Understanding 3D Printing

The Basics of 3D Printing

You've heard about its potential to change the world and its incredible new wave of the future technology - but how does 3D printing actually work? It's not as complicated as it sounds, and it's a fascinating process, too - let's take a look at how customized objects can come to life through this new method of manufacturing.

The Basics

First and foremost, here's what actually happens when someone 3D prints a design:

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    They develop the design on their computer They hook their computer up to a 3D printer The 3D printer heats up its construction material, a plastic-like solid, and moves layer-by-layer to construct the product The 3D printer continues this process until the product is finished

Not that difficult, is it? The one step that may trip up those new to the process is the heating and construction method. The plastic-like material is heated to the point of melting, then put in place with a special robotic nozzle and given time to dry; when it's dry, the 3D printer simply moves up to the next segment of the model, constructing the end result from the bottom to the top.

The Theory

How did all of this come about? Computer science has long had the ability to create 3D models using special software - video games, architectural designs, computer animated movies, and more all use 3D models that seem to come to life through animation and special shading and texturing techniques. And the idea of chipping away at a block of marble to create a sculpture has been around for thousands of years, creating lifelike statues with the application of artistic talent and training.

3D printing represents a shift in the philosophy of construction. Chipping away at a block of marble is called "subtractive manufacturing" - you start out with a full block of marble, then remove pieces from it until you get the result you want. Computers have an easier time working with "additive manufacturing," which is the more technical term for 3D printing - they build their product from the ground up, continually adding materials to do so rather than chipping away at existing ones.


3D printing is an exciting technology because it harnesses the power of computers to create whatever we can imagine - art, toys, models, tools, and more. NASA recently emailed a wrench design to the ISS to 3D print aboard the ship - just one of this new method's many possible uses!