cost, take a look at our 3D Printer information page.

For those who do not wish to invest in the hardware, 3D printing services are available both to individual consumers and industry. These services are usually available online, where the user can upload or use an pre-designed digital model and receive a physical 3D printed model by post.

What materials are used in 3D Printing?

Various Plastics, Wax, Resins, Metals and Ceramics can be used in 3D printing.  Most of the smaller 3D Printers only support a single type of material, with the most popular being plastic. Some of the larger industrial printers support multiple materials, allowing the ability to print parts and assemblies made of multiple materials with differing mechanical or physical properties, all created in a single build. For more information about the materials, please read our materials information page.

What methods are used to apply the materials?

Some of the methods of applying material include fused deposition modelling, granular materials binding, electron beam melting and photopolymerization.

  • Fused deposition modelling (or FDM) is the process of feeding a thin filament of polymer or wire through an extrusion nozzle which places small beads of thermoplastic material.
  • Granular materials binding works by depositing a layer of powder followed by a cross section print of binding medium.
  • Electron beam melting, or EBM, is a process of melting metal powder in layers using an electron beam.
  • Photopolymerization uses a digital light process to solidify the model in a vat of liquid polymer, a process called stereolithography.

A little bit about the history of 3D Printing

The history of the 3D printing process dates back to the 1980's, but it wasn't until 1995 when MIT graduate students modified an ink-jet printer to dispense a binding solution onto powder. They coined the term "3D printing" and went on to found 3D printing company Z Corporation.


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