Are 3d printers

Types of 3D Printers, Materials, and Applications

3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) technologies create three-dimensional parts from computer-aided design (CAD) models by successively adding material layer by layer until physical part is created.

While 3D printing technologies have been around since the 1980s, recent advances in machinery, materials, and software have made 3D printing accessible to a wider range of businesses, enabling more and more companies to use tools previously limited to a few high-tech industries.

Today, professional, low-cost desktop and benchtop 3D printers accelerate innovation and support businesses in various industries including engineering, manufacturing, dentistry, healthcare, education, entertainment, jewelry, and audiology.

All 3D printing processes start with a CAD model that is sent to software to prepare the design. Depending on the technology, the 3D printer might produce the part layer by layer by solidifying resin or sintering powder. The parts are then removed from the printer and post-processed for the specific application.

See how to go from design to 3D print with the Form 3 SLA 3D printer. This 5-minute video covers the basics of how to use the Form 3, from the software and materials to printing and post-processing.

3D printers create parts from three-dimensional models, the mathematical representations of any three-dimensional surface created using computer-aided design (CAD) software or developed from 3D scan data. The design is then exported as an STL or OBJ file readable by print preparation software.

3D printers include software to specify print settings and slice the digital model into layers that represent horizontal cross-sections of the part. Adjustable printing settings include orientation, support structures (if needed), layer height, and material. Once setup is complete, the software sends the instructions to the printer via a wireless or cable connection.

Some 3D printers use a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic, others fuse small particles of polymer powder at high temperatures to build parts. Most 3D printers can run unattended until the print is complete, and modern systems automatically refill the material required for the parts from cartridges.

With Formlabs 3D printers, an online Dashboard allows you to remotely manage printers, materials, and teams.


Depending on the technology and the material, the printed parts may require rinsing in isopropyl alcohol (IPA) to remove any uncured resin from their surface, post-curing to stabilize mechanical properties, manual work to remove support structures, or cleaning with compressed air or a media blaster to remove excess powder. Some of these processes can be automated with accessories.

3D printed parts can be used directly or post-processed for specific applications and the required finish by machining, priming, painting, fastening or joining. Often, 3D printing also serves as an intermediate step alongside conventional manufacturing methods, such as positives for investment casting jewelry and dental appliances, or molds for custom parts.

The three most established types of 3D printers for plastics parts are stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), and fused deposition modeling (FDM). Formlabs offers two professional 3D printing technologies, SLA and SLS, bringing these powerful and accessible industrial fabrication tools into the creative hands of professionals around the world.

Stereolithography was the world’s first 3D printing technology, invented in the 1980s, and is still one of the most popular technologies for professionals. SLA 3D printers use a laser to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic in a process called photopolymerization.

SLA resin 3D printers have become vastly popular for their ability to produce high-accuracy, isotropic, and watertight prototypes and parts in a range of advanced materials with fine features and smooth surface finish. SLA resin formulations offer a wide range of optical, mechanical, and thermal properties to match those of standard, engineering, and industrial thermoplastics.

Resin 3D printing a great option for highly detailed prototypes requiring tight tolerances and smooth surfaces, such as molds, patterns, and functional parts. SLA 3D printers are widely used in a range of industries from engineering and product design to manufacturing, dentistry, jewelry, model making, and education.

  • Rapid prototyping
  • Functional prototyping
  • Concept modeling
  • Short-run production
  • Dental applications
  • Jewelry prototyping and casting

Learn More About SLA 3D Printers

Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing uses a laser to cure liquid photopolymer resin into solid isotropic parts.

SLA parts have sharp edges, a smooth surface finish, and minimal visible layer lines.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printers use a high-power laser to sinter small particles of polymer powder into a solid structure. The unfused powder supports the part during printing and eliminates the need for dedicated support structures. This makes SLS ideal for complex geometries, including interior features, undercuts, thin walls, and negative features. Parts produced with SLS printing have excellent mechanical characteristics, with strength resembling that of injection-molded parts.

The most common material for selective laser sintering is nylon, a popular engineering thermoplastic with excellent mechanical properties. Nylon is lightweight, strong, and flexible, as well as stable against impact, chemicals, heat, UV light, water, and dirt.

The combination of low cost per part, high productivity, and established materials make SLS a popular choice among engineers for functional prototyping, and a cost-effective alternative to injection molding for limited-run or bridge manufacturing.

  • Functional prototyping
  • End-use parts
  • Short-run, bridge, or custom manufacturing

Learn More About SLS 3D Printers

SLS 3D printers use a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of polymer powder.  

SLS parts have a slightly rough surface finish, but almost no visible layer lines.

Fused deposition modeling (FDM), also known as fused filament fabrication (FFF), is the most widely used type of 3D printing at the consumer level. FDM 3D printers work by extruding thermoplastic filaments, such as ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), PLA (Polylactic Acid), through a heated nozzle, melting the material and applying the plastic layer by layer to a build platform. Each layer is laid down one at a time until the part is complete.

FDM 3D printers are well-suited for basic proof-of-concept models, as well as quick and low-cost prototyping of simple parts, such as parts that might typically be machined. However, FDM has the lowest resolution and accuracy when compared to SLA or SLS and is not the best option for printing complex designs or parts with intricate features. Higher-quality finishes may be obtained through chemical and mechanical polishing processes. Industrial FDM 3D printers use soluble supports to mitigate some of these issues and offer a wider range of engineering thermoplastics, but they also come at a steep price.

  • Basic proof-of-concept models
  • Simple prototyping

Learn More About FDM 3D Printers

FDM 3D printers build parts by melting and extruding thermoplastic filament, which a printer nozzle deposits layer by layer in the build area.

FDM parts tend to have visible layer lines and might show inaccuracies around complex features. 

Having trouble finding the best 3D printing process for your needs? In this video guide, we compare FDM, SLA, and SLS technologies, the most popular types of 3D printers, across the most important buying considerations.

Each 3D printing process has its own benefits and limitations that make them more suitable for certain applications. This video compares the functional and visual characteristics of FDM, SLA, and SLS printers 3D printers to help you identify the solution that best matches your requirements.

Do you need custom parts or prototypes fast? Compared to outsourcing to service providers or using traditional tools like machining, having a 3D printer in-house can save weeks of lead time. In this video, we compare the speed of FDM, SLA, and SLS 3D printing processes.

Comparing the cost of different 3D printers goes beyond sticker prices—these won’t tell you the full story of how much a 3D printed part will cost. Learn the three factors you need to consider for cost and how they compare across FDM, SLA, and SLS 3D printing technologies.

As additive manufacturing processes build objects by adding material layer by layer, they offer a  unique set of advantages over traditional subtractive and formative manufacturing processes.

With traditional manufacturing processes, it can take weeks or months to receive a part. 3D printing turns CAD models into physical parts within a few hours, producing parts and assemblies from one-off concept models to functional prototypes and even small production runs for testing. This allows designers and engineers to develop ideas faster, and helps companies to bring products more quickly to the market.

Engineers at the AMRC turned to 3D printing to rapidly produce 500 high-precision drilling caps used in drilling trials for Airbus, cutting the lead time from weeks to only three days.

With 3D printing, there’s no need for the costly tooling and setup associated with injection molding or machining; the same equipment can be used from prototyping to production to create parts with different geometries. As 3D printing becomes increasingly capable of producing functional end-use parts, it can complement or replace traditional manufacturing methods for a growing range of applications in low- to mid-volumes.

Pankl Racing Systems substituted machined jigs and fixtures with 3D printed parts, decreasing costs by 80-90 percent that resulted in $150,000 in savings.

From shoes to clothes and bicycles, we’re surrounded by products made in limited, uniform sizes as businesses strive to standardize products to make them economical to manufacture. With 3D printing, only the digital design needs to be changed to tailor each product to the customer without additional tooling costs. This transformation first started to gain a foothold in industries where custom fit is essential, such medicine and dentistry, but as 3D printing becomes more affordable, it’s increasingly being used to mass customize consumer products.

Gillette's Razor Maker™ gives consumers the power to create and order customized 3D printed razor handles, with the choice of 48 different designs (and counting), a variety of colors, and the option to add custom text.

3D printing can create complex shapes and parts, such as overhangs, microchannels, and organic shapes, that would be costly or even impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing methods. This provides the opportunity to consolidate assemblies into less individual parts to reduce weight, alleviate weak joints, and cut down on assembly time, unleashing new possibilities for design and engineering.

Nervous System launched the first-ever 3D printed ceramic jewelry line, consisting of intricate designs that would be impossible to manufacture using any other ceramic technique.

Product development is an iterative process that requires multiple rounds of testing, evaluation, and refinement. Finding and fixing design flaws early can help companies avoid costly revisions and tooling changes down the road. With 3D printing, engineers can thoroughly test prototypes that look and perform like final products, reducing the risks of usability and manufacturability issues before moving into production.

The developers of Plaato, an optically clear airlock for homebrewing, 3D printed 1,000 prototypes to fine tune their design before investing in expensive tooling.

3D printing accelerates innovation and supports businesses across a wide range of industries, including engineering, manufacturing, dentistry, healthcare, education, entertainment, jewelry, audiology, and more.

Rapid prototyping with 3D printing empowers engineers and product designers to turn ideas into realistic proofs of concept, advance these concepts to high-fidelity prototypes that look and work like final products, and guide products through a series of validation stages toward mass production.


  • Rapid prototyping
  • Communication models
  • Manufacturing validation

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Manufacturers automate production processes and streamline workflows by prototyping tooling and directly 3D printing custom tools, molds, and manufacturing aids at far lower costs and lead times than with traditional manufacturing. This reduces manufacturing costs and defects, increases quality, speeds up assembly, and maximizes labor effectiveness.


  • Jig and fixtures
  • Tooling
  • Molding (injection molding, thermoforming, silicone molding, overmolding)
  • Metal casting
  • Short run production
  • Mass customization

Learn More

3D printers are multifunctional tools for immersive learning and advanced research. They can encourage creativity and expose students to professional-level technology while supporting STEAM curricula across science, engineering, art, and design.


  • Models for STEAM curricula
  • Fab labs and makerspaces
  • Custom research setups

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Affordable, professional-grade desktop 3D printing helps doctors deliver treatments and devices customized to better serve each unique individual, opening the door to high-impact medical applications while saving organizations significant time and costs from the lab to the operating room.


  • Anatomical models for surgical planning
  • Medical devices and surgical instruments
  • Insoles and orthotics

Learn More

High definition physical models are widely used in sculpting, character modeling, and prop making. 3D printed parts have starred in stop-motion films, video games, bespoke costumes, and even special effects for blockbuster movies.


  • Hyper-realistic sculptures
  • Character models
  • Props

Learn More

Jewelry professionals use CAD and 3D printing to rapidly prototype designs, fit clients, and produce large batches of ready-to-cast pieces. Digital tools allow for the creation of consistent, sharply detailed pieces without the tediousness and variability of wax carving.


  • Lost-wax casting (investment casting)
  • Fitting pieces
  • Master patterns for rubber molding

Learn More

Hearing specialists and ear mold labs use digital workflows and 3D printing to manufacture higher quality custom ear products more consistently, and at higher volumes for applications like behind-the-ear hearing aids, hearing protection, and custom earplugs and earbuds.


  • Soft silicone ear molds
  • Custom earbuds

Learn More

The market for 3D printing materials is wide and ever-growing, with printers for everything from plastics to metals, and even food and live tissue in development. Formlabs offers the following range of photopolymer materials for the desktop.


Standard 3D printing materials provide high resolution, fine features, and a smooth surface finish ideal for rapid prototyping, product development, and general modeling applications.

These materials are available in Black, White, and Grey with a matte finish and opaque appearance, Clear for any parts requiring translucency, and as a Color Kit to match almost any custom color.

Explore Standard Materials

3D printing materials for engineering, manufacturing, and product design are formulated to provide advanced functionality, withstand extensive testing, perform under stress, and remain stable over time.

Engineering materials are ideal for 3D printing strong, precise concept models and prototypes to rapidly iterating through designs, assess form and fit, and optimize manufacturing processes.

Explore Engineering Materials

Medical resins empower hospitals to create patient-specific parts in a day at the point of care and support R&D for medical devices. These resins are formulated for 3D printing anatomical models, medical device and device components, and surgical planning and implant sizing tools.

Explore Jewelry Materials

Jewelry resins are formulated to capture breathtaking detail and create custom jewelry cost-effectively. These resins are ideal for jewelry prototyping and casting jewelry, as well as vulcanized rubber and RTV molding.

Explore Jewelry Materials

Specialty Resins push the limits of 3D printing, featuring advanced materials with unique mechanical properties that expand what’s possible with in-house fabrication on our stereolithography 3D printers.  

Explore Specialty Materials

In recent years, high-resolution industrial 3D printers have become more affordable, intuitive, and reliable. As a result, the technology is now accessible to more businesses. Read our in-depth guide about 3D printer costs, or try our interactive tool to see if this technology makes economic sense your business.

Calculate Your Savings

New to 3D printing? Explore our guides to learn about the key terms and specific characteristics of 3D printing to find the best solution for your business.

For further questions, 

Explore 3D Printing Resources

What is 3D printing? How does a 3D printer work? Learn 3D printing

3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file.

The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced cross-section of the object.

3D printing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing which is cutting out / hollowing out a piece of metal or plastic with for instance a milling machine.

3D printing enables you to produce complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.

Table of Contents

  • How Does 3D Printing Work?
  • 3D Printing Industry
  • Examples of 3D Printing
  • 3D Printing Technologies & Processes
  • Materials
  • Services

Jump to your field of interest:

  • Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing
  • Automotive
  • Aviation
  • Construction
  • Consumer Products
  • Healthcare
  • Food
  • Education

Jump to process:

  • All Technologies & Processes
  • Vat Photopolymerisation
  • Material Jetting
  • Binder Jetting
  • Material Extrusion
  • Powder Bed Fusion
  • Sheet Lamination
  • Directed Energy Deposition

How Does 3D Printing Work?

It all starts with a 3D model. You can opt to create one from the ground up or download it from a 3D library.

3D Software

There are many different software tools available. From industrial grade to open source. We’ve created an overview on our 3D software page.

We often recommend beginners to start with Tinkercad. Tinkercad is free and works in your browser, you don’t have to install it on your computer. Tinkercad offers beginner lessons and has a built-in feature to export your model as a printable file e.g .STL or .OBJ.

Now that you have a printable file, the next step is to prepare it for your 3D printer. This is called slicing.

Slicing: From printable file to 3D Printer

Slicing basically means slicing up a 3D model into hundreds or thousands of layers and is done with slicing software.

When your file is sliced, it’s ready for your 3D printer. Feeding the file to your printer can be done via USB, SD or Wi-Fi. Your sliced file is now ready to be 3D printed layer by layer.

3D Printing Industry

Adoption of 3D printing has reached critical mass as those who have yet to integrate additive manufacturing somewhere in their supply chain are now part of an ever-shrinking minority. Where 3D printing was only suitable for prototyping and one-off manufacturing in the early stages, it is now rapidly transforming into a production technology.

Most of the current demand for 3D printing is industrial in nature. Acumen Research and Consulting forecasts the global 3D printing market to reach $41 billion by 2026.

As it evolves, 3D printing technology is destined to transform almost every major industry and change the way we live, work, and play in the future.

Examples of 3D Printing

3D printing encompasses many forms of technologies and materials as 3D printing is being used in almost all industries you could think of. It’s important to see it as a cluster of diverse industries with a myriad of different applications.

A few examples:

  • – consumer products (eyewear, footwear, design, furniture)
  • – industrial products (manufacturing tools, prototypes, functional end-use parts)
  • – dental products
  • – prosthetics
  • – architectural scale models & maquettes
  • – reconstructing fossils
  • – replicating ancient artefacts
  • – reconstructing evidence in forensic pathology
  • – movie props

Rapid Prototyping & Rapid Manufacturing

Companies have used 3D printers in their design process to create prototypes since the late seventies. Using 3D printers for these purposes is called rapid prototyping.

Why use 3D Printers for Rapid Prototyping?
In short: it’s fast and relatively cheap. From idea, to 3D model to holding a prototype in your hands is a matter of days instead of weeks. Iterations are easier and cheaper to make and you don’t need expensive molds or tools.

Besides rapid prototyping, 3D printing is also used for rapid manufacturing. Rapid manufacturing is a new method of manufacturing where businesses use 3D printers for short run / small batch custom manufacturing.


Car manufacturers have been utilizing 3D printing for a long time. Automotive companies are printing spare parts, tools, jigs and fixtures but also end-use parts. 3D printing has enabled on-demand manufacturing which has lead to lower stock levels and has shortened design and production cycles.

Automotive enthusiasts all over the world are using 3D printed parts to restore old cars. One such example is when Australian engineers printed parts to bring a Delage Type-C back to life. In doing so, they had to print parts that were out of production for decades.


The aviation industry uses 3D printing in many different ways. The following example marks a significant 3D printing manufacturing milestone: GE Aviation has 3D printed 30,000 Cobalt-chrome fuel nozzles for its LEAP aircraft engines. They achieved that milestone in October of 2018, and considering that they produce 600 per week on forty 3D printers, it’s likely much higher than that now.

Around twenty individual parts that previously had to be welded together were consolidated into one 3D printed component that weighs 25% less and is five times stronger. The LEAP engine is the best selling engine in the aerospace industry due to its high level of efficiency and GE saves $3 million per aircraft by 3D printing the fuel nozzles, so this single 3D printed part generates hundreds of millions of dollars of financial benefit.

GE’s fuel nozzles also made their way into the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but it’s not the only 3D printed part in the 787. The 33-centimeter-long structural fittings that hold the aft kitchen galley to the airframe are 3D printed by a company called Norsk Titanium. Norsk chose to specialize in titanium because it has a very high strength-to-weight ratio and is rather expensive, meaning the reduction in waste enabled by 3D printing has a more significant financial impact than compared to cheaper metals where the costs of material waste are easier to absorb. Rather than sintering metal powder with a laser like most metal 3D printers, the Norsk Merke 4 uses a plasma arc to melt a metal wire in a process called Rapid Plasma Deposition (a form of Directed Energy Deposition) that can deposit up to 10kg of titanium per hour. A 2kg titanium part would generally require a 30kg block of titanium to machine it from, generating 28kg of waste, but 3D printing the same part requires only 6kg of titanium wire.


Is it possible to print a building? – yes it is. 3D printed houses are already commercially available. Some companies print parts prefab and others do it on-site.

Most of the concrete printing stories we look at on this website are focused on large scale concrete printing systems with fairly large nozzles for a large flow rate. It’s great for laying down concrete layers in a fairly quick and repeatable manner. But for truly intricate concrete work that makes full use of the capabilities of 3D printing requires something a little more nimble, and with a finer touch.

Consumer Products

When we first started blogging about 3D printing back in 2011, 3D printing wasn’t ready to be used as a production method for large volumes. Nowadays there are numerous examples of end-use 3D printed consumer products.


Adidas’ 4D range has a fully 3D printed midsole and is being printed in large volumes. We did an article back then, explaining how Adidas were initially releasing just 5,000 pairs of the shoes to the public, and had aimed to sell 100,000 pairs of the AM-infused designs by 2018.

With their latest iterations of the shoe, it seems that they have surpassed that goal, or are on their way to surpassing it. The shoes are available all around the world from local Adidas stores and also from various 3rd party online outlets.


The market of 3D printed eyewear is forecasted to reach $3.4 billion by 2028. A rapidly increasing section is that of end-use frames. 3D printing is a particularly suitable production method for eyewear frames because the measurements of an individual are easy to process in the end product.

But did you know it’s also possible to 3D print lenses? Traditional glass lenses don’t start out thin and light; they’re cut from a much larger block of material called a blank, about 80% of which goes to waste. When we consider how many people wear glasses and how often they need to get a new pair, 80% of those numbers is a lot of waste. On top of that, labs have to keep huge inventories of blanks to meet the custom vision needs of their clients. Finally, however, 3D printing technology has advanced enough to provide high-quality, custom ophthalmic lenses, doing away with the waste and inventory costs of the past. The Luxexcel VisionEngine 3D printer uses a UV-curable acrylate monomer to print two pairs of lenses per hour that require no polishing or post-processing of any kind. The focal areas can also be completely customized so that a certain area of the lens can provide better clarity at a distance while a different area of the lens provides better vision up close.


There are two ways of producing jewelry with a 3D printer. You can either use a direct or indirect production process. Direct refers to the creation of an object straight from the 3D design while indirect manufacturing means that the object (pattern) that is 3D printed eventually is used to create a mold for investment casting.


It’s not uncommon these days to see headlines about 3D printed implants. Often, those cases are experimental, which can make it seem like 3D printing is still a fringe technology in the medical and healthcare sectors, but that’s not the case anymore. Over the last decade, more than 100,000 hip replacements have been 3D printed by GE Additive.

The Delta-TT Cup designed by Dr. Guido Grappiolo and LimaCorporate is made of Trabecular Titanium, which is characterized by a regular, three-dimensional, hexagonal cell structure that imitates trabecular bone morphology. The trabecular structure increases the biocompatibility of the titanium by encouraging bone growth into the implant. Some of the first Delta-TT implants are still running strong over a decade later.

Another 3D printed healthcare component that does a good job of being undetectable is the hearing aid. Nearly every hearing aid in the last 17 years has been 3D printed thanks to a collaboration between Materialise and Phonak. Phonak developed Rapid Shell Modeling (RSM) in 2001. Prior to RSM, making one hearing aid required nine laborious steps involving hand sculpting and mold making, and the results were often ill-fitting. With RSM, a technician uses silicone to take an impression of the ear canal, that impression is 3D scanned, and after some minor tweaking the model is 3D printed with a resin 3D printer. The electronics are added and then it’s shipped to the user. Using this process, hundreds of thousands of hearing aids are 3D printed each year.


In the dental industry, we see molds for clear aligners being possibly the most 3D printed objects in the world. Currently, the molds are 3D printed with both resin and powder based 3D printing processes, but also via material jetting. Crowns and dentures are already directly 3D printed, along with surgical guides.


As of the early two-thousands 3D printing technology has been studied by biotech firms and academia for possible use in tissue engineering applications where organs and body parts are built using inkjet techniques. Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium and slowly built up to form three dimensional structures. We refer to this field of research with the term: bio-printing.


Additive manufacturing invaded the food industry long time ago. Restaurants like Food Ink and Melisse use this as a unique selling point to attract customers from across the world.


Educators and students have long been using 3D printers in the classroom. 3D printing enables students to materialize their ideas in a fast and affordable way.

While additive manufacturing-specific degrees are fairly new, universities have long been using 3D printers in other disciplines. There are many educational courses one can take to engage with 3D printing. Universities offer courses on things that are adjacent to 3D printing like CAD and 3D design, which can be applied to 3D printing at a certain stage.

In terms of prototyping, many university programs are turning to printers. There are specializations in additive manufacturing one can attain through architecture or industrial design degrees. Printed prototypes are also very common in the arts, animation and fashion studies as well.

Types of 3D Printing Technologies and Processes

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), developed a set of standards that classify additive manufacturing processes into 7 categories. These are:

  1. Vat Photopolymerisation
    1. Stereolithography (SLA)
    2. Digital Light Processing (DLP)
    3. Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP)
  2. Material Jetting
  3. Binder Jetting
  4. Material Extrusion
    1. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
    2. Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)
  5. Powder Bed Fusion
    1. Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)
    2. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
    3. Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
  6. Sheet Lamination
  7. Directed Energy Deposition

Vat Photopolymerisation

A 3D printer based on the Vat Photopolymerisation method has a container filled with photopolymer resin. The resin is hardened with a UV light source.

Vat photopolymerisation schematics. Image source:

Stereolithography (SLA)

SLA was invented in 1986 by Charles Hull, who also at the time founded the company, 3D Systems. Stereolithography employs a vat of liquid curable photopolymer resin and an ultraviolet laser to build the object’s layers one at a time. For each layer, the laser beam traces a cross-section of the part pattern on the surface of the liquid resin. Exposure to the ultraviolet laser light cures and solidifies the pattern traced on the resin and fuses it to the layer below.

After the pattern has been traced, the SLA’s elevator platform descends by a distance equal to the thickness of a single layer, typically 0.05 mm to 0.15 mm (0.002″ to 0.006″). Then, a resin-filled blade sweeps across the cross section of the part, re-coating it with fresh material. On this new liquid surface, the subsequent layer pattern is traced, joining the previous layer. Depending on the object & print orientation, SLA often requires the use of support structures.

Digital Light Processing (DLP)

DLP or Digital Light Processing refers to a method of printing that makes use of light and photosensitive polymers. While it is very similar to SLA, the key difference is the light source. DLP utilizes other light sources like arc lamps. DLP is relatively quick compared to other 3D printing technologies.

Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP)

One of the fastest processes using Vat Photopolymerisation is called CLIP, short for Continuous Liquid Interface Production, developed by Carbon.

Digital Light Synthesis

The heart of the CLIP process is Digital Light Synthesis technology. In this technology, light from a custom high performance LED light engine projects a sequence of UV images exposing a cross section of the 3D printed part causing the UV curable resin to partially cure in a precisely controlled way. Oxygen passes through the oxygen permeable window creating a thin liquid interface of uncured resin between the window and the printed part known as the dead zone. The dead zone is as thin as ten of microns. Inside the dead zone, oxygen prohibits light from curing the resin situated closest to the window therefore allowing the continuous flow of liquid beneath the printed part. Just above the dead zone the UV projected light upwards causes a cascade like curing of the part.

Simply printing with Carbon’s hardware alone does not allow for end use properties with real world applications. Once the light has shaped the part, a second programmable curing process achieves the desired mechanical properties by baking the 3d printed part in a thermal bath or oven. Programmed thermal curing sets the mechanical properties by triggering a secondary chemical reaction causing the material to strengthen achieving the desired final properties.

Components printed with Carbon’s technology are on par with injection molded parts. Digital Light Synthesis produces consistent and predictable mechanical properties, creating parts that are truly isotropic.

Material Jetting

In this process, material is applied in droplets through a small diameter nozzle, similar to the way a common inkjet paper printer works, but it is applied layer-by-layer to a build platform and then hardened by UV light.

Material Jetting schematics. Image source:

Binder Jetting

With binder jetting two materials are used: powder base material and a liquid binder. In the build chamber, powder is spread in equal layers and binder is applied through jet nozzles that “glue” the powder particles in the required shape. After the print is finished, the remaining powder is cleaned off which often can be re-used printing the next object. This technology was first developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993.

Binder Jetting schematics

Material Extrusion

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

FDM schematics (Image credit: Wikipedia, made by user Zureks)

FDM works using a plastic filament which is unwound from a spool and is supplied to an extrusion nozzle which can turn the flow on and off. The nozzle is heated to melt the material and can be moved in both horizontal and vertical directions by a numerically controlled mechanism. The object is produced by extruding melted material to form layers as the material hardens immediately after extrusion from the nozzle.

FDM was invented by Scott Crump in the late 80’s. After patenting this technology he started the company Stratasys in 1988. The term Fused Deposition Modeling and its abbreviation to FDM are trademarked by Stratasys Inc.

Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)

The exactly equivalent term, Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), was coined by the members of the RepRap project to give a phrase that would be legally unconstrained in its use.

Powder Bed Fusion

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS uses a high power laser to fuse small particles of powder into a mass that has the desired three dimensional shape. The laser selectively fuses powder by first scanning the cross-sections (or layers) on the surface of a powder bed. After each cross-section is scanned, the powder bed is lowered by one layer thickness. Then a new layer of material is applied on top and the process is repeated until the object is completed.

SLS schematics (Image credit: Wikipedia from user Materialgeeza)

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)

Multi Jet Fusion technology was developed by Hewlett Packard and works with a sweeping arm which deposits a layer of powder and then another arm equipped with inkjets which selectively applies a binder agent over the material. The inkjets also deposit a detailing agent around the binder to ensure precise dimensionality and smooth surfaces. Finally, the layer is exposed to a burst of thermal energy that causes the agents to react.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

DMLS is basically the same as SLS, but uses metal powder instead. All unused powder remains as it is and becomes a support structure for the object. Unused powder can be re-used for the next print.

Due to of increased laser power, DMLS has evolved into a laser melting process. Read more about that and other metal technologies on our metal technologies overview page.

Sheet Lamination

Sheet lamination involves material in sheets which is bound together with external force. Sheets can be metal, paper or a form of polymer. Metal sheets are welded together by ultrasonic welding in layers and then CNC milled into a proper shape. Paper sheets can be used also, but they are glued by adhesive glue and cut in shape by precise blades.

Simplified schematics of ultrasonic sheet metal process (Image credit: Wikipedia from user Mmrjf3)

Directed Energy Deposition

This process is mostly used in the metal industry and in rapid manufacturing applications. The 3D printing apparatus is usually attached to a multi-axis robotic arm and consists of a nozzle that deposits metal powder or wire on a surface and an energy source (laser, electron beam or plasma arc) that melts it, forming a solid object.

Directed Energy Deposition with metal powder and laser melting (Image credit: Merlin project)


Multiple materials can be used in additive manufacturing: plastics, metals, concrete, ceramics, paper and certain edibles (e.g. chocolate). Materials are often produced in wire feedstock a.k.a. filament, powder form or liquid resin. Learn more about our featured materials on our materials page.


Looking to implement 3D printing in your production process? Get a quote for a custom part or order samples on our 3D print service page.

How a 3D printer works, what can be printed on a 3D printer

The 3D printer is a technology that allows you to create real objects from a digital model. It all started in the 80s under the name "rapid prototyping", which was the goal of the technology: to create a prototype faster and cheaper. A lot has changed since then, and today 3D printers allow you to create anything you can imagine.


  • What is 3D printing?
  • How does a 3D printer work?
  • What can be printed?

The 3D printer allows you to create objects that are almost identical to their virtual models. That is why the scope of these technologies is so wide.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process because, unlike traditional subtractive manufacturing, 3D printing does not remove material, but adds it, layer by layer—that is, it builds or grows.

  1. In the first step of printing, the data from the drawing or 3D model is read by the printer.
  2. Next is the sequential overlay of layers.
  3. These layers, consisting of sheet material, liquid or powder, are combined with each other, turning into the final form.

With limited production of parts, 3D printing will be faster and cheaper. The world of 3D printing does not stand still and therefore there are more and more different technologies competing with each other on the market. The difference lies in the printing process itself. Some technologies create layers by softening or melting the material, then they provide layer-by-layer application of this same material. Other technologies involve the use of liquid materials, which acquire a solid form in the process under the influence of various factors.

In order to print something , you first need a 3D model of the object, which you can create in a 3D modeling program (CAD - Computer Aided Design), or use a 3D scanner to scan the object you want print. There are also easier options, such as looking for models on the internet that have been created and made available to other people.

Once your design is ready, all you need to do is import it into the Slicer, a program that converts the model into codes and instructions for a 3D printer, most of the programs are open source and free. The slicer will convert your project into a gcode file ready to be printed as a physical object. Simply save the file to the included SD card and insert it into your 3D printer and hit print.

The whole process can take several hours and sometimes several days. It all depends on the size, material and complexity of the model. Some 3D printers use two different materials. One of them is part of the model itself, the other acts as a prop that supports parts of the model hanging in the air. The second material is subsequently removed.

How does a 3D printer work?

Although there are several 3D printing technologies, most create an object by building up many successive thin layers of material. Typically desktop 3D printers use plastic filaments (1) which are fed into the printer by the feeder (2) . The filament melts in the print head (3) which extrudes the material onto the platform (4) creating the object layer by layer. Once the printer starts printing, all you have to do is wait - it's easy.

Of course, as you become an advanced user, playing with the settings and tweaking your printer can lead to even better results.

What can be 3D printed?

The possibilities of 3D printers are endless and they are now becoming a common tool in fields such as engineering, industrial design, manufacturing and architecture. Here are some typical use cases:

Custom Models

Create custom products that perfectly fit your needs in terms of size and shape. Do something that would be impossible with any other technology.

Rapid Prototyping

3D printing allows you to quickly create a model or prototype, helping engineers, designers and companies get feedback on their projects in a short time.

Complex geometry

Models that are hard to imagine can be easily created with a 3D printer. These models are good for teaching others about complex geometry in a fun and useful way.

Cost reduction

The cost of 3D printing end-use parts and prototypes is low due to the materials and technology used. Reduced production time and material consumption as you can print models multiple times using only the material you need.

How to choose and buy a 3D printer? →

3D printer: what is it and how does it work? | GeekBrains

In 2011, a printer filled with a human kidney TED printed directly during a TED conference. Two years ago, Adidas announced a new sneaker that can be 3D printed in 20 minutes. And recently, Elon Musk's SpaceX successfully tested the spacecraft's engines, which were also printed on a 3D printer.

In today's world, 3D printing is not an amazing technology of the future, but a well-studied reality. It is used in architecture, construction, medicine, design, production of clothing and footwear and other areas. At the request of "3D printer", search engines give out hundreds of drawings and prototypes of varying complexity - from a soap dish and a table lamp to a car engine and even a residential building.

Anyone can buy a printer and print a smartphone case, but not everyone goes beyond 3D printing from a drawing. In this article, we will tell you when 3D printing appeared, how the technology can be applied and what its prospects are.

How the 3D printer came to be

Let's not bore you too much with the dates and briefly retell the history of 3D printing.

A precursor to 3D printing. In the early 1980s, Dr. Hideo Kodama developed a rapid prototyping system using photopolymer, an acrylic-based liquid substance. The printing technology was similar to the modern one: the printer printed the object according to the model, layer by layer.

First 3D printing. The production of physical objects using digital data was demonstrated by Charles Hull. At 19In 84, when computers were not much different from calculators, and ten years before the release of Windows-95, he invented stereolithography, the forerunner of 3D printing. The technology worked like this: under the influence of an ultraviolet laser, the material solidified and turned into a plastic product. The form was printed on digital objects, and this became a boom among developers - now it was possible to create prototypes at a lower cost.

The first 3D printer. Source: habr

The first manufacturer of 3D printers. Two years later, Charles Hull patented the technology and opened the 3D Systems printer company. It released the first machine for industrial 3D printing and is still leading the market. True, then the printer was called differently - an apparatus for stereolithography.

The popularity of 3D printing and new technologies. In the late 80s, 3D Systems launched mass production of stereolithographic printers. But by that time, other printing technologies had also appeared: laser sintering and deposition modeling. In the first case, the powder was processed by the laser, not the liquid. And the majority of modern 3D printers work according to the fusing method. The term "3D printing" came into use, the first home printers appeared.

A revolution in 3D printing. At the beginning of the 2000s, the market split into two directions: expensive complex systems and those that are available to everyone for printing at home. The technology began to be used in specific areas: for the first time, a bladder was printed on a 3D printer, which was successfully implanted.

Kidney Test Print. Source: BBC

In 2005, the first high-quality color 3D printer appeared, creating kits for itself and "colleagues".

How a 3D printer works

Basically, 3D printers consist of the same parts and are similar in design to conventional printers. The main difference is obvious: a 3D printer prints in three planes, and in addition to width and height, depth appears.

Here are the parts of the 3D printer, not counting the body:

  • extruder, or print head - heats up the surface, measures the exact amount of material using a gripping system and extrudes semi-liquid plastic, which is fed in the form of threads;
  • desktop (it is also called a working platform or printing surface) - on it the printer forms parts and grows products;
  • linear and stepper motors - drive parts, are responsible for the accuracy and speed of printing;
  • clamps - sensors that determine the print coordinates and limit moving parts. They are needed so that the printer does not go beyond the desktop, and make printing more accurate;
  • frame - connects all elements of the printer.

Schematic of a 3D printer. Source: Lostprinters

All of this is computer controlled.

How products are created

An additive 3D printing process is responsible for creating a three-dimensional product - this is when layers of material are superimposed on each other, from bottom to top, until a copy of the form in the drawing is obtained. This is how plastics are printed. And photopolymer printing works on stereolithography (SLA) technology: under the influence of a laser emitter, photopolymers harden. In addition to plastic and photopolymer resins, modern 3D printers work with metal clay and metal powder.

Printing consists of continuous cycles that repeat one after another - one layer of material is applied to the next, and the print head moves until the finished object is on the working surface. The printer itself removes print waste from the desktop.

How a 3D drawing works

The printer prints a product according to a 3D drawing: it is created on a computer in a special program, then saved in STL format. This file is output to the cutting program for the printer - it helps to set the model of the physical properties of the product, such as density. Next, the program converts the model into instructions for the extruder and uploads it to the printer, which starts printing the product.

3D drawing is easy to make at home - read the instructions on habr.

How to program a 3D printer

Brief instructions for setting up the printer:

  1. Select a 3D model. You can draw the product yourself in a special CAD editor or find a ready-made drawing - the Internet is full of models of varying complexity.
  2. Prepare 3D model for printing. This is done by the slicing method (slice - part). For example, in order to print a toy, its model must be “split” into layers using slicer programs and transferred to the printer. Simply put, the slicer shows the printer how to print the object: which contour to move the print head, at what speed, what thickness of the layers to make.
  3. Transfer model to printer. From the slicer, the 3D drawing is saved to a file called G-code. The computer downloads the file to the printer and starts 3D printing.
  4. Monitor printing.

Whether printed products can be used

Depends on the quality of the media, printer and end product. Often home printers do not accurately convey the shape and color of an object. Plastic products need additional processing: sometimes they are printed with burrs and defects, and almost always with a ribbed surface.

Product after and before processing. Source: 3D-Today

There are several ways to finish the surface - not all are suitable for home use:

  • mechanical processing - hand sanding, deburring;
  • chemical - immersion in acetone, sandblasting, applying a special solution with a brush.

What can be printed with a 3D printer

The Internet is full of collections with instructions for printing 3D products. 3D-Today publishes photos of the work of printer owners, from small parts to sculptures. Three years ago, Habré posted a list of "50 cool things to print on a 3D printer." Make3D wrote about larger projects like printing cars, weapons, solar panels, and prosthetics.

There are a number of promising areas where 3D printing is already being applied.

Making models according to your own sketches. Konstantin Ivanov, the creator of the 3DPrintus service, in an interview with Afisha said that 3D printing will lead to the flourishing of customizable things: anyone can assemble and print the desired product online. For example, make a model of a robot and order its printing on an industrial printer, create and print your own design of wedding rings or shoes. Examples of such projects are Thinker Thing and Jweel.

Rapid prototyping. The most popular area in which 3D printing is used. Test models of prostheses, prototypes of medical corsets, bas-reliefs, Olympic equipment are made on 3D printers.

Prototypes of children's prostheses, 3D printing. Source: 3D-Pulse

Complex geometry. The 3D printer can easily handle the production of models of any shape. A few examples:

- an Australian university explored the possibilities of a 3D printer and printed a stool in the shape of a fingerprint;

- a Danish chef won a haute cuisine competition: he 3D printed miniature dishes of complex shapes from seafood and beetroot puree;

One of the chef's winning dishes. Source: 3D-Pulse

- A German institute has developed a system for accelerated 3D printing - in 18 minutes, the printer produces a complex geometric product 30 cm high. It usually takes printers an hour to print pocket figures.

3D printing technology

Briefly about the main methods of 3D printing.

Stereolithography (SLA). In a stereolithographic printer, a laser irradiates photopolymers and forms each layer according to a 3D drawing. After irradiation, the material hardens. The strength of the product depends on the type of polymer - thermoplastic, resins, rubber.

Stereolithography does not support color printing. Other drawbacks include slow operation, huge size of stereolithographic setups, and you can't combine multiple materials in one run.

This technology is one of the most expensive, but guarantees accurate printing. The printer applies layers with a thickness of 15 microns - this is several times thinner than a human hair. Therefore, with the help of stereolithography, dental prostheses and jewelry are made.

Industrial stereolithography machines can print huge products, several meters in length. Therefore, they are successfully used in the production of aircraft, ships, defense industry, medicine and mechanical engineering.

Selective laser sintering (SLS). The most common method for sintering powder materials. Other technologies are direct laser sintering and selective laser melting.

The method was invented by Carl Descartes in the late eighties: his printer printed by layer-by-layer drawing (sintering). A powerful laser heats up small particles of material and moves along the contours of the 3D drawing until the product is finished. The technology is used to manufacture not whole products, but parts. After sintering, the parts are placed in an oven where the material burns out. SLS uses plastics, ceramics, metals, polymers, fiberglass in powder form.

The athlete is wearing New Balance shoes, which were made using laser sintering. Source: 3D-Today

SLS technology is used for prototypes and complex geometric parts. For printing at home, SLS is not suitable due to the huge size of the printer.

FDM or Fused Deposition Modeling. This 3D printing method was invented by American Scott Crump. FDM works like this: the material is fed into the extruder in the form of a thread, where it heats up and is fed to the worktable in microdroplets. The extruder moves along the working surface in accordance with the 3D model, the material cools down and solidifies into the product.

Advantages - high product flexibility and temperature resistance. For such printing, different types of thermoplastics are used. FDM is the most inexpensive among 3D printing technologies, which is why printers are popular for home use: for making toys, souvenirs, and jewelry. But mostly fusing modeling is used in prototyping and industrial production - printers quickly print small-scale batches of products. Refractory plastic items are made for the space industry.

3D inkjet printing. One of the first methods of three-dimensional printing - in 1993, it was invented by American students when they improved a conventional paper printer, and soon the technology was acquired by the same company 3D Systems.

Inkjet printing works like this: a binder is applied to a thin layer of material along the contours of the drawing. The print head applies the material along the boundaries of the model, and the particles of each new layer stick together. This cycle is repeated until the product is ready. This is one of the types of powder printing: earlier inkjet 3D printers printed on plaster, now they use plastics, sand mixtures and metal powders. To make the product stronger, after printing it can be impregnated with wax or fired.

Items printed using this technology are usually durable, but not very durable. Therefore, with the help of inkjet printing, souvenirs, jewelry or prototypes are made. This printer can be used at home.

These candies were made on a ChefJet 3D confectionery inkjet printer that uses water, sugar, chocolate and food coloring instead of plastic. Source:

Inkjet technology is also used in bioprinting, where living cells are layered on top of each other and thus organic tissues are built.

Where 3D printing is used

Mainly in professional fields.

Construction. 3D printers print walls from a special cement mixture and even houses with several floors. For example, back in 2014 Andrey Rudenko printed a 3 × 5 meter castle on a construction printer. Such 3D printers can build a two-story house in 20 hours.

Medicine. We have already mentioned the printing of organs, and 3D printers are also actively used in prosthetics and dentistry. Impressive examples - with the help of 3D printing, doctors managed to separate Siamese twins, and a cat without four legs was given prostheses that were printed on a printer.

Learn more about 3D printing in medicine in the article published by 3D-Pulse.

Space. 3D printing is used to make equipment for rockets and space stations. Another technology is used in space bioprinting and even in the work of lunar rovers. For example, the Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions will send live bacteria and cells into space, which will be grown on a 3D printer. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiled a prototype lunar module with a printed engine, and space startup Relativity Space is building a rocket 3D printing factory.

Aviation. 3D parts are printed not only for spacecraft, but also for aircraft. Engineers at the US Air Force Lab can 3D print aircraft components, such as a fuselage skin element, in about five hours.

Architecture and industrial design. 3D printers print models of houses, neighborhoods and villages, including infrastructure: roads, trees, shops, lighting, transport. As a material, an inexpensive gypsum composite is usually used.

One of the unusual solutions is the design of concrete barricades by American designer Joe Ducet. After the terrorist attacks with trucks that crashed into a crowd of people, he proposed a model of durable and functional barriers in the form of a designer, which can be printed on a 3D printer.

UrbaStyle, a company that prints concrete forms on 3D construction printers, helped make the prototype.

Learn more