How does 3D printing work?

3D printing can seem like an intimidating process when you think about it. It certainly isn’t as simple as hitting print in Microsoft Word, but it’s not rocket science either. Here you will see how the entire process works, from idea to physical 3D object.

If you think of everyday printing, the process is typically as follows: You create a document on the computer, like a Word document. You click print on the computer, and the printer prints the document out on paper. The process is simple and straightforward.

Believe it or not, 3D printing is very similar, not much more complex than everyday printing. The steps are identical. You create a document on the computer, click print, and the printer prints the document out. How each step is performed is much different, however. Let’s take a deeper look at each step.

Create a document

The document you create when using an everyday printer is typically a word document or a 2D photograph. The document you create for 3D printing is a 3D virtual model created using more sophisticated software. Examples of software commonly used for creating 3D models are AutoDesk Inventor and Google Sketchup as well as various other computer programs and even some phone Apps.

Each software has it’s advantages and limitations and ranges from free to outrageously expensive. It depends on your skill level and requirements. We will dive deeper into several common programs and Apps in a later post where we will compare each program and App using Pros and Cons to find the best fit for you. Be sure to watch out for that one.

Click Print

Now that we have created our “Document” it’s time to print. There is only one small difference in this step. Before you can print, it is important to make sure your printer is on and has the required material inserted. You’ll also have to export the model from most software to a file format accepted by your specific printer. This is typically a .STL file, but can vary depending on the quality and material requirements of your printer. Be sure to follow the printer’s instruction manual for step by step instructions on how to do this.

A detailed explanation of how a 3D printer works not only varies depending on the printer but would take entirely too long to explain in one blog post. 3D printers typically work with a process called extrusion. Extrusion is a process used to create objects of a fixed cross-sectional profile, or in other words, any long object the does not vary in shape throughout its entire length.

Print the Document

Consider a hot glue gun. You plug it in, insert a glue stick, and when you press the lever, it dispenses glue. 3D printers work on nearly this exact same principle. You insert a long wire into the 3D printer, similar to a glue stick. When the printing process begins, it will dispense the long plastic wire while simultaneously heating it to 200-250 degrees Celsius. While this is occurring, it makes quick passes, back and forth, over and over again. It lays down thin layers of plastic, one by one until the final top layer is complete.

As you can see, 3D printing is actually very simple. The steps are identical to conventional printing. It does have a hefty price tag at first, but the material is rather inexpensive when bought in bulk and it is mesmerizing to watch the 3D printer do its thing. If you’re as excited as me to start 3D printing, stay tuned for my upcoming post, where I’ll show you exactly what you need to get started right now! You don’t want to miss it.


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