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Everything You Need to Know About 3D Printing: The Ultimate Guide (2019)

Young engineer working on a 3D printer

Heard about 3D printing and want to know what it is and how it really works? You’ve come to the right place.

From buildings to prosthetics to the aerospace and even food, 3D printing is a constantly evolving manufacturing technique that is getting more and more popular by the day.

Despite being in its early stages of development, 3D printing has taken the manufacturing world by storm with its unmatched advantages and amazing potential.

Whether you’re an utter beginner or an accomplished professional, you’re going to love the following explanation and tips on 3D printing.

So, without further ado, here is the complete guide into the world of 3D printing as it reveals all that you need to know in the simplest and most useful way.

Let’s dive right in.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the process of creating three-dimensional objects based on a predesigned digital model.

It works as a layering technology; i.e. manufacturing products by printing layers upon layers until the whole object is formed.

Whether it’s a piece of art, an architectural shape, a prototype of a product that you want to test, a home accessory, a car part, a biomedical device, an aerospace component, or even a biological organ, by building layer upon layer, you can actually create, with high degrees of complexity, products you wouldn’t normally be able to create with traditional fabrication methods.

Now, of course, this depends on the limitations of the 3D printer you’re using.

But it shows the expansive range of applications that 3D printing is already being used for (and can be used for in the future).

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing (AM). Now, if you are one of those who are curious to know different names given to one thing, well I got you covered.

Here are some historical terms given to additive manufacturing:• Additive fabrication
• Additive processes
• Additive techniques
• Additive layer manufacturing
• Layer manufacturing
• Solid freeform fabrication
• Rapid prototyping

You’re welcome!

But what’s the point of all this?

Why should you go for 3D printing instead of other fabrication methods?

You see, in addition to its ability to manufacture complex parts, 3D printing does that essentially at a fraction of the time and at a significantly lower cost compared to traditional techniques such as forging, moulding and sculpting.

Now that’s impressive! Not only that.

Interestingly enough, more and more user-friendly printers are being released, which is the next step in revolutionizing the manufacturing world.

Say hello to building your kitchenware right on your kitchen counter…

Or your tools right in your own garage…

Or your next prototype in the easiest and quickest way possible.

What are the benefits of 3D printing?

Now, we’re on a roll. Here’s how 3D printing can leave you better off in your pursuit for better manufacturing.

1. Rapid Manufacturing

One of the most important factors in manufacturing is time.

It is crucial that the manufacturing time be made as short as possible while maintaining quality.

3D printing can save a lot of time.

That is why it is given the alternative name ‘rapid prototyping’.

Rapid prototyping is essentially a one-step fabrication process that helps minimize process time while preserving complexity, precision, and fidelity to the final product.

In short, a prototype that previously required days (even weeks) to finish or test can be simply 3D printed in the morning, tested, modified, and reprinted in the evening.

2. Precise complexity and flexibility in design

Conventional manufacturing techniques impose limitations when it comes to freedom of design and complexity.

Requirements such as undercuts, draft angles, and tool access restrict the design leeway.

3D printing gets you around this issue because of its intrinsic layering methodology.

No need for all those consuming requirements.

With 3D printing, you can print objects with high levels of complexity and precision.

3D Printer (Polyjet)

3. Versatility and accessibility

An amazing feature of 3D printers is that they fit almost everywhere.

In your home.

In your office.

In your school.

In your lab or studio.

As long as you have a design software and a slicing software on your computer, your 3D printer will do the rest.

3D printing is being accessed by an increasing number of people…

And not necessarily professionals.

Its versatility and ease-of-use allows even amateur individuals to be able to use it effectively.

The Science Dissemination Unit (SDU) of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy has established on August 12, 2014 a Scientific FabLab infrastructure devoted to creativity and research with special focus on possible applications of benefit for the society.

4. Personal customisation

Industrial manufacturers generally produce products via mass production;

That is the usage of the same moulds and design requirements to shape and produce their products.

Modifying the shape and design of the product to meet certain customer needs, even slightly, requires substantial effort and investment.

On the other hand, 3D printing provides endless freedom and ease of customisation.

Tweak your designs as you wish.

Give each family member their own personalised gift.

Set yourself apart in creating your jewellery design.

Fabricate customised dental or medical products for your customers.

The possibilities are infinite.

5. Risk alleviation

A very critical step in building projects is testing the prototype to avoid the risk of creating a faulty product or investing in big-budget tooling.

Once again, 3D printing comes to the rescue.

By printing and testing a prototype that has high conformity to the final product, you can establish a high confidence level before laying out the big money.

Not just that!

Traditional techniques consist of many manufacturing steps in order to deliver the desired product.

This generates a significant risk of error during the process.

3D printing, conversely, is fundamentally a one-step manufacturing technique that does not require the interference of the operator.

Thus, it helps you eliminate uncertainty and reduce error in a rapid and low-cost manner.

6. Sustainability and waste reduction

Conventional manufacturing methods are, by definition, top-down approaches.

They are subtractive. To form the product, they carve through a block of material. They extract significant volumes of unwanted material. This unwanted material goes to waste.

Some get recycled, but still require time, effort, and money. 3D printing, contrarily, is a bottom-up approach.

It is additive. It uses adequately the necessary amount of material for constructing the part. Those materials, moreover, are mostly recyclable and reusable. Consequently, little to no waste is generated.

3D printing is also relatively energy-efficient.

This reduction in energy consumption and waste generation helps decrease the impact on the environment, and hence, increase the level of sustainability.

Young engineer working on a 3D printer

7. Cost-effectiveness

This is arguably the most outstanding feature of 3D printing.

The costs incurred by companies and individuals when employing traditional fabrication techniques are significantly high.

Think about it.

  • All the tooling.
  • The machinery…and its maintenance.
  • The material cost.
  • The energy cost.
  • The labour cost…and the expenses due to errors and inflexibility.

Traditional techniques are especially expensive for low-volume manufacturing and prototyping.

This is where 3D printing can play an effective role.

Additive manufacturing has a significant competitive edge over other manufacturing methods in terms of machine costs, material costs, and labour costs.

Machine costs usually contribute the least to the total manufacturing cost.

However, the time efficiency and one-step manufacturing feature gives 3D printing an advantage, which in turn, results in a higher turnover.

Material costs vary depending on the type of technology used.

Labour costs are the bee’s knees of 3D printing!

You don’t need to employ several highly skilled operators to do the job.

All you need is one.

At a press of a button, most 3D printers are able to perform the whole process without further interference.

Other advantages include smaller storage spaces, staying ahead of competitors, market testing, better communication of products, and confidentiality.

3D printing is one of the most exciting manufacturing industries in the world right now – and blue chip companies such as Google, General Electric and Nike are investing into it.

In fact, Google’s even recreating Ancient Artifacts using 3D Printing!

Next, we flip the coin to see the other side of 3D printing.

What are the disadvantages of 3D printing?

OK, so all this sounds great so far.

But as any other technology, 3D printing is not perfect.

There are definitely some limitations, too. These include:

1. Product weakness

The layer by layer methodology of 3D printing may result in a product which can be 10-50% weaker and more brittle in certain directions vs bulk materials.

That’s not usually a major problem – however, you wouldn’t use this in critical applications.

Some 3D printers, such as DMLS and SLM, can produce stronger parts.

In industries where you need reliable, durable products – such as aerospace – these printers have become increasingly popular.

2. Economies of scale

3D printing is quite advantageous at low-volume manufacturing.

But once the volume is scaled up, 3D printing loses its competitive advantage, as the production price per unit decreases minimally.

Comparatively, the price per product in traditional manufacturing processes drops dramatically with increasing volume.

More cost efficient processes for large-volume production include CNC machining and Injection Moulding.

Basically, 3D printing is great for small batch runs – but not cost efficient enough yet for bulk printing.

Engineering team working in the lab

3. Accuracy

There’s a small margin of error when it comes to 3D printing.

This tends to range between ± 0.01 mm to ± 0.5 mm.

What does this mean?

Well, let’s say you’re printing a product with an 8.5 mm hole.

Its actual measurement could range between 8 mm to 9 mm.

So if you’re a commercial company manufacturing for a client, there’s a slight risk that your product isn’t going to accurately fit your client’s requirements.

Obviously as the technology develops, its accuracy should increase too.

4. Post-print processing

Once you’ve actually printed a part, it usually still requires a bit of post-processing to ensure it’s ready to be used.

This could include sanding and painting the part.

So although the 3D printing process saves time, you need to factor the time taken for post processing.

You might also need to create support parts too – especially if you have an overhang/underhang on the object.

Other drawbacks include by-product waste, possible toxic emissions, limited printing materials, size limitations, and potential counterfeit of products.

With all that in mind, next are your working steps.

How does 3D printing work?

Step 1: Create your design in a CAD modelling software

Step 1: Create your design in a CAD modelling software

First of all, you need to create a 3D blueprint of the object you’re going to be printing.

How is this done?

Basically, by using CAD modelling software, you can create your own designs.

Whether you are a beginner or a professional, there are multiple software options at your disposal.

If you’re not planning to begin learning a complex set of tools, you can go for SketchUp and Autodesk Fusion 360.

They are beginner-friendly and they include all the tools you need to create, edit, and produce your 3D design.

You can find a lot of tutorials online if you’re just starting out.

You can also find templates online for 3D printing – especially if it’s a common object.

Useful websites for finding templates include Thingiverse and MyMiniFactory.

SOLIDWORKS-3D-CAD-1024x554

If your aim is professional design software and you are willing to take the time and learn how to use them, Autodesk provides other software options with advanced features.

Software such as 3DS Max, Maya, and NetFabb from Autodesk allow you to control every detail of your design.

SolidWorks, CATIA, and Rhino are also distinguished software for 3D design.

Your use of such software would depend on your area of work, whether you are an engineer, architect, or designer.

Another option to create your 3D model is to scan an already existing object.

So let’s say you’re trying to emulate an object.

With a 3D printing scanner, you can essentially create a digital version of the product.

Some scanners vary in terms of reliability and precision.

Yet, this can help speed up the design process, especially if you don’t have the time or the expertise to do it yourself.

Step 2: Export your design as a STL file

Once your model has been designed, export it as a .STL file, which is the usual file format used for 3D printing.

STL generally stands for ‘stereolithography’ – a type of 3D printing.

Sometimes, it is considered as an abbreviation for “Standard Triangle Language” or “Standard Tessellation Language”.

Basically, it’s the format your CAD software will export your design in to the slicing software.

Step 3: Import the STL file into a slicing software

After finalising the design, it has to be sliced before printing.

To do that, import your STL file into a slicing software.

This is where you layer the object of your design, in terms of materials.

You can do this via a slicing software or via your 3D printer.

Taking into account the dimensions allowed by your 3D printer, your design can easily end up being sliced into hundreds or even thousands of layers.

Slicing software helps you to customise:

  • Each layer of the object
  • The tool path 
  • Temperature
  • Colours
  • How fast you’d like to print

Basically, you’re customising the printing process your 3D printer will use.

Some of the most commonly used slicing software include MakerWare, Cura and Simplify 3D.

Step 4: Export your sliced design to your 3D printer

Once you’ve layered your design in your slicing software, export your sliced model as a G-code file.

G-code is a language for you to communicate commands to a machine.

In this case, the G-code file would contain instructions on how to move the 3D printer components.

Upon exporting, your design would be ready to be finally sent to your 3D printer.

Depending on your printer, you’ll either use a USB, an SD card or you can send the design via WIFI.

Once the printer receives your blueprint, it begins the printing process!

Now comes the main question.

What 3D printer shall you use?

Well, there are many types of 3D printers.

Your selection depends on several factors such as:

  1. Desired dimensions, material selection
  2. Cost structure
  3. Tolerance
  4. Mechanical properties
  5. Complexity
  6. Process time
  7. Energy consumption.

Now, here’s the cool part.

I compiled for you the most commonly used methods of 3D printing in the table below.

See which one suits your plan best in order to get the appropriate 3D printer.

What 3D printer shall you use?

Other 3D printing methods include inkjet printing, contour crafting, direct energy deposition (DED), and laminated object manufacturing (LOM).

If you’re interested in looking at 3D printing from a material point of view, Optimatter has provided data on different materials used in FDM.

This ranking on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) may give you a head start as to which material to go for.

So, which 3D printer are you going to select?

Applications of 3D printing

Theoretically, you can print out almost any useful (or useless) solid object you can think of!

From sunglasses, shoes, tableware, and milk jugs, all the way to screws, boat propellers, aircraft engine compartments, and product prototypes…

The number of things that you can 3D print is unlimited.

Some of the most popular application areas for 3D printing include consumer goods, the aerospace industry, the automotive industry, electronics, architecture and buildings, and the biomedical and healthcare sector.

Here’s a pie chart to have a better idea of the Additive Manufacturing market share.

AM Market Share 2017

3D printing is an industry that’s expected to grow from $7.34BN to $35.6BN by 2024.

Aerospace alone accounts today for over 18% of the AM industry’s revenue!

Boeing, for example, are already using 3D-printed titanium alloy parts on their 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

They’re even planning to use AM to produce as many as 1000 parts in the near future.

That’ll save them over $2 million per plane!

NASA, ESA, and SpaceX are studying the use of AM in building combustion chambers and igniters for their rocket engines.

Architecture, on the other hand, accounts for as little as 3% of the AM industry.

The most commonly used AM method in buildings today is the additive manufacturing of concrete (AMoC), which follows the approach of contour crafting (CC).

2014 was the year when the first 3D printed building was constructed by architects in Amsterdam.

In the same year, a company in Suzhou, China, 3D printed 10 houses in less than 24 hrs, for half the cost that it would entail when using traditional building methods.

The ESA is also planning to build a “moon village” by 2030 by using lunar soil as 3D printing material.

How awesome is that?!

And there’s even more!

3D printing has entered the world of microelectronics as it has been showing a promising future in manufacturing MEMS (micro-electromechanical system) devices, in particular LOCs (Lab-on-chip) and electronic packaging.

More astounding applications include 3D printing of food – even in space – and organ printing.

Yes, artificial hearts, kidneys, and livers could be customised and printed for transplants.

3D printing is exponentially growing.

It is penetrating almost all industries as it develops and becomes more accessible.

But how did it all start?

The history of 3D printing

3D printing is close to completing its fourth decade since it was first introduced.

Almost 40 years old…and still looking hot off the press!

3D printing was first presented in 1981, under the name “rapid prototyping”, by Hideo Kodama.

It was not until Charles Hull invented stereolithography in ‘83 and patented his SLA in ‘84 did 3D printing begin to gain traction and popularity.

Fast forward to 1992 when the world’s first SLA and first SLS machines were produced.

Despite many challenges, especially the issue of material warping, those two methods showed an unquestionable potential.

Since then, the technology took off.

In 1999, scientists were able to successfully implant the first 3D-printed organ in a human patient.

The idea of manufacturing being accessible to everyone began to materialise by the mid-2000s.

In 2008, RepRap’s ‘Darwin’ 3D printer was introduced.

It was allegedly a ‘self-replicating printer’ that gave people the instant ability to create whatever they want by themselves.

Today, 3D printing has almost certainly surpassed Hull’s dreams!

Innovation in jewellery design, car manufacturing, aircraft manufacturing, architecture, biomedical devices, robots, and even food…

All with 3D printing at the centre.

What do you think will the future hold for 3D printing?

Bonus tips on 3D printing

Since you’ve reached this much in your reading of this long guide, it’s only fair of me to give you some good tips to get you familiar and started with 3D printing.

So here you go!

  1. Buying a 3D printer is like buying a car but without the test drive. In other words, user experience is very important. Don’t focus just on the specs and metrics. Ask about user experience and what people think and feel about the printer you want to buy.
  2. Speak to the manufacturer about the power efficiency of the printer before you make a purchase. This will help you create a rough energy cost estimation and eventually, save money.
  3. If you’re planning to pursue 3D printing as a career, the most convenient way is to check university courses, online courses, and internship opportunities at additive manufacturing companies that can get you started.
  4. To improve your print quality, make sure the 3D printer’s bed is precisely horizontal and set the nozzle at an appropriate distance and a proper temperature.
  5. Keep the printing speed low enough to avoid ringing, an issue that would cause the part to have kind of a blurry looking surface.
  6. You need your printed part to stick to the bed so it doesn’t fall down during printing. Find your go-to bed adhesive and stick with it.
  7. Drink your beer one sip at a time; that means instead of building the whole design all together at once, print a small piece as a test first to make sure issues and irregularities are minimised.
  8. If you’re working with a material that has weak toughness and ductility, like PLA, make sure to print multiple perimeter outlines to strengthen the part and reduce the chances of breaking.
  9. Hollowing is a technique that will help reduce your cost per unit. In essence, you create a hollow in your part, thus reducing the materials used. But be careful in how you design it because hollowing may be tricky when designing complex parts. Make sure to add escape holes in order to remove materials from inside.
  10. Get to know your printer. Get acquainted with it. Know its tools. Know its capabilities. Test all possible settings to make sure you know what you can get out of it.
  11. Keep asking people questions and gather as much information as you can, even if you don’t need it on the spot. It’ll help later on. You can do that on our Linkedin group.
Young engineers working in the laboratory and using a computer, 3D printer on foreground, science and technology concept

Now it’s your turn

By now, I believe you can see how exciting and promising 3D printing is.

Its future is likely to bring amazing innovations and advancements.

If you didn’t know much about 3D printing before, keep your head up.

With this guide, you have formed a pretty good idea about what it is and how it works.

Now, are you ready to get started?

Let me know your thoughts and enquiries in the comment section below.

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