Explainer

What Is 3D Printing?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several decades, you’re probably very familiar with printing technology and printers. Our computers have been able to apply ink to paper since 1968. However, what you may not be familiar with is another application of those advances, 3D printing.

With 3D printing, you can take something you or someone else has designed and, rather than putting it down on a flat piece of paper, build it in a form you can pick up, touch, and even use. So, let’s take a look at what is 3D printing in general, and how it has taken the consumer realm by storm.

What is 3D Printing, and Why Does It Matter?

Let’s talk about making stuff the old-school way and the futuristic way. Traditional manufacturing is like sculpting a masterpiece from a block of marble. You start with a big chunk (think CNC machining or milling) and chip away until you’ve got something cool.

Now, flip that idea upside down, and you’ve got 3D printing! It’s like making a Lego model, but way cooler. A 3D printer stacks material layer by layer, building up your creation. The industry calls this additive manufacturing, but you might also see it called “rapid prototyping.”

3D Printer Layer

 

NOTE: The more traditional method of manufacturing is called subtractive manufacturing. That’s because it takes that big chunk of material and “carves” your creation out of that.

The material used can be almost anything, depending on your 3D printer. At home, PLA filament is probably the most common, but some 3D printers can even build using concrete, metal, or biological matter.

Anycubic Kobra 2 3D Printer, 6X Faster Speed Firmware...
Official Creality Ender 3 3D Printer Fully Open Source with...
ELEGOO Neptune 4 Pro 3D Printer, 500mm/s High Speed FDM...
Anycubic Kobra 2 3D Printer, 6X Faster Speed Firmware...
Official Creality Ender 3 3D Printer Fully Open Source with...
ELEGOO Neptune 4 Pro 3D Printer, 500mm/s High Speed FDM...
-
-
-
$279.99
$168.99
$359.99
Anycubic Kobra 2 3D Printer, 6X Faster Speed Firmware...
Anycubic Kobra 2 3D Printer, 6X Faster Speed Firmware...
-
$279.99
Official Creality Ender 3 3D Printer Fully Open Source with...
Official Creality Ender 3 3D Printer Fully Open Source with...
-
$168.99
ELEGOO Neptune 4 Pro 3D Printer, 500mm/s High Speed FDM...
ELEGOO Neptune 4 Pro 3D Printer, 500mm/s High Speed FDM...
-
$359.99

Amazon.com Price updated on 2024-05-17 - We may earn a commission for purchases using our links: more info

Today, you can order a 3D printer and the raw material for it from Amazon. In many cases, you can have your new at-home manufacturing system on your doorstep in no more than a couple of days.

The History of 3D Printing

Believe it or not, 3D printing could have been doodling objects before the internet was even a thing! The technology started as a brainwave to speed up how quickly new products were developed, focusing on rapid prototyping. While a few smart folks had similar ideas, it was Chuck Hull who hit the jackpot. In 1984, he introduced the world to his Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA), basically the granddaddy of 3D printers.

By the early 2000s, it turned into a battle royale in the tech world. Everyone was competing for the gold, material science was getting a turbo boost, and a bunch of patents were expiring.

The result? 3D printing suddenly became way cheaper and started popping up everywhere. It was a new tech revolution. Manufacturing, which used to be all about big machines and big money, suddenly became something anyone could tinker with.

designer beside 3d printer

By 2018, the media buzz around 3D printing had simmered down, but don’t let that fool you. Businesses of all shapes and sizes were still super into it. Today, we’ve got thousands of companies churning out 3D printers and cooking up all kinds of services using this awesome tech.

Not only that, but the democratization of 3D printing brought the technology into the hobbyist world. It’s a breeze for a savvy maker to get their hands on a 3D printer and the right software and start making their own creations right at home.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

Each 3D printing method has its own fancy way of adding these layers to make your 3D masterpiece. So, how does a 3D printer know what to make? It all starts with a digital file, kind of like a treasure map for your printer. The most popular map format is the G-code file. This file is like a GPS for your printer, telling it where to go on the X (left-right), Y (front-back), and Z (up-down) axes.

3D print a house model

And here’s a fun fact: 3D printers are a bit like artists deciding how thick to lay their paint. They can print layers of different thicknesses, called layer height. It’s similar to how many pixels you see on your screen. The more layers (or pixels), the clearer and more detailed the final product, but just like waiting for your favorite game to load, more layers mean more time printing.

Patience is key for that crisp, high-res print, though. You might be able to build a small, simple 3D printing project in just a couple of hours. Highly detailed projects can take much longer, as well as bigger builds. It isn’t at all unusual to have a build take a couple of days (or even longer) to complete.

Do 3D Printers Print Anything?

3D printing is a magic wand for your digital designs. Picture this: you’ve got a cool 3D model on your computer, and with the swish of a 3D printer, you can turn it into a real, touchable thing!

The possibilities are endless with these nifty printers. You can whip up anything from cute little plastic knick-knacks to seriously complex gizmos. Fancy a mini version of your favorite superhero? Done. Need a custom tool to fix that wobbly chair? No problem. Or how about a scale model of your dream house? 3D printers have got your back.

The best part? If you dream it, you can print it (with the right printer and a bit of patience, of course). Start with something simple, like a stylish vase or a handy holder for your SD cards. Feeling ambitious? Go big and print metal masterpieces or full-blown architectural models. It’s like having your factory, right at your fingertips!

How to Get Started with 3D Printing

Okay, now you know what 3D printing is. You know where it got its roots and how far the technology has come. You might be excited but worried that getting started is too expensive or too complicated.

You can easily start 3D printing your favorite Star Wars character for much less than you might think. You simply need a 3D printer, the digital file to print from, software to turn that file into something your 3D printer can understand, and the material.

Everything you need to get started is right at your fingertips. As I noted above, you can buy your 3D printer on Amazon and have it at your door in just a couple of days. The same goes for the material needed to feed that printer.

Software-wise, most 3D printers have their own software available to turn those CAD files into reality. Of course, there’s also the de facto standard UtiliMaker Cura, which works with the majority of available 3D printers.

As for the CAD files themselves, there is an ever-growing community of makers who offer their designs for free or for just a few dollars. Websites like Thingiverse (by the same folks who wrote Cura) have thousands of designs.

If You Can Dream It, You Can Build It

Just to wrap things up, please understand there are volumes upon volumes I could write about the ins and outs of 3D printing. This is just a summary of what the tech is and why it matters.

Whether you want to quickly manufacture a prototype of your invention or make custom boxes to hold dice for your favorite roleplaying game, 3D printing can be the answer. It might take some time and experimentation, but that’s half the fun.

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