In a society defined by rapid technological innovation, 3D printing has emerged as a groundbreaking technology with far-reaching implications across a number of industries. A type of additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a transformative process that converts digital designs into physical objects by repeatedly layering materials.

Ahead, discover the mechanism of 3D printing, its decades-old origins, the types of printers available, 3D printing’s advantages and disadvantages, the kinds of industries utilizing it and real-world examples of its applications to spark your creativity.  

What Is 3D Printing?

A black 3D printer which is in the process of printing the acronym ‘3D’ in green letters on a mirrored surface.
In the Skillshare class “3D Printing 101 | The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide,” teacher Johannes Wild shows a 3D printer in action. 

At its core, 3D printing is a manufacturing process that builds objects one layer at a time. It does so by referring to digital designs which act as a blueprint for the object being created. 

Unlike more traditional subtractive manufacturing methods, in which material is cut away from a solid block, 3D printing adds material incrementally, allowing for intricate and complex geometries to be created with precision, efficiency and minimal waste. 

This technology has revolutionized prototyping, production and customization across industries ranging from aerospace to healthcare. And as 3D printers have become more affordable, they’ve also made small-scale creation and manufacturing more accessible for millions of people. 

The Origins of 3D Printing

A person’s hands holding a white geometric toy made of plastic on a gray tabletop.
In the Skillshare class “Introduction to 3D Printing: An Easy Start to Your First 3D Design,” teacher Lauren Slowik holds a kinetic toy she created with a 3D printer. 

In 1981, a Japanese auto designer by the name of Hideo Kodama created a “rapid prototyping device” which is now widely recognized as being the first iteration of the modern 3D printer. He wasn’t able to secure a patent for his invention, and neither were the French scientists who created a similar machine just a few years later. 

It wasn’t until 1986 that American scientist Charles “Chuck” Hull received the first patent for a 3D printer, which he then called “stereolithography,” or SLA for short. 

Over the next several decades, 3D printing evolved and grew, with several new methods emerging. And in the 21st century, many of the first 3D printing-related patents began to expire, including Chuck Hull’s for SLA. As a result, low-cost 3D printers came to the market, and the technology became more widely accessible than ever before. 

Now, anyone who wants to experiment with 3D printing can simply order an entry-level 3D printer and have it delivered to their door within days. 

Types of 3D Printers: An Overview

An square-shaped enclosed 3D printer with a white base and a transparent orange top. On the front of the printer is a small screen which displays glowing blue text on top of a black background.
In the class “Introduction to 3D Printing: An Easy Start to Your First 3D Design,” a relatively small 3D printer is shown working on a print job. 

3D printers come in various types, each of which employs distinct technologies and materials. These include:

  • Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers: These printers use thermoplastic filaments melted and extruded from a heated nozzle layer by layer.
  • Stereolithography (SLA) printers: These utilize UV light to cure photosensitive resin into precise shapes.
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printers: SLS printers use a powerful laser to sinter (i.e. solidify) powdered material, such as metal or plastic, into hardened layers.
  • Digital Light Processing (DLP) printers: Similar to SLA printers, except that DLP printers use a protected light source to cure each layer in one go.

It’s important to note that while 3D printing is more accessible than it’s ever been, its costs can still add up. That’s because in addition to the initial cost of a 3D printer, people interested in 3D printing must also purchase materials, replacement parts and finishing tools. So, be sure to keep that in mind before buying a 3D printer for yourself.  

Pros and Cons of 3D Printing

Like any manufacturing method, 3D printing has a unique set of advantages and disadvantages. These are some of the most important to consider. 

Pros:

  • Rapid prototyping: Traditional manufacturing methods often require time-consuming tooling and setup, but with 3D printing, a digital design can be turned into a physical prototype within hours, allowing for rapid iteration and refinement of product designs.
  • Customization and personalization: From personalized medical implants to customized consumer goods, 3D printing makes it possible for designers and manufacturers to create unique products that meet highly specific requirements.
  • Reduced material waste: Unlike subtractive manufacturing methods, where excess material is often discarded as waste, 3D printing adds material only where needed, which minimizes material waste.

Cons:

  • Limited material options: While 3D printing offers some versatility in terms of materials, the range of available materials is still somewhat limited compared to traditional manufacturing processes. For instance, materials such as metals and high-performance polymers, can be difficult or expensive to 3D print.
  • Slow production speeds at scale: Despite its rapid prototyping capabilities, 3D printing generally has slower production speeds compared to traditional manufacturing methods for large-scale production.
  • Post-processing requirements: Depending on the printing technology and materials used to create an object, post-processing steps such as sanding, painting or heat treatment may be necessary, which can add time and cost to the manufacturing process.
  • Environmental concerns: While 3D printing often results in less waste than other manufacturing methods, it does use considerable amounts of energy and emit volatile organic compounds (VOC) that can contribute to air pollution. Additionally, the materials used by most 3D printers are petroleum-based, and thus aren’t biodegradable. 

So, is 3D printing right for you? That depends on your goals. If you’re looking to manufacture thousands of items at scale, 3D printing might not meet your needs. But if you want to quickly create prototypes or design customized products you can turn into a reality, it could be exactly what you’re looking for. 

How 3D Printers Work: Step-by-Step

A person’s hand holding a large spool of black plastic filament in front of a 3D printer sitting on a gray striped tabletop. 
In the class “3D Printing 101 | The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide,” Wild holds up a spool of filament which the printer will use to create an object. 

These are the basic steps 3D designers use to turn their ideas into physical objects: 

  1. Design creation: A digital 3D model is created using computer-aided design (CAD) or 3D animation software.
  2. Slicing: The digital model is sliced into thin layers using specialized slicing software.
  3. Printing: The printer follows the sliced layers, depositing and curing material according to the design.
  4. Layer bonding: Each layer of filament fuses with the previous one, which gradually builds up the object from the bottom to the top.
  5. Post-processing: Steps such as cleaning, curing or support removal are used to clean up and refine the final product. 

Industries Where 3D Printing is Used

3D printing is used in dozens of industries, but these are some of the most noteworthy examples: 

  • Automotive: Prototyping, tooling and customization of car parts.
  • Healthcare: Patient-specific implants, custom-fit prosthetics and anatomical models.
  • Aerospace: Lightweight components, maintenance tools and rapid prototyping.
  • Architecture: Scale models and prototypes. 

Exploring 3D Printing Through Concrete Examples

A three-dimensional orange shark sitting on a gray tabletop. It features a slot on the top of its back in which an iPhone is standing vertically. 
In the class “Introduction to 3D Printing: An Easy Start to Your First 3D Design,” a 3D-printed shark serves as a desktop phone stand. 

Looking for more examples of the useful real-world objects that 3D printers produce? No problem. Although hundreds of use cases exist, the following examples are some of the most intriguing. 

  • Customized prosthetics: 3D printing enables personalized prosthetic limbs tailored to individual patients’ needs. In fact, the patients in question don’t necessarily have to be human—plenty of pets have benefited from 3D-printed prosthetics, too. 
  • Dental parts: From crowns and bridges to aligners and dentures, many intricate dental parts can be created with the help of 3D printing.
  • Fashion and jewelry: Designers leverage 3D printing for avant-garde fashion pieces and intricate, custom-made jewelry.
  • Food industry: Culinary artists and scientists experiment with 3D-printed food, creating edible structures intended to be enjoyed by astronauts and foodies alike. 

Unleash Your Creativity With 3D Printing

3D printing enables unparalleled customization, rapid prototyping and innovative design possibilities across a myriad of industries. From healthcare to aerospace, it continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible, all while empowering individuals and businesses to unleash their creativity and bring their ideas to life in a matter of hours. 

Looking to master the ins and outs of 3D printing? There’s no better place than Skillshare and our library of online 3D printing classes for beginners, advanced designers and everyone in between. (And if you’re already a 3D printing expert, you can even create your own 3D printing class on Skillshare too.)

Written By

Carrie Buchholz-Powers

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