What Is 3D Printing? Definition, Technologies, Types, And Much More

What Is 3D Printing? Definition, Technologies, Types, And Much More

Printing has come way beyond your traditional matrix printers. If you’ve ever been interested in printing and multidimensional objects, you must’ve got curious about what is 3D printing? And how does 3D printing works? As the name suggests, 3D printing is the process of creating three-dimensional objects using various materials. This may come as a surprise, but yes, this complex-looking tech development is going mainstream these days, and people are becoming aware of what exactly is 3D printing. Retailers, online stores, design studios, and even your neighbor could possibly know what is 3D printing and 3D printing technologies, creating some outstanding objects using them. So, now that you know it’s not rocket science but becoming more generic, let us comprehensively understand what 3D printing is.

What exactly is 3D printing?

Plain and simple, 3D printing is a manufacturing process where chosen materials are laid down, layer by layer, to create a three-dimensional object. It’s said to be an additive process because the object is built from scratch, unlike subtractive processes in which material is trimmed, drilled, milled, or machined off. Though 3D printers can employ a variety of materials, such as plastic or metal, answering about what is 3D printing should also consider that it also involves several techniques that possess the ability to turn digital files having three-dimensional data—whether formed on a computer-aided design (CAD) or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) program or transformed into physical objects through 3D scanners. In addition, 3D printing allows you to create complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing processes.

3D Printing History

The first 3D printing manufacturing equipment was invented by Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. He basically developed two new additive methods for fabricating 3D models. Based on Ralf Baker’s work in the 1920s for making decorative articles, Kodama created 3D Printing history by completing his laser-cured resin rapid prototyping in 1981. With the expansion of stereolithography in 1984, his newly invented method got widespread in the forthcoming decades. Chuck Hull of 3D Systems later on, invented a 3D printer used for stereolithography. These inventions were followed by several other inventions, including selective laser sintering and selective laser melting. Most of the high-end 3D printers and 3D printing technologies got introduced between the 1990s-2000s. However, their costs got dramatically slashed when patents expired, and the technology became available for multiple people.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

Before getting started with all the core 3D printing technologies involved in the 3D printing process, let us learn the process of how 3D printing works. A lot similar to traditional printers, 3D printers use a variety of technologies. The most typical category is fused deposition modeling (FDM), also called fused filament fabrication (FFF). The process involves a composition of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), or another thermoplastic that is melted and deposited with the help of a heated extrusion nozzle in layers. When no one knew what is 3D printing, the first kind of robust 3D printer introduced to the market was created in the mid-1990s by Stratasys. With this said, let us further comprehend the working of 3D printing by understanding more about the 3D printing technologies. 3D printing contains many technologies and materials as it is used in almost all industries. The most fundamental applications of 3D printing are given below.

3D Printing 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 artifacts
  • reconstructing evidence in forensic pathology
  • movie props

What Are The Key 3D Printing Technologies?

With so many various 3D printing technologies on the market, it can be hard to understand the whole landscape. Therefore, the International Organization for Standardization created the ISO/ASTM standard 52900 to standardize the exploding terminology around 3D printing. So, let’s have a look at the acknowledged three broad categories of 3D printing technologies: sintering, melting, and stereolithography.

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1. Sintering

Sintering is a 3D printing technology where the material is heated but not to the point of melting. This is done to create high-resolution items. During the process, the metal powder is directly used for metal laser sintering, while thermoplastic powders are utilized for selective laser sintering.


  • Strong parts
  • Range of materials
  • Larger parts


  • High cost
  • Poor surface finish

2. Melting

Melting technology of 3D printing encompasses powder bed fusion, electron beam melting, and direct energy deposition. Here, the use of lasers, electric arcs, or electron beams is given the dominance to print objects by jointly melting the materials at high temperatures.


  • Strong parts (nylon)
  • Complex geometry
  • Scalable (fits size)
  • No support


  • Longer production time
  • Higher cost (machines, material, operation)

3. Stereolithography

Stereolithography employs photopolymerization to form parts. This 3D printing technology uses a suitable light source to interact with the material selectively to conceal and solidify a cross-section of the item to prepare it in thin layers.


  • Smooth surface
  • Fine details
  • Good for prototyping of IM


  • Brittle
  • Usually requires supports
  • UV sensitive
  • Extensive post-processing required

What Are The Types of 3D Printing?

The types of 3D printing or additive manufacturing largely answer the question of what is 3D printing all about. The process is categorized into seven major groups by ISO/ASTM 52900 additive manufacturing – general principles – terminology. All types of 3D printing fall into one of the following classifications:

  • Binder Jetting
  • Direct Energy Deposition
  • Material Extrusion
  • Material Jetting
  • Powder Bed Fusion
  • Sheet Lamination
  • VAT Polymerization

1. Binder Jetting

Binder jetting deposits a thin layer of powdered material, for example, metal, polymer sand, or ceramic, onto the build platform. Then, drops of adhesive are deposited through a print head to bind the particles. This builds the component layer by layer, and after the post-processing, it may become necessary to finish the build. As a result, metal parts may be thermally sintered or infiltrated with a metal with a lower melting point, such as bronze. At the same time, full-color polymer or ceramic parts may be saturated with cyanoacrylate adhesive. One can use this type of 3D Printing for various applications such as 3D metal printing, full-color prototypes, and large-scale ceramic molds.

2. Direct Energy Deposition

Direct energy depositions utilize focussed thermal energy such as an electric arc, laser, or electron beam to fuse wire or powder feedstock when they are deposited. This type of 3D printing process traverses horizontally to build a layer, and layers are piled vertically to create a part. One can use this procedure with different materials such as metals, ceramics, and polymers.

3. Material Extrusion

Material extrusion, also referred to as fused deposition modeling (FDM), employs a filament spool fed to an extrusion head with a heated nozzle. Then, the extrusion head heats become softer and lays down the heated material at appropriate locations. It cools to create a material layer, and then the build platform moves to create the next layer.

Being the answer to what is 3D printing for many people, this process is cost-effective and has short lead times. The only downside is low dimensional accuracy, which demands post-processing for a smooth finish. This type of 3D printing technology also creates anisotropic parts, which are weaker in one direction and thus unsuitable for critical applications.

4. Material Jetting

This one is a lot identical to inkjet printing, but the only difference is that instead of laying down ink on a page, this method deposits layers of liquid material from one or more print heads. These layers are then placed before the process for the next layers begins. However, this process demands the use of support structures, but these are usually created from a water-soluble material that is washable once the build is done. It makes the process expensive, making the parts go brittle and degrade over time. Yet, what is 3D printing is a question that is answered with material jetting for people who want to create full-color parts various of materials.

5. Powder Bed Fusion

Powder bed fusion (PBF) is a method in which thermal energy precisely fuses areas of a powder bed to form layers built upon each other to form a part. PBF covering the methods of both sintering and melting processes is worth noting here. The primary method of operation of all powder bed systems is fixed. It’s about recoating blade or roller deposits a thin layer of the powder onto the build platform. Then the scanning of the powder bed surface takes place with a heat source that selectively heats the particles to join them together. Then, the platform moves down to enable the process to start again on the next layer. The outcome is a volume having one or more fused parts surrounded by untamed powder. Finally, when the build is all done, the bed is entirely raised to allow the parts to be eliminated from the unaffected powder and perform any required post-processing.

6. Sheet Lamination

This process can be divided into two different types of 3D printing technologies, i.e., and LOM or laminated object manufacturing and ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM). Laminated object manufacturing deploys alternate layers of material and adhesive to form items with a visually attractive appeal, whereas UAM joins thin metal sheets via ultrasonic welding. UAM is a low temperature, low energy procedure compatible with aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium.

7. VAT photopolymerization

VAT photopolymerization can be categorized into two techniques, i.e., stereolithography (SLA) and digital light processing (DLP). Both these procedures form parts layer-by-layer by using light to cure the liquid resin in a vat selectively.

SLA operates with a single-point laser or UV source for the curing procedure, while DLP flashes a single image of each complete layer onto the vat’s surface. Before exposure to the light source for strength improvisation of the pieces, parts need to be cleaned of excess resin after printing. All the support structures will also need to be eliminated, and post-processing can create a higher quality finish.

Advantages And Disadvantages of 3D Printing?

The printing time depends on several factors, including the part size and the printing settings. The quality of the finished part is also essential when deciding on printing time as higher quality articles take longer to build. The 3D printing techniques may take a few minutes to several hours or days. Again, when the answer to what is 3D printing pops up, remember that speed, resolution, and the volume of material are all crucial factors here.

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1. Advantages of 3D printing-

1. Cutting-edge yet cost-effective creation of complex geometries- 

The various 3D printing technologies allow for the effortless creation of cutting-edge geometric parts with added complexity at no extra expense. In some instances, 3D printing is cheaper than subtractive production processes as no additional material is used.

2. Reasonable start-up costs- 

Since no moulds are needed, another advantage of 3D printing is that the expenses associated with this manufacturing procedure are relatively low. The price of a part is directly linked to the cost of material used, the time taken to create the part, and any post-processing that one may need.

3. Completely customizable-

As the process is based upon computer-aided designs (CAD), any product changes are easy to make without affecting the manufacturing cost.

4. Ideal for rapid prototyping-

As 3D printing technologies allow for small batches and native production, this process is perfect for prototyping, which means one can create a product faster than traditional manufacturing techniques and without relying on external supply chains.

2. Disadvantages of 3D printing-

1. Can have lower strength than the traditionally manufactured products-

While some components, such as the ones comprising metal, have exceptional mechanical properties. Thus, any other 3D printed parts are more brittle than those produced by traditional manufacturing techniques. This is so because the components are built up layer-by-layer, lowering the strength by between 10% and 50%.

2. Increased cost at high volume-

Large production runs are costly with 3D printing as economies of scale do not affect this process like the other traditional methods. Estimations suggest comparing identical parts; 3D printing is less cost-effective than CNC machining or injection moulding above 100 units.

3. Accuracy limitations- 

The printed part’s accuracy relies on the type of machine and process used. For example, some desktop printers have reduced tolerances than other printers, meaning that the final parts may differ from the designs. Though you can fix this with post-processing, it is imperative to consider that 3D printed parts may not always be exact.

What Is 3D Printing Used For?

3D printing service is getting popularised in almost every industry now. Although there are multiple use cases of 3D printing technologies, below given are some of the major industries accruing 3D printing services.

1. Aerospace

3D printing is widely employed in the aerospace industry because it creates light yet geometrically complex parts. Instead of building an item from several components, 3D printing technologies enable the creation of an item as one whole component, lowering the lead times and material wastage.

2. Automotive

The automotive industry embraces 3D printing technologies because of inherent weight and cost reductions. They enable rapid prototyping of new or customized parts for a test or small-scale manufacture. Thus, for instance, if a specific part becomes unavailable, it can be created as part of a small, customized run, including manufacturing spare parts.

3. Medicine

The medicine industry has explored the use cases for 3D printing technologies for creating made-to-measure implants and devices. Examples of hearing aids created from a digital file and matching the scan of the patient’s body can be seen. In addition, 3D printing can significantly reduce costs and production times.

4. Robotics

The speed of manufacture, design freedom and effortless design customization make 3D printing suitable for the robotics industry. This includes creating bespoke exoskeletons and agile robots with enhanced agility and efficiency.

The Way Forward For 3D Printing

3D printing enables people to produce complex items that require geometries. This relatively new tech advancement also extends the experience of editing designs and creating bespoke pieces. 3D printing can even save your tooling costs and provide an advanced time-to-market. This is why it has become a pivotal component for several industries, such as aerospace, where it can create lightweight yet complex parts, offer weight savings and associated fuel reductions, create prototypes for heavy industries, and much more. What is 3D printing is, therefore, yet to be explored as the tech world drives toward further modernization.

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