How Does a 3D Printer Work?

3D printing is an exciting technology that presents an opportunity to produce products with less waste. They come in various types, including resin and metal printers, each functioning in a different way. 

While this technology is nothing new, it continues to evolve and improve, finding applications in numerous sectors for hobbyists, professionals, and industries alike. 

What is a 3D Printer and How Does it Work?

A 3D printer is an additive manufacturing device designed in the 1980s by Chuck Hull to revolutionize production processes. Creating objects with these printers requires a few core components, including the 3D model, the printer, and the material. 

The printer employs the contents of a digital file to develop objects by layering thin layers of materials. They can use various liquid and powdered materials, including plastic, metal, or cement. As it piles on ultra-thin layers, it fuses each pass, creating a final 3D object that embodies the computer-aided design. 

These printers come in several types: fused deposition modeling (FDM), stereolithographic (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), and metal. The workings of each type vary, as each employs unique methods to complete 3D printing tasks. 

How Does a 3D Printer Work Step by Step?

The process of 3D printing involves three key phases: design, slicing, and printing.

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The Design Phase

Printing a 3D object starts with the creation phase. The printer bases the printing process on a 3D digital model of the object, so the first step is to create it. Various CAD modeling software options, such as Creo, Catia, and Solidworks, offer the necessary tools to create this model. 

Alternatively, 3D scanners and photogrammetry software can achieve similar results. After completing the digital model, you must convert it into a format compatible with your 3D printer. This step ensures the printer has instructions covering the placement of each material layer to create the final product.  

Slicing the Model

After designing your digital file and converting it to the correct format, it’s time to prep the model for printing. This phase involves slicing software, which helps the printer understand the design using coordinates that tell it where to deposit the material. 

Slicing software literally splits the model into multiple layers that vary based on the specifications outlined in your digital file. After cutting the model, you’ll get a text file containing detailed instructions outlining how to print the object. 

In this step, you’ll configure your printer and materials to ensure a successful print. If the software doesn’t understand various factors, including boundaries, nozzle diameter, and material thickness, it may skew the result. 

Printing Phase

The last phase involves the most exciting part: printing. In this stage, you’ll see your digital creation come to life. The printer will read the slicing software’s file and use the instructions to print the object layer by layer. 

As it deposits the material in layers, the printer will fuse them to create a solid object. 

This process can take a while, especially on larger prints. While the printer might complete small objects in minutes or hours, large or complex projects can take days. 

How Does a Resin 3D Printer Work?

Resin 3D printers are popular for their ability to craft minuscule details, using SLA to complete their tasks. 

The Basics

Resin 3D printers employ stereolithography (SLA), which converts liquid plastics into solid objects. This 3D printing method is one of the oldest options but remains popular for its fine-tuned detail capabilities. 

Resin and UV Light

A resin 3D printer employs ultraviolet (UV) rays to complete projects. The printer exposes each layer of photosensitive liquid resin to a UV laser beam, effectively hardening it into a solid layer. The process continues layer by layer until the project is complete. 

After the object is complete, it must be rinsed with a liquid solvent to remove excess resin and baked in ultraviolet to cure the resin further. 

Advantages and Disadvantages

Resin 3D printers are ideal for creating fine detail in printed pieces, as the curing process offers precise control over the final object. Products printed using them often feature ultra-smooth surfaces, although this can vary based on the printer’s quality. 

While they’re ideal for fine detail, these printers usually feature smaller build plates that limit the size of pieces you can create. On top of that, printing using SLA often takes longer due to the curing and rinsing processes. 

How Does a Metal 3D Printer Work?

Metal 3D printers use the same fundamental concept as other printers, but instead of resin or polymers and UV light, they use metal powder and high-powered lasers. 

Types of Metal 3D Printing

Crafting metal 3D prints is doable using selective laser melting (SLM) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). They share many similarities, as they both use lasers to scan and fuse metal powder particles to create layers of a 3D-printed object. 

The differences stem from the fundamental processes behind the bonding process, as SLM employs a single temperature to melt the particles, whereas DMLS uses powders with varying melting points. 

The Process

3D printers spread thin layers of metal powder on the build platform when crafting a metal object. Next, they use high-powered lasers to melt or fuse the metal particles, creating a single layer in the object. The process repeats with another layer of metal powder and more scanning until the object is complete. 

Applications and Limitations

Metal 3D printers are often used in rapid prototyping and finished production parts for various industries, including tooling, mechanical engineering, and aerospace. This process facilitates the creation of durable products relatively quickly, making it an excellent option for these applications. 

While printing wastes little, fine-tuning a part’s design often takes multiple rounds before mass production. Additionally, sizing constraints can stem from the build platform, restricting the products manufacturers can make. 

Real-World Applications of Different Types of 3D Printers

3D printers have proved useful in various real-world applications, although the application hinges on the printer’s functionality and type. They’re applicable in the aerospace, defense, and automotive industries, helping to create strong and durable components. 

3D printers in the educational sector are often used to print parts as educational tools, research, and create custom classroom decor. The healthcare sector has used them for various purposes, from planning complex surgeries to creating custom surgical instruments. 

FAQs About 3D Printing

  • Can a 3D printer print anything?

3D printers can print almost anything, although some sizing and material option restrictions may exist. 

  • Does a 3D printer need a computer to work?

Many 3D printers available today feature SD card slots, so you don’t necessarily need a computer to print 3D models. Instead, you can load the files onto the SD card and pop it into the printer. 

  • What materials cannot be 3D printed?

Certain materials, including wood, cloth, and paper, aren’t compatible with 3D printers. 

Bring Your Creations to Life With a 3D Printer

3D printers offer an impressive array of applications, from aerospace to education. They’re versatile machines that bring your creations to life, allowing you to use 3D-printed objects for teaching, decor, and much more. 

If you’re ready to get your creative juices flowing with a 3D printer, AGC Education has what you need. We offer everything from the printer to the supplies to ensure you have everything you need to begin printing! Contact us today to get started!