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Last updated on September 1st, 2020 at 03:41 pm

How Does a 3D Printer Work? Everything You Need To Know

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Last updated on August 30th, 2020 at 07:16 pm

3D printers have been around for decades, but have only gained popularity among masses recently.

This is attributed to factors such as price decrease and availability such that anyone can own one.

3D printers have made life interesting because you can 3D print almost anything you can think of provided that you get a graphic of the same. They’ve transformed consumerism and empowered people to build and customize their products.

What Is 3D Printing, And How Does It Work?

3D printing is similar to printing using a regular printer with a few differences in materials used, the addition of a third axis, and the scope of what they can print.

When using a regular printer, the material of choice is paper, ink, or toner, but with 3D printing, the materials can range from thermoplastics, composites to metal.

In 3D printing, objects are printed from 3D models that you can either download from a repository or create using 3D modeling software.

Once you have the 3D model, it’s sent to the printer, and the printing process begins. Printing involves building objects layer by layer.

How Does A 3D Printer Work Step By Step?

3D printers vary in terms of material selection and how they build the objects. There are at least 12 types of 3D printing technology, and they include:

  • Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
  • Stereolithography (SLA)
  • Digital Light Processing (DLP)
  • Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)
  • Electron Beam Melting (EBM)
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
  • Masked Stereolithography (MSLA)
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
  • Material Jetting (MJ)
  • Drop on Demand (DOD)
  • Binder Jetting (BJ)
  • Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM)

This article will only focus on the process of 3D printing using FDM technology, as it’s arguably the most recognizable process.

What Is FDM Printing?

Fused Deposition Modeling builds an object by depositing melted material layer by layer. It’s the easiest way and common way to achieve 3D printing.

FDM was developed in the late 80s, and in 2005, the RepRap project commenced, which is responsible for the low-cost 3D printers available today.

How Does An FDM 3D Printer Work Step By Step?

FDM printing involves several stages which include;

Creation

The first stage is the creation stage, where you create a blueprint of the object you intend to build.

You can accomplish this by using Computer Aided Design or other 3D modeling software such as Blender, Maya, AutoCAD, Photoshop, etc.

FDM Printing credit manufactur3dmag
FDM Printing credit manufactur3dmag

If you can’t create a model, you can download from 3D repositories such as CGTrader, Thingverse, MyMiniFactory, 3DExport, GrabCAD Library, Zortrax Library, etc.

You can also use 3D scanning technology to obtain the shape of an object and create a digital replica of the same.

Convert file to STL format

Once you have a 3D model, the next step is to convert it into an STL file. The STL extension stands for Stereolithography, and it’s the primary format used for 3D printing.

Besides .STL, other formats that are compatible with 3D printers include .SKP, .STEP, .3DM, 3DS, etc.

If you’re using CAD software, you can convert the model by exporting it. Keep in mind that not all STL files are printable unless they’re made specifically for 3D printing.

In addition, 3D models have to meet certain requirements to become printable. These requirements include minimum wall thickness as materials are unprintable below a certain thickness.

FDM printers print layer after layer, and if the layer is too thin, the wall can bend, deform, or detach because it’s not strong enough to support the layers being added. It’s also too fragile to survive the post-print process, which involves removing support materials and cleaning.

Slicing

Now that you have a model in .STL file format, the next step is calculating the printer control, otherwise known as slicing. The STL file is sent to a dedicated slicer, which converts the file into printing instructions that the printer can follow.

The slicer creates hundreds and even thousands of slices (layers) based on your settings. It then calculates the material needed to print and completion time. Once all this is complete, a G-code file is generated, and the extension format is .gcode.

Printing

Upload the Gcode file to the 3D printer and press print. The printer will use two materials- one to build the object and another to support it.

The printer will use slices (layers) to assemble a 3D object on your base. Once the printing process is complete, your printer display will read “complete,” which allows you to open the chamber to remove the build tray.

Post-processing

The last processing involves removing the support materials and cleaning the object. You can remove the supports manually or through an automated support-removal process. The latter is only suitable for soluble support materials.

The object you were printing is now ready for use.

What Is The Purpose Of A 3D Printer?

A 3D printer has many applications, and they often have one thing in common- they reduce production time.

Think of it this way; when you want to produce a product, it starts as an idea, then a prototype, and finally the product. This process can take weeks and even months to complete.

However, with a 3D printer, you can print complex shapes, interlocking parts, single parts, etc. and test their viability before commencing production.

3D Printed Prototype Above
3D Printed Prototype Above

In the past, manufacturers would use computer renders and models as part of their research and development.

This process had too many constraints, but with a 3D printer, they can now print a physical model, which gives them a better idea of the areas that need tweaking.

What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of 3D Printing?

3D printers offer tons of benefits to manufacturers, consumers, etc. but they also have several downsides.

Advantages of 3D Printing

The advantages include:

Low Volume Manufacturing

Manufacturers can now launch more frequently as they are not bound by the constraints of traditional methods. They can also manufacture discontinued products without incurring high production costs.

Industries such as aerospace can benefit from 3D printing as they require complex parts. These parts require expensive tooling equipment to produce, which is why they’re produced in low quantities.

With a 3D printer, aerospace companies can produce these parts at the volume needed and at a significantly lower cost.

Less Wastage

In large-scale manufacturing, a single flaw in the design takes time to rectify, and there is too much wastage.

Typically, manufacturers reuse the raw materials over and over again, thus reducing wastage. In contrast, 3D printing offers a more sustainable way to reduce wastage while maintaining strict production quality.

3D printers use a wide range of materials, among which are thermoplastics. These materials can be melted, cured, melted again, cured, and the cycle can be repeated hundreds of times.

This process would yield less wastage compared to traditional manufacturing.

Shorter Production Time

In a competitive market, companies with shorter production times tend to have the edge over their counterparts. Traditional manufacturing takes months and even years to perfect a product.

The production process is prolonged, especially from concept to prototype and finally to the first product.

However, with the aid of 3D printers, designers can create life-size prototypes and make the necessary adjustments. Designers can use this as a starting point and note the design flaws.

Once the final product is complete, the company can test the market to see whether the product can perform well.

It also makes it easy to pitch new products to investors as you’ll have a working product. In case there are few criticisms, you can make the adjustments within a shorter span and get feedback from your investors and buyers.

This helps manufacturers reduce production time from weeks or months to days, which gives them a slight edge over their competition.

Flexibility

With traditional manufacturing, a change in design could mean that you need new equipment and molds. This is a hefty investment, especially when you’re in the prototype stage.

In contrast, 3D printing allows users to create objects using different materials, mechanical properties, etc.

If the design is flawed, you can always change the design in CAD and transfer it to your 3D printer. You can customize it by adding different colors or materials to create a unique product.

Consistency

In large-scale manufacturing, quality is always an issue of concern. This is because they’re dealing with thousands and even millions of products a year.

A single flaw in the design could lead to huge losses. In addition, a small percentage of these products are guaranteed to be defective.

Manufacturers can embrace 3D printing and produce quality products at a consistent rate. Each part is printed in succession, and you can have a team monitor the production process to pinpoint flaws. These flaws are rectified, thus reducing wastage and improving quality.

Downsides of 3D printing

3D printing has opened new possibilities in terms of customization, tangible product testing, etc. but it also presents a few constraints. These downsides include:

Limited Materials

3D printers are compatible with a limited number of materials, unlike traditional manufacturing, which works with a wide range of raw materials.

Size Limitations

3D printers for personal use restrict the size of parts that you can print due to their small print chambers. However, you can print larger objects, but you have to print them in parts and assemble them. You can also buy a large 3D printer, but it’s expensive unless you need it for large-scale manufacturing.

Copyright Issues

Since anyone with a 3D printer can replicate products made by bigger companies, it becomes harder to differentiate the original and the counterfeit.

Production Of Weapons

Armed with a 3D printer, a criminal can create a gun, plastic knife, or any other object that can cause harm. The criminal can get into secure buildings with these weapons undetected.

Can A 3D Printer Print Anything?

You’ve probably heard that you can print almost anything using a 3D printer, but how true is this statement?

3d printed miniatures
3D Printed Miniatures For Board Games

For starters, you can’t print everything that you imagine without a model of each object. If you intend to 3D print a figurine of a superhero, you’ll need a model of the superhero that you can either download or create using computer-aided design.

What 3D Printers Can’t Do

Like mentioned earlier, 3D printers have a few limitations, especially on what they can do. For example, you can’t 3D print objects which are outside the scope of what printing material can.

This is why it’s hard to 3D print electronic parts, wiring, motors, etc. However, 3D printers are better suited for printing USB stick cases, electronic enclosures, keyboards, etc.

You’ve probably thought of 3D printing paper money; unfortunately, you can’t. You’ll have better success printing money using your regular printer than you would with a 3D printer.

This is because a 2D printer can reproduce a digital image of the bill almost to perfection. However, it will miss some of the markings and can’t reproduce the embedded threads or any other security features integrated into the bills.

Paper money is made of 75% cotton and 25% linen; you can’t extrude these materials from a 3D printer’s nozzle.

3D printers also have a size limitation as you can’t 3D print an object bigger than the printer unless you split it into parts. This means that you have to print the parts separately and assemble them later.

What Materials Are Used In 3D Printers?

Researchers are continually improving 3D technology to ensure that 3D printers can print a wide range of materials. Currently, 3D printers can print chocolate, ice cream, and even human cells.

However, that’s not all, 3D printers can use a wide array of industrial materials such as:

  • Plastic: They are arguably the most popular 3D printing materials as designers use thermoplastics to make consumer products. They include; ABS, PLA, nylon, PVA, ULTEM, PEEK, PETG, and HIPS.
  • Composites:  Essentially, composites are combinations of two or more materials. These materials tend to have different properties, and together they offer unique properties.
  • Metals: These materials are commonly used in aerospace as designers want to create designs that require no welding. Metals used include; aluminum, stainless steel, cobalt-chromium, precious metals, Inconel, nickel, titanium, copper, and bronze. 
  • Other materials include wax, ceramics, resins, composites, conductive, paper, sandstones, and metal/plastic filament.

Wrapping Up

The possibilities for product development are endless, especially if you have in-depth knowledge of how a 3D printer works, what it can and can’t do.

It will be interesting to see the capabilities of future 3D technology and its impact on healthcare, manufacturing, and aerospace industries.

In the meantime, this article will help you understand the basics of 3D printing.

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