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What Is 3D Printing?

What Is 3D Printing? | 3D Printing Spot

Updated by

William Stone


January 25, 2023

3D printing saves on cost as it makes creating a single item as cheap as creating hundreds of them. Today, we use 3D printing in creating models in industries.

In the 3D printing process, you use an additive process to create an object by building it up with layers of material. You will notice that each layer acts as a slice of the object. The 3D printing process is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing, which involves cutting out plastic or metal to create an object. Consequently, 3D printing saves on material usage.

3D printing involves manufacturing things but differently from the ‘traditional method. It is fast and involves low setup costs. It can create more complex geometries than before using an ever-expanding inventory of materials. It is used extensively in engineering, medicine, architecture, education, entertainment, and prototyping.

In researching and writing this article, we obtained information from innovative companies that use 3D printing, such as Boeing, Ford, Nike, American Pearl, and Hasbro.

This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

Table of Contents

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a manufacturing process that forms an object from a software design. This process works by adding thin layers of plastic, cement, or metal in liquid or powder form and fusing them to create objects of different sizes, colors, and shapes.

3D Printing Procedure

This manufacturing process is additive and uses the traditional inkjet printer methods, albeit in 3D. To create a 3D part or object, it takes a combination of powder materials, good software, and precision tools. Below are the steps that 3D printers use to bring the ideas to life:

3D Modeling Software

The first step in every 3D printing process is modeling. Modeling allows the printers to tailor the product as a perfect replica. This ability for precise designing is why we use 3D in many industries.

This modeling software is important in dentistry, where you use it to design teeth that fit the individual perfectly. It is also crucial in the space industry, where you use the software to design complex parts of a rocket.

Slicing the Model

After creating the model, the next step is to slice it. Regrettably, the printers cannot perceive 3D like human beings; therefore, the engineers have to slice the model into various slices to create the end product.

The software used to slice the model scans all the layers and instructs the printer on creating each layer. The slicers also instruct the printers on where to fill up a model. This fill strengthens and shapes the object. After the model has been sliced, you can then send it to the printer for actual printing.

Printing Process

A 3D printer acts as an inkjet printer, where wax is dispensed layer by layer, waiting for each to dry before the next one.

The printer adds 2D prints on top of each other to create a 3D object. Here are some examples of materials used by a 3D printer;

  • Carbon Fibre Filaments
  • Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
  • Conductive Filaments
  • Metal Filaments
  • Flexible Filaments
  • Wood Filaments

This process may take a few hours for simple prints like a ball or weeks for complex projects like a home.

Forms of 3D Printing

3D printing is categorized into seven groups which are;

  • Material Jetting
  • Binder Jetting
  • Powder Bed Fusion
  • Direct Energy Deposition
  • Sheet Lamination
  • Material Extrusion
  • Vat Polymerization

Material Jetting

Material jetting works similarly to an inkjet printer, except it deposits layers of ink rather than layering it down on a page. You should allow each layer to cure before laying the next one. This process is precise and the most expensive 3D printing method. However, it permits the creation of colorful parts in the material.

Binder Jetting

The second type of 3D printing is binder jetting. It involves depositing a thin powdered layer of material such as ceramic on the platform, after which adhesive binds the particles together.

The layers are hence built part by part, and once it is complete, it is processed further to complete the build. You may use metal parts for post-processing. Binder jetting in 3D metal printing is generally used in ceramic molds and color prototypes.

Powder Bed Fusion

In this 3D printing, we use thermal energy to fuse different layers of powder to form more layers. These layers are placed over each other to create one part. It is noteworthy to mention that powder bed fusion covers the melting and sintering process.

Direct Energy Deposition

This 3D printing uses thermal energy to fuse wire as it is deposited. In this process, layers are placed vertically to create an object.

Material Extrusion

This process is also known as fused deposition modeling. A spool of filament is fed to an extrusion head that has a heated nozzle.

The head heats then lays down the softened material to cool as a layer. When it cools, it creates a layer, and the build platform moves down to allow the next layer. This process saves cost but requires post-processing to create a better finish.  Unfortunately, the parts are not strong in one direction, thus unbefitting for vital applications.

Sheet lamination

In sheet lamination, there are two technologies: ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM) and laminated object manufacturing (LAM).  UAM is a process used with aluminum, titanium, and stainless steel using low energy and temperature. LOM, on the other hand, layers materials to create parts that have aesthetic and visual appeal.

Vat Photopolymerization

This process consists of two techniques: digital light processing (DLP) and stereolithography (SLA). Both processes create parts by layering cured liquid resin in a vat. While SLA uses a single-point laser, DLP uses an image of each layer on a vat surface.

History of 3D Printing

3D printing was innovated as an idea to accelerate product development by prototyping. Chuck Hull invented a 3D printer through Stereolithography Apparatus and patented it in 1984.

In the 1980s, others formed several companies that were important in the development of 3D printing technology. They are;

  • 1981- The first patent issued for a UV light device was to a Japanese Hideo Kodama. His 3D design intended to make prototypes and models. Unfortunately, they abandoned the patent.
  • 1984- 3 French inventors Oliver de Witte, Alain Le Mehaute, and Jean Claude Andre submitted a patent similar to Hideo’s that used UV light to cure photopolymers. They abandoned this patent due to a lack of business potential.
  • 1984- Immediately after Le Mehaute’s patent, Charles Chuck Hull filed his patent for stereolithography (SLA).
  • 1987- Invention of STL files by Hull, who also founded 3D System the same year.
  • 1987- Carl Deckard, an American, submitted a patent for Selective Laser Sintering patent and founded Desktop Manufacturing in the same year.
  • 1989- S. Scott Crump filed for Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and, together with his wife, founded Stratasys.


From the 1980s to the 1990s, the industry grew rapidly. The machines built were expensive and big. Their creators competed for contracts for mass-market manufacturers in the health, automotive, aerospace, and consumer goods industries.

1987 3D Systems SLA-1
1992 Stratasy 3D Modeler
1992 DTM Sinterstation 2000
1994 Electro Optical Systems (EOS) EOSINT M160


A decade after 3D took off; 3D printing became affordable due to development in materials, the ending of patents, and fierce profit competition. In the early 2000s, 3D came to people from the heavy industry.

  • In 2005, they launched Replicated Rapid Prototyper to create self-replicating 3D printers that printed their parts.
  • In 2009, MarketBot launched Cupcake CNC, a desktop 3D printer. All its components were downloadable from a website known as Thingiverse.
  • In 2012, Formlabs released the first affordable printer known as Form1 through campaign funding. Unfortunately, they were sued for patent infringement, but the suit was ruled in their favor.
  • In 2013, Hubs launched the biggest peer-to-peer 3D printing platform.
  • In 2014, major SLS patents were introduced to the public, making companies create small and affordable SLS printers.


At the beginning of the 21st century, the excitement around 3D printing had disappeared from the media but increased in businesses. Today, many companies are producing 3D printers and offering many services in 3D printing technology.

3D Printing Industries

3D printing is applied in many industries including:


Reductions in weight and costs have led to the popularity of 3D printing in automotive. This allows for quick prototyping of new parts for testing or manufacture on a small scale. For instance, if one part is unavailable, it can be produced. Alternatively, parts can be created overnight and tested before manufacturing in large quantities.

Benefits of 3D printing for Automotive

  • It offers designers a quick and cost-effective approach when developing products.
  • It enables designers to make designs and modifications quickly.
  • It offers a cheaper platform to customize parts.
  • It helps produce highly complex parts such as car components like fine meshes, thin walls, and internal channels.


Since 3D printing creations are light but complex, they are used across the aerospace industry. Instead of building one part for different components, 3D allows one whole creation reducing material and time wastage.

Benefits of 3D printing for Aerospace

  • Low-volume production - 3D printing is ideal in aerospace industries where complex parts are produced in small quantities. 3D printing technology enables the creation of complex parts without investing in expensive tooling. This gives the manufacturers a cost-effective way to produce small batches.
  • Weight reduction - Other than engine performance and aerodynamics, weight is an important factor in designing aircraft. When you reduce the weight of a craft, you reduce its fuel consumption, payload, and carbon dioxide emission. 3D technology offers an ideal solution for creating light parts, therefore, saving on the fuel consumption.
  • Part consolidation - One major benefit of 3D printing is the ability to put together multiple parts to a single object. By reducing the number of parts required, you can reduce the time needed for assembling.
  • Maintenance and repair - An aircraft has a 20-30 years lifespan, making maintenance a major function in the aerospace industry. In this industry, we make repairs by metal 3D printing.


The medical sector has also gained via 3D creations. For example, it is quick to make hearing aids from a digital file after matching it with the patient’s body. It reduces the costs and production times greatly.

The benefits of 3D printing for medical

  • 3D printing technology has enhanced medical devices. Thanks to inexpensive, rapid prototyping, the manufacturers of medical devices can design new products in the market quickly.
  • Personalized healthcare - 3D technology allows the creation of specific devices for patients. For instance, devices such as implants or prosthetics can be quicker than in traditional methods of manufacture.

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What Is 3D Printing?


William Stone

William Stone

William has spent 20 plus years in the custom manufacturing industry as a COO, CEO and Owner of various custom product businesses. His experience has exposed him to all types of manufacturing from die cast, die struck, injection molding, CNC machining, laser etching, engraving and of course 3D printing.

Learn more about William Stone

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