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What Is 3D Printing And How Does It Work? An Introduction

Miriam | November 30, 2021 | 4 min read

We're aware that many of you probably know a lot about 3D printing – or Additive Manufacturing (AM). After all, our work at 3YOURMIND evolves around businesses, research institutes and collaborative projects that are in some way involved in the world of 3D printing.


Since 3YOURMIND is a spin-off of the Technical University of Berlin, we are keen on passing on what we've learned in the past couple of years wherever we can. The perspective of making more people become enthusiastic about 3D printing is an exciting incentive because we believe our industry strives through individuals and their innovations. This is why we want to offer a short introduction about 3D printing – to inform, to raise follow-up questions, and to make you curious.

First of all, you may wonder why somebody would want to print something in 3D. The first reason is the most obvious: because the possibilities are endless. The most common reasons for businesses and institutes to invest in 3D printing solutions are to achieve rapid prototyping, to visualize architectural scale models, to improve healthcare (there have been experiments with 3d printed prosthetics and printing with human tissue), to optimize engineering processes and to replace machine components, etc. But there's even more. You can even print candy.

What is 3D Printing? What is a CAD-program?

Let's go through this step by step: You have an idea for a design of a product, a building, or a machine component. Next comes drawing up this idea in your CAD program (computer-aided design). There are numerous CAD programs available - some are freeware, some cost quite a bit of money. Of course, they all have their pros and cons.
When ready, the 3D file (usually it's a STL, STEP or OBJ format) needs to be exported - a second program is required to convert it into a 3D model by slicing up your drawing into numerous horizontal layers (the number of layers can vary between hundreds or even thousands!).

CAD-plugin-sketchup-3D-brandenburg-gate.png          A 3D drawing of the Berlin Brandenburg Gate. 

Once the model is converted into a sliced file, it can be fed to a 3D printer, which creates the object layer by layer. The way the printer works is that it reads every slice and creates the object, blending each layer with hardly any visible sign of the layers – the result being a 3D object of your drawing.

There are quite a few free 3D modeling softwares out there, some offering additional tools or special features. A great example is SketchUp. It works together with Google Earth and further features an extensive 3D library. That way you can easily import data directly into SketchUp.

The large variety of 3D modeling CAD programs often leads to varying results – not all programs are ideal for creating printable 3D files. This is where we found a solution: our free plugin for a range of popular CAD programs helps to create printable data. It analyzes the file before it's being uploaded to the 3D printer, and fixes possible errors or inconsistencies. The different results of fixing a file with or without our 3D Print Button can be surprising!

The printed result of your drawing (the selected material for this model was transparent resin).

How does the 3D printer actually 'print' your model?

There are different processes and technologies that were developed over the past 36 years since 3D printing was invented (our hero is called Chuck Hull). One thing they all have in common though: they're all additive, differing mainly in the way layers are put on top of each other in order to create the object. Since this is merely an introduction to 3D printing, we only want to briefly mention a couple of different technologies:

  • Binder Jetting: Inkjet print heads apply a liquid bonding agent onto thin layers of powder. By gluing the particles together, the part is built up layer by layer.
  • Electron Beam Melting: A thin layer of metal powder is selectively melted by an electron beam. The parts are built up layer by layer in the powder bed.
  • Fused Deposition Modeling: A plastic filament is melted and extruded through a nozzle. Parts are built by laying down layer-by-layer.
  • Laser Melting: A thin layer of metal powder is selectively melted by a laser. The parts are built up layer by layer in the powder bed.
  • Laser Sintering: A thin layer of plastic powder is selectively melted by a laser. The parts are built up layer by layer in the powder bed.
  • Material Jetting: Inkjet print heads are used to jet melted wax materials onto a build platform. The material cools and solidifies which allows building layers on top of each other.
  • Photopolymer Jetting: Inkjet print heads are used to jet liquid photopolymers onto a build platform. The material is immediately cured by UV lamps and solidified which allows building layers on top of each other.
  • Stereolithography: A UV laser is curing a liquid photopolymer in a vat. The part is built by lowering the build platform into the vat.
Watch this interesting video made by Shapeways, one of the most renowned 3D printing service providers there is to see a few of these technologies in action!

This was a brief introduction to how 3D printing works – we look forward to gradually getting into more detail and to always keeping you up to date with the latest innovations from the world of AM.

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