What is 3D Printing? The Ultimate Guide

What is 3D Printing?

3D Printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is a group of technologies that utilize the concept of “adding” consecutive layers of material until a fully formed, 3D product is created.  There are a number of methods, materials, and applications surrounding 3D printing and we have created the ultimate guide to help you navigate this new and exciting technology!

This guide to 3D printing covers:

How Does a 3D Printer Work?

3D printers take a 3D CAD Model, process it through a slicing software and then build the 3D model layer by layer.  The process by which the model is built varies with the type of 3D printer and the method that it uses.  For example, some 3D printers use thermoplastics that can heated, extruded through a small nozzle, and then cooled into the final product.  Some use a powder bed of material, which can consist of a polymer or a metallic powder, that is then heated and fused together with a laser.  Others use a vat of photo-sensitive resin, that is cured with a laser into a physical object.  The common principle between each method is that they all start with a digital 3D model that is processed through a slicing program and created through the selective addition of material in accordance to the 3D model.

What is the Process of 3D Printing?

As mentioned above, there are several important steps involved in the 3D Printing process, including:

Designing for Additive Manufacturing

While there are still a number of possible advantages to simply printing an existing 3D model designed to be manufactured by conventional methods, there are many unique benefits that 3D printing offers.  Many are related to the increased design freedom.  For example, there is no cost for additional complexity or customization when 3D printing, unlike machining or injection molding where there is a direct relationship between cost and complexity.  The removal of design constraints and the increased freedom of design opens the door to virtually unlimited possibilities of what can be created and manufactured.

Additionally, the limitations of 3D printing must be considered.  For example, the bottom up direction of manufacturing, while it enables the creation of complex geometries and internal cavities, creates overhanging features mid build that must be supported or else they will collapse.  Support structures increase the amount of material needed and adversely affect the cosmetics of the part.  Therefore, a part designed for 3D printing should minimize the amount of support structures needed.


Once the model is created in the CAD software, the file must be prepared in a format that the 3D Printer can read.  The slicing software “slices” the 3D model into thousands of layers, depending on the input parameter settings.  Properly processing the model through the slicing software is critical to having a successful print.  Parameters such as extrusion heat, build plate heat, adhesion, cooling, layer height, print speed, retraction, and support specifications all must work in harmony with the material used, the design of the part, and the machine hardware.  Improper programming at the slicing stage, will usually result in a failed print.


Once the model has been created in the CAD program and processed through the slicing software, the instructions for the machine are sent to the printer and build process is initiated.  Depending on the size of the part, the slicer settings, and the method used, the 3D printer can take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of days to complete the print.  Recently there have been several high-speed 3D printers introduced to the market that are opening the door to even more use cases and applications.

Post-Processing and Finishing

As with most manufacturing methods, there is typically some post-processing and finishing required after a part has been 3D printed.  Namely, the removal of the supports, smoothing of the exterior surface, coating, and painting.  Many of these are, of course, dependent upon the desires and needs of the customer or end-user.

What Are The Different Types of 3D Printers?

As mentioned before, there are several methods and technologies that are currently being used and developed for 3D printing. 


Extrusion, also known as fused filament fabrication or fused deposition modelling, is the most widely used 3D printing method as it is one of the most mature 3D printing technologies and desktop extrusion 3D printers have grown in popularity in recent years.  Extrusion utilizes a thermoplastic material, which can be heated and cooled without permanently altering the material.  This material property allows it to be pushed through a small nozzle that selectively places the material in the location specified by the slicing software. 

Extrusion has also been used for several unique applications included extruding concrete to create 3D printed homes and living tissue to 3D print human organs.

Source: Loughborough University

Powder Bed Fusion

Popular sub-methods of powder bed fusion include selective laser sintering (SLS), selective laser melting (SLM), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and binder jetting.  Each of these methods involves the use of powder bed of material and a joining mechanism.  SLS, SLM, and DMLS utilize a laser to melt the powder and the join the material.  After the laser passes and selectively fuses all areas, a roller passes over the build area and recoats the in-process part with another layer of powder material.  This process is repeated thousands of times until fully formed part is created.

In the case of binder jetting, an ink jet nozzle, like that of regular 2D printers, deposits a binding glue to hold the powder particles together in the shape of the part.  After the powder formation process is completed the part is placed in a heated chamber and the powder particles are fused together.  The advantage of binder jetting is that there is less residual stress, as the part is heated and cooled all at once rather than specific sections of the part at a time.

Source: Loughborough University


Photopolymerization, otherwise known as stereolithography (SLA), utilizes a vat of photo-sensitive resin that is cured via a laser.  Recently, start-ups have developed several innovations on top of this technology to dramatically increase the speed at which a part can be produced.

Source: Loughborough University

How Long Have 3D Printers Been Around?

1986 – Charles Hull discovers stereolithography and files a patent.  Founded 3D systems to commercialize the new technology.  Sells their first machine in 1988.

1989 – Scott Crump invents fused deposition modelling and files a patent.  Co-founded Stratasys to commercialize the technology.

1990s–  Medical researchers begin experimenting with 3D printing.  New and improved computer aided design tools were introduced to the market which improve the ability for designers to create 3D models to print.

1995Solidworks released

1998Catia v5 released

1999Autodesk Inventor released

2000First 3D printed organs

2004 – start of the RepRap project by Adrian Bowyer, with the goal of creating an open source, self-replicating system.  The RepRap project spawned the created of dozens of startup desktop 3D printing companies.

2009 – Stratasys’s patent on FDM technology expires, opening up a wave of startups and innovation.  Machine prices drop to under $1,000 and what was once only accessible to large industrial companies was now accessible to the mass market, and thus, much more media visibility.

2009 – Prominent desktop FDM company MakerBot founded, bought by Stratasys in 2013.

2011 – Prominent desktop FDM company Ultimaker founded.  Prominent desktop SLA company FormLabs is founded at MIT.

2013Markforged is founded, creates the first 3D printer capable of printing continuous fiber composite materials.

2014 – SLS patent expires.

2015 – SLA patent expires.  Carbon 3D introduces their first high-speed CLIP machine.  Desktop Metal is founded, introduces a new single-pass jetting technology improving the speed and quality of 3D printed metal parts.

2018 – BMW uses metal 3D printing in one of the first mass production applications of 3D printing to manufacture its metal roof bracket for the 2018 BMW i8 roadster.

Why Use 3D Printing?

3D printing has gotten a lot of attention in the media in the past decade, which has helped fuel its rapid growth in recent years. However, this has also contributed to some of the disillusionment with the technology as some feel that 3D printing has not lived up to the hype. In 2013, 3D printing was at the height of inflated expectation, with a lot of the mass market hype dropping off in 2014 to 2015. Wary of this lesson, companies are now sober to the reality of 3D printing’s current limitations and what it is going to take to push the technology to the next level to lead the fourth industrial revolution. These inflated expectations and subsequent disappointment with the technology lead to the question: Why Use 3D Printing?

What Are The Advantages 3D Printing Can Offer Today?

Design Freedom

With traditional manufacturing methods such as CNC machining and injection molding, there is a direct relationship between complexity and cost: the higher the complexity, the higher the cost. With 3D printing, there is no cost for increased complexity. This simple fact gives engineers and designers more freedom to create parts that more closely match their required function and aesthetic without constantly worrying about manufacturability. Highly complex products and mass customization are all feasible with 3D printing.


3D printing requires zero tooling. This means that prototyping and low volume production is cheaper than conventional manufacturing methods because there is no fixed cost for tooling that must be amortized across thousands of units to make it economical. 3D printing can manufacture economically starting at unit one.

Lead Time

3D printing allows for the manufacturing of physical products in days, sometimes hours, rather than weeks. With applications such as prototyping, multiple product iterations are often required during the new product development cycle. If multiple prototypes are needed and each prototype takes weeks to produce, the numbers start to add up fast; 3D printing cuts this down to a fraction of the time.

What Can 3D Printers Print?

As mentioned before, 3D printing companies are constantly coming out with new objects and materials to 3D print. Houses, steel, carbon fiber, and living tissue to name a few. The mind is quickly becoming the only imitation to what can be 3D printed.

What Types of Objects Can Be 3D Printed?

Prototypes, tooling jigs and fixtures, end use production parts for cars and airplanes are a few of the industrial applications of 3D printing. 3D printed houses have also come onto the scene with affordable housing for the masses in developing countries on the horizon. Living tissues such as stem cells can be selectively deposited layer by layer to create 3D printed organs for transplants. We’ve also created a list of 21 of the wildest 3D printing applications.

What Types of Materials Can Be 3D Printed?

Depending upon the machine there is a wide range of materials that are printable. Extrusion systems are capable of printing high strength and high heat resistant composite parts reinforced with carbon fibers and glass fibers. Variants of extrusion systems are also being used in the medical industry to print living tissue, and in the construction industry to print concrete. Powder bed fusion machines can create many different metal alloys and polymers. Check out our Ultimate Guide to 3D printing materials for more information!

What is the Future of 3D Printing?

There are a number of things in the distant and not so distant future for 3D printing, including: Fully automated manufacturing, Industry 4.0, Near-sourcing with on-demand manufacturing, transplants with 3D printed organs, and affordable housing for all.

Factory of the Future

What some have termed Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution involves the use of fully autonomous cyber physical systems with sensor-based communication-enabled autonomous systems. In other words, a “smart factory” that can be controlled virtually by software and very few operators. 3D printing’s autonomous characteristics make it very likely that additive technology will be at the center of the factory of the future. Manufacturing hubs can be located close to customers (near-sourcing) and products can be manufactured and delivered fully autonomously, on-demand.


Artificial limbs, organs, prosthetics and implants may soon be created solely through 3D printing. Due to its ability to efficiently create highly personalized products in mass, 3D printing could be the solution for many of medicine’s toughest challenges.


Houses built for under $4,000 may soon be reality with 3D printing. With savings on labor and materials, affordable housing could soon be a reality for many of the world’s poorest regions. This future could be closer to reality than we think as many startups have already entered this space, leading the way for innovative solutions to the world’s housing challenges.

Where Can I Find Models to 3D Print?

There are several amazing sites that offer some incredible 3D models that can be downloaded and 3D printed. Most have free and paid options. We’ve included a list to a few of the most popular below:

How Do You Get Something 3D Printed?

Contact us at ZABFAB Manufacturing for all of your 3D printing needs! We have a wide selection of engineering grade, flexible and composite materials that we can print high quality 3D products with. Don’t have a design? We also offer a design service to turn your idea into a physical product!

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