What is 3D Printing? - Exploring Additive Manufacturing

Frequently Asked Questions about 3D Printing

Working in 3D is fantastic fun. It's challenging, frightfully complex, and allows for almost boundless creative expression.

However, compared to “real world” three dimensional art forms like woodworking, sculpture, ceramics, or textiles, 3D modeling is sorely lacking in one regard—the models have no real element of physical tangibility.

You can view the artwork on a screen or even make a high quality 2D print of a great render, but unlike a marble sculpture or a ceramic pot, you cannot reach out and touch it. You can't turn it in your hands, or run your fingers over its surface texture, feel the subtleties of its contours or its weight.

For an artistic medium so reliant on form, it's a shame that a digital model must ultimately be reduced to a two dimensional image. Right?

Not exactly. As I'm sure you've deduced, there's a bit more to the story.

3D Printing (often called rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing ) is a manufacturing process that allows computer generated 3D models to be transformed into a physical objects through a layered printing process. The techniques were initially devised in the 90s as a means to produce relatively inexpensive prototype parts for industrial and automotive design work, however as costs begin to fall, 3D printing is finding its way into an expanding variety of industries.

Because of its cost-effectiveness and versatility, the advent of additive manufacturing ultimately has the potential to be as important and game-changing as the introduction of the assembly line a hundred years ago.

Here are some frequently asked questions about 3D Printing:

  • How does 3D printing work?

    Although there are a handful of different 3D printing methods, the basic procedure is relatively consistent from one to the next. In additive manufacturing, three-dimensional objects are created from a raw material in either liquid or particle form.
    • Using the digital model as a guide, a 3D printer deposits microscopically thin layers of the raw material, and the print gradually materializes as the layers are built up step by step by step. The amount of detail possible in a 3D print is determined by the thinness of the layers, and the raw material can be anything from synthetic resin, to ceramic powder, metal, or even glass.
    • The 3D printing process is actually quite involved. If you're interested in a more in depth examination of the procedure take a look here.
    • We'll also look at the different types of 3D printers, some of the companies that make them, and explore the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  • What are the applications for 3D Printing?

    The standard application for 3D printing has traditionally been rapid prototyping in mechanical and automotive design settings. 3D printing makes it quick and inexpensive to produce concept models, and perform fit & functionality tests. The technology has even advanced to the point where it is possible to print small quantities of production quality parts.
    • However in the last decade prices for 3D printers and raw materials have fallen, opening the door to non-industrial applications. This list is far from comprehensive—3D printing could literally have applications in hundreds of niches, but here are some current outlets for the technology:
      • Fine art: Jewelry making, sculpture, etc.
    • Retail/Entertainment: Figurines, toys, etc.
    • Architectural visualization: Pre-viz models can be produced quickly and inexpensively.
    • Healthcare: Custom implants, prosthetics, educational models. Although it's far off, the possibility of organ printing is being actively explored.
    • Geospatial: Geographic or topological models can be produced directly from raw GIS data.
  • Can I Have My Own Models Printed?

    In a word, yes! Perhaps the greatest advantage of 3D printing compared to traditional manufacturing techniques (like injection molding) is that the cost per unit is the same whether you print one copy or one thousand. Because of this, there are a growing number of online vendors who are willing to print your models on demand, without any need for minimum quantities. Check out the following links to compare some of the most popular printing services:
  • How much does it cost?

    That all depends on how large a print is desired, and the type of material that it's printed in—resins are going to be significantly cheaper than metals in every case. Shapeways reports that the average price on one of their orders is usually between $50 and $100 dollars.
    • One way to drastically reduce the price of your print is to make sure the model has been properly prepared for the 3D printing process. This means making sure that the model will print hollow rather than solid.
    • Obviously, a solid model will use a lot more material than a hollow one—on their website, Shapeways estimates the price of a solid 2cm x 2cm cube to be approximately $17, while a hollow cube of the same size would only cost $3. Instructions are provided for creating a hollow model on the Shapeways page.
  • Is it worth it?

    When it comes down to it, only you can answer that question, but I will say this: One of the best gifts anyone ever gave me was a small (approximately 2 inch) printout of one of my 3D character models. Two inches may sound small, but an astounding amount of detail can be resolved even at that scale.
    • The largest (and probably the most impressive) 3D print I've seen in person was a quarter-scale model of Iron Man, on display at the 2009 SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in New Orleans—it was unbelievable to look at. Unless you've got an awful lot of money, it's cost prohibitive to print anything that large, but any one of the vendors mentioned above can print your models on a smaller scale.
    • In my opinion, it's definitely worth the money to see a model that you're particularly proud of transformed into a real-world object. It's a wonderful feeling to actually be able to hold your work in your hand, and I recommend trying it at least once or twice.
    • Now, if you're wondering whether it'd be worth it to have larger quantities of your models printed with a commercial purpose in mind, that's a whole different ballgame. Obviously, costs vs. potential income would have to be weighed and examined. The notion is becoming more and more feasible every day, but keep in mind that even a small figurine is still relatively expensive. Unlike virtually any other manufacturing process, 3D printing is actually most cost-effective at smaller quantities.
  • Can I Purchase a 3D Printer for Home Use?

    Unless you're willing to invest quite a bit of money, we recommend sticking to the online services for now. Top quality 3D printers from industry leading Z Corp still range from $15,000 all the way up to approximately $60,000. Although there are a few "home kits" that cost significantly less ($1500 - $2000), chances are you'll get better results from one of the online vendors.
    • It's very likely that quality consumer (or prosumer) 3D printing equipment will be a reality in the very near future. Entry level costs similar to high-end photography equipment ($3-5000 dollars) might be a likely comparison.