3D Printing Basics

Table of contents:

  1. What is 3D printing?
  2. 3D printing technologies
  3. 3D Printing history
  4. 3D printing applications
  5. What is a 3D printer?
  6. Whats the difference between rapid prototyping machine and a 3D printer?
  7. What can you make with a 3D printer?
  8. Who make 3D printers?
  9. How much cost a 3D printer?
  10. How to build a 3D printer?
  11. What are the materials used to print 3D objects?
  12. What 3D modeling software is suitable for a beginner in 3D design?
  13. I have no 3D design experience, how long does it take to learn 3D modeling?
  14. Where can I get 3D models online?
  15. Where can I find online 3D printing service?


1. What is 3D printing?

3D printing is also known as desktop fabrication or additive manufacturing, it is a prototyping process whereby an real object is created from a 3D design. The digital 3D-model is saved in STL format and then sent to a 3D printer. The 3D printer then print the design layer by layer and form a real object. Read more..


2. 3D printing technologies

Quite a few technologies are capable to do 3D printing. The main differences are how layers are built to create parts. 

SLS (selective laser sintering), FDM (fused depostion modeling) & SLA (stereolithograhpy) are the most widely used technologies for 3D printing. Selective laser sintering (SLS) and fused deposition modeling (FDM) use melting or softening material to produce the layers. 

This video describe how laser-sintering process melt fine powders, bit by bit, into 3D shapes.

This video shows how FDM works.

The video belows explains the process of Stereolithography (SLA). 

Generally, the main considerations are speed, cost of the printed prototype, cost of the 3D printer, choice and cost of materials and colour capabilities.


3. The history of 3D printing

October 5, 2011 – Roland DG Corporation introduced the new iModela iM-01.

Sep, 2011 – Vienna University of Technology, a smaller, lighter and cheaper printing device has now been developed.

This smallest 3D printer weighs 1.5 kilograms, it costs around 1200 Euros.

Aug, 2011 – The world’s first 3D printed aircraft created by Engineers at the University of Southampton.

Read more..


4. 3D printing applications

One of the most important applications of 3D printing is in the medical industry. With 3D printing, surgeons can produce mockups of parts of their patient’s body which needs to be operated upon.

3D printing make it possible to make a part from scratch in just hours. It allows designers and developers to go from flat screen to exact part.

Nowadays almost everything from aerospace components to toys are getting built with the help of 3D printers. 3D printing is also used for jewelry and art, architecture, fashion design, art, architecture and interior design.

Here are some extraordinary examples of 3D-printing:

  • The World’s First 3D-Printed Car
  • World’s first chocolate printer
  • World’s first 3D printed bikini


5. What is a 3D printer?

3D printer is unlike of the common printers. On a 3D printer the object is printed by three dimension. A 3D model is built up layer by layer. Therefore the whole process is called rapid prototyping, or 3D printing. Read more..

The resolution of the current printers are among the 328 x 328 x 606 DPI (xyz) at 656 x 656 x 800 DPI (xyz) in ultra-HD resolution. The accuracy is 0.025 mm – 0.05 mm per inch. The model size is up to 737 mm x 1257 mm x 1504 mm.

The biggest drawback for the individual home user is still the high cost of 3D printer. Another drawback is that it takes hours or even days to print a 3D model (depending on the complexity and resolution of the model). Besides above, the professional 3D software and 3D model design is also in a high cost range. 

Alternatively there are already simplified 3D printers for hobbyist which are much cheaper. And the materials it uses is also less expensive. These 3D printers for home use are not as accurate as commercial 3D printer.  


6. Whats the difference between a basic rapid prototyping machine and a 3D printer?

3D printers are the simple version of rapid prototyping machines. It is lower lost and less capable. 

Rapid prototyping is a conventional method that has been used by automotive and aircraft industries for years.

In general 3D printers are compact and smaller than RP machines. They are ideal for use in offices. They use less energy and take less space. They are designed for low volume reproduction of real objects made of nylon or other plastics. That also means 3D printers make smaller parts. Rapid prototyping machines have build chambers at least 10 inches on a side, a 3D printer has less than 8 inches on a side. However a 3D printer is capable of all the functions of rapid prototyping machine such as verifying and validating design, creating prototype, remote sharing of information etc.

Consequently 3D printers are easy to handle and cheap to maintain. You can buy one of those DIY kit in the market and build up yourself. It is cheaper than the professional rapid prototyping, for $1000 or less you can have one 3D printer. While the professional rapid prototyping cost at least $50,000.

3D printers are less accurate than rapid prototyping machines. Because of its simplicity the material choices are also limited.


7. What can you make with a 3D printer?

In 3D printing area, people say “If You Can Draw It, You Can Make It”. In the video below shows many items can be made with a 3D printer. However complicated objects can only be made by professional 3D printers, they are not yet affortable for common family. 



8. Who make 3D printers?
Industrial 3D printer manufacturers:
Home 3D printers manufacturers:
    Makerbot Industries
9. How much cost a 3D printer?
Here are list of DIY 3D printer price comparison and list of fully assembled or commercial 3D printers price comparison (less than $25,000).
10. How to build a 3D printer?
The MakerGear Mosaic 3D Printer
Part I: The Frame
Part II: The Y-Axis
Part III: The X-Axis
Part IV: The Z-Axis
Part V: The Extruder
Part VI: The Build Platform
Part VII: The Electronics
How to build a reprap 3D printer – RepRapOneDarwin (1st generation)
How to build a reprap 3D printer – Huxley (mini-reprap, portable)
How to build a reprap 3D printer – Mendel (RepRap Version II)
How to build a reprap 3D printer – Prusa (easy to asembly)
11. What are the materials used to print 3D objects?
Many different materials can be used for 3D printing, such as ABS plastic, PLA, polyamide (nylon), glass filled polyamide, stereolithography materials (epoxy resins), silver, titanium, steel, wax, photopolymers and polycarbonate.
12. What 3D modeling software is suitable for a beginner in 3D design?
If you’re just getting started you can try some of 3D modeling software which can be downloaded for free.
    Google SketchUp – This Google SketchUp is fun and free, and is known for being easy to use. To build models in SketchUp, you draw edges and faces using a few simple tools that you can learn in a short time. With with Push/Pull tool you can extrude any flat surface into a 3D form. Furthermore, it works together with Google Earth, that you can import a scaled aerial photograph directly from Google Earth, or use SketchUp to build models which can be seen in Google Earth.
    3Dtin – The simplest 3D software. You can draw directly from your browser.
    Blender – Blender is the free open source 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License. Blender was developed as an in-house application by the Dutch animation studio NeoGeo and Not a Number Technologies (NaN). It is a powerful program contains features that are characteristic of high-end 3D software.
    OpenSCAD – OpenSCAD is a software for creating solid 3D CAD objects. It is free software and available for Linux/UNIX, MS Windows and Mac OS X. it does not focus on the artistic aspects of 3D modelling but instead on the CAD aspects.
    Tinkercad – Tinkercad is a new and faster way of creating designs for your 3D printer. With only three basic tools you can create a wide range of useful things. Once your project is ready simply download the STL file and start your 3D print.
Check out the more software in the free software list.
Commercial software such as CAD software AutoCAD and Pro Engineer, software packages Rhino, Maya, and SolidWorks are all pretty good for designing 3D models.
13.  I have no 3D design experience, how long does it take to learn 3D modeling?
You can learn how to 3D model by learning how to use 3D modeling tools such as Rhino, Blender or SketchUp. It will take you some weeks to be familiar with 3D modeling tools such as SketchUp, Rhino and Blender. To become a professional user will take you at least half a year to study and practice.
14. Where can I get 3D models online?
Here are some website with 3D models database:
    3D Marvels
    3D Via
    Google 3D Warehouse
    Ponoko Product Plans
    Shapeways 3D Parts Database
    Turbosquid: Free objects
15. Where can I find online 3D printing service?
Companies like Shapeways, i.Materialise, Sculpteo and Ponoko provides online 3D printing service. More to find here: List of 3D printing service

    Fluid Forms – Fluid Form produce objects according to user’s virtual design, using computer-controlled processes and their craftsmen. Lead tims is 14 days.
    i.Materialise – Belgian 3D printing pioneer, 3D print service focusing on individual and personal applications
    Impression-3D – 3D print service based in Paris, 10 years’ specialist experience in printing for architects, at the cutting-edge of fast prototyping, 3D printing and CAD technologies
    Sculpteo – Sculpteo offers a fast 3D printing service which is open to all. They start from your 3D design to manufacture a specific object: interior decoration, figurines, robots, miniatures, scale models.
    ProTocuBe – The company started in 2006. It is currently has its main offices in Turin and is also hosted by the University Business Incubator of Vercelli. ProTocuBe offers specific expertise and consulting services throughout the work-process, from the idea to the presentation of the project to a third party. It starts from design and digital modeling, manages engineering, creates prototypes or scale models and can follow the development of the product/project and its communication.
    FOC, Freedom of Creation – Based in Amsterdam, specialized in design with 3D printing technologies.
New Zealand
    Ponoko – Based in New Zealand, has office in Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, United States. Ponoko is an online marketplace for everyone to click to make real things. They have very easy making system.
    3D Creation Lab UK – Supply service to individuals, not for business.
    Digital Forming – Digital Forming Ltd. was established in November 2008 by 4 partners from science. Today, Digital Forming has developed an extensive platform to link designers, brands, and their customers to Additive Manufacturing. Their technology is available through a SaaS licensing model.
    ImpossibleCreations – Impossible Creations Ltd. offers a ground-breaking custom design and modelling service made possible by the UK’s next generation of rapid prototyping 3D printers.
    Inition – Formed in 2001, Inition specialises in experiential 3D production, 3D technology sales and creative services including 3D filming, 3D printing and 3D scanning.
    QuickForge – QuickForge use the HP Designjet 3D Color printer system, which has a maximum build area of 200x200x150mm.The Designjet 3D printer can produce detailed, structural parts from a strong ABS plastic.The Designjet 3D Color can print single-colour models in the following colours: Ivory, Grey, Blue, Olive Green, Yellow, Orange, Red and Black.
    Stephanie Wood Design – Stephanie Wood design is a UK agent for ZCorp 3D printers. In addition to their sales of ZCorp 3D printers and scanners, they also offer a 3D printing bureau service, 3D scanning, 3D design, 2D laser cutting and marking.
    Within Technologies – Within is a young design consultancy, based in London. It is able to custom design an optimised lattice structure and surface skin to meet customer’s exact specifications. The product is then manufactured using one of many additive layer manufacturing machines (plastics or metals) with the optimised lattice within.
    3D ProParts – Owned by 3D Systems, one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive overnight parts provider. You can get the latest SLA®, SLS®, SLM, 3D Printing, CNC, plastic and metal casting parts powered by 3D Systems. High precision and quality.
    ExOne and MetalTec Innovations – With 50 years of experience and technical know-how, Ex One specializes in breakthrough additive manufacturing innovations and advanced micromachining for a vast network of global partners.
    getitmade – getitmade is a marketplace where anyone with a product idea can test the market and use social networking to generate pre-sales and get the product made. Using getitmade allows Innovators (designers, inventors, companies and ordinary people) to take their product ideas to the production stage by pre-selling on getitmade to raise the money.
    GXSC – Graphics Systems Corporation assists companies in implementing new engineering technologies to streamline product development and design better products. In business for over 20 years, Graphics Systems also offers solutions for Product Data Management (PDM), Design Simulation (FEA), Engineering Automation, Product Documentation, and Rapid Prototyping. Headquartered in Milwaukee, WI Graphics Systems has offices in Chicago, IL, Freeport, IL, Madison, WI, and Green Bay, WI.
    Mdddler – Located in San Francisco, Moddler is a 3d printing company specializing in turning your digital models into incredibly detailed physical models to be used as prototypes for design validation, high-end swag for clients or team members, or physical props. They now offer 3d scanning services with scanning resolution down to .1mm.
    Offload Studies – Offload Studios Inc. specializes in creating custom 3D output from digital models.
    PartSnap – Services offered by PartSnap include 3D printing, laser scanning and urethane casting. PartSnap uses Objet PolyJet (TM) technology to produce 3D plastic models suitable for testing, design validation, or for producing artistic, architectural or medical models.
    PrintTo3D – Print To 3D is a small home business based in North Eastern Pennsylvania (NEPA). Their printing services are available to anyone within the United States. It was founded by Bradley Rigdon in 2007.  
    RedEye On Demand – RedEye by Stratasys provides rapid prototyping and direct digital manufacturing services to a wide variety of industries. RedEye is a business unit of Stratasys, serve the industries include: aerospace, architecture, automotive, business machines, consumer products, electronics, medical devices, entertainment, interior design, toys etc.
    Shapeways – Shapeways has a vast library of objects and large selection of print materials