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

Long gone are the days of dot matrix printers, followed by inkjet and laser printers. Infact 2D printing is a passé while the world has advanced fast and indulged into 3D printing. Today 3D printed objects have found their application in almost every sphere of life. Right from construction of houses to manufacturing of toys, building of machinery prototypes to making of medical prosthetics – 3D printing technology has revolutionized several fields. 

Even though the popularity of 3D printers gained momentum almost a decade back, around 2010s, the concept can be traced back to the 1980s under the disguise of ‘additive manufacturing’, which basically refers to processes meant for generating 3D object where layers of material are successively added under a computer controlled program to create a physical object.

In 1984, Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation coined the very first patent of 3D printing. Hull defined this process as a system for generating 3D objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed.

What is a 3D Printer?

While the output of a 3D printer is fascinating, it is pertinent to understand the basic modus operandi of a 3D Printer. It is basically a Computer Aided Manufacturing or CAM device that creates three-dimensional objects. Just similar to a traditional printer, a 3D printer receives digital data input from a computer and instead of printing the output on paper, the printer builds a three-dimensional model out of a custom material.

3D printing is also known as additive printing as the core concept of this technology is to add material together in form of deposits, joining or solidifying under computer control. Typically materials such as plastics, powders (of polyamide, alumide etc), resins, metal, carbon fibre, graphene, etc. are used to fuse together layer by layer to create amazing models that’s created through software. 3D Printers consist of few basic component that is instrumental of its smooth running, they are as below :

  • Controller board
  • Filament
  • Frame
  • Motion parts
  • Power supply unit
  • Print bed
  • Print Head
  • Feeder system
  • Extruder
  • User Interface

Various types of 3D printers are available in the market today. Depending on the requirement one can either go for a large scale manufacturing unit or a small portable printer. While businesses go for the large ones, individual customers involving artists, academicians, hobbyists and others can go for the small capacity printers to create their desired 3D objects.

Apart from basic features, the modern 3D printers come with power outage recovery, so that the printing process resumes exactly from where it left off due to unexpected power outage.

What is the purpose of a 3D Printer?

3D Printers have transformed many industries and have converted many labour intensive operations into easy click and print function. 3D printers can be used for both business purposes and as personal hobbies. The main purpose is to create items with optimal usage of materials. While industrial products are made cheaply with mass production using techniques such as injection moulding to ensure zero material wastage, the moulds itself costs a bomb. However, 3D printing allows people to create new ideas and products, construct low cost prototypes and find replacement parts at a much cheaper cost.

A 3D Printer today is seen as a utility product to print customized tool or product. It can also be a great way to enhance a child’s creativity through some designs which can then be printed for usage. One can also use a 3D printer to create decorative household items such as fancy interiors, flower pots, chandeliers, and candle stand. And for technical minds it can be used in creating spare parts to fix something. Above all, a 3D printer can be as handy as a normal printer which we use to print images.

Few reasons for you to own a 3D printer are listed below.

1. Nurture your hobbies and creative abilities – Hobbyists around the world are into the fun of creating fascinating 3D models. A 3D printer brings out your creativity and technical abilities upfront. Get a 3D printer which is beginner friendly and start nurturing your hobbies.

2. For DIY fixes at home – Fixing various household objects are a headache. Getting a technician itself is time consuming and costly affair. Instead with basic design knowhow, you can create spare parts through 3D printers and fix it in your home, rather than opting for somebody to come and do it for you. It also turns out to be a weekend adventure with 3D printer at home.

3. Enjoy innovative creations – Application of 3D printing can fuel your imagination and compel you to try some innovative product designing and have some amazing output as printed object. You can try abstract form of art and check out the end result.

4. Monetize your creations – Many 3D print enthusiasts are creating their own arts and crafts, getting it printed and making it a source of income. Through several eCommerce site, you can showcase your creations and make handsome money. You can make toys, decorative household items and sell online.

5. Educate kids through fun way – Kids will definitely find this enthralling. Many educational institutes such as schools, colleges, universities and hospitals have introduced 3D printing in many creative ways. While they learn the nuances of designing, they also get to create 3D figures of their creation, which will definitely excite them. 3D printing takes away the boredom from the regular subject and provides new lease of life. 

6. Environmental friendly – As because 3D printing generates almost zero waste as compared to other conventional industrial processes, it is considered environmental friendly. Additive manufacturing can reduce global energy by 27% by 2050, as per studies. Also the electricity consumption by 3D printers are relatively lower than other manufacturing processes in industries, which is why indirectly it is eco-friendly. 

7. Get competitive edge – Additive manufacturing is the future and live example being the hearing-aid industry. Over a short period of time, the entire industry shifted to 3D printing thereby churning out profits with quality product and less lead time. Speed of innovation and shorter manufacturing process leads to keep you ahead of competition.

How does a 3D Printer work?

For any product designer or engineer, 3D Printer is a huge blessing. However, this emerging technology is slowly and gradually catching up with individual consumers too. 3D printing is a delight to watch, it is a process that turns a whole object into thousands of tiny little slices, and then makes it from the bottom-up, slice by slice.

Those tiny layers stick together to form a solid object and that’s why it is popularly known as additive manufacturing too. Each layer can be very complex and dynamic, which means that 3D printers can create moving parts like hinges and wheels as part of the same object. You could print a whole bike and all its parts such as handlebars, saddle, frame, wheels, brakes, pedals and chain – all readily assembled, without using any tools or technician to fit them.

The process of 3D printing begins with a graphic model of the object to be printed. CAD is the perfect software to create such graphics. Programs such as TinkerCAD, Fusion360, and Sketchup are used to create intricate designs. For complex products, these models undergo extensive testing to avoid potential defects in the final end product.

Once the design is done, digital slicing process follows. This is a vital stage as a 3D printer cannot conceptualize a 3D model in the same way as human being.  This very process breaks down the model into many layers. The design for each layer is then sent to the printer head to print, or lay down, in order. CraftWare or Astroprint is a slicer program that gives shape to the slicing function. Now the data is sent to the printer for final stage.

It will begin to print out the model as per instructions provided to the slicer program using different methods, depending on printer type in use. One should note that the process of 3D formation might take hours or even days, depending on the size and complexity of the design and material.

Irrespective of the type of 3D printer used, the entire printing process is common across all and follows the below 7 steps:

Step 1: By using CAD software develop a 3D model

Step 2: the CAD graphic is then converted to standard tessellation language (STL) format, which is decoded by most of the available 3D printers in the market apart from other file types such as ZPR and ObjDF

Step 3: The created STL file is next transferred to the computer that is connected to the 3D printer and controls the same

Step 4: Simultaneously the 3D printer is set up with requirements such as refilling the polymers, binders and other consumables the printer will use

Step 5: Time to switch on the printer and wait for the modelling to be completed. Check the machine time to time to avoid major errors

Step 6: Once the printing function is completed, remove it from the printer

Step 7: Post-processing function continues. Many Printers have this feature, which includes brushing off any remaining powder or washing the printed object to remove water-soluble supports. The newly created object may also need curing

Types of 3D Printers

While 3D printers have taken the world by storm, this interactive technology is now being preferred by individuals for household usage besides being the top choice of Engineers and Scientists. There are currently 9 types of 3D printers and let’s have an overview of the same.

1. Stereolithography (SLA):

SLA 3D printing process
SLA Printing Process. Source:xometry.eu

This type of printers generate fast results with high level of accuracy and precision. In this process a vat of liquid polymer is exposed to control laser lighting under safelight conditions. The plastic is first heated to turn it into a semi-liquid form, and then it hardens on contact. The printer constructs each of these layers using an UV laser, directed by X and Y scanning mirrors. SLA Printers are widely used across sectors like automotive, medical, aerospace, entertainment, and also to create various consumer products.

2. Digital Light Processing (DLP)

These printers are robust and creates high resolution output all the time. It is economical, as it has the ability to utilise cheaper materials for even complex and intricate objects.

3. Fused deposition Modeling (FDM)

FDM Printing process
FDM Printing Process

This printers are mostly used in producing functional prototypes, concept models, and various manufacturing aids. The output from FDM needs cleaning as layer lines of material remain visible. This technology is used mainly across wide range of industries.

4. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

This printing technology uses high power CO2 lasers to fuse particles together. The laser sinters powdered metal materials. Apart from metal powders, SLS uses white nylon powder, ceramics and even glass as raw materials.

5. Selective Laser Melting (SLM)

This uses a high-powered laser beam to form 3D parts. During the printing process, the laser beam melts and fuses various metallic powders together. SLM technique is used for complex structures, geometries and thin walls. It is an expensive technology mainly used by aerospace and medical orthopaedics industries.

6. Electronic Beam Melting (EBM)

Swedish company named Arcam AB pioneered this printing technology. This 3D printer works almost in line with SLM technology except for the power source that is different. EBM printer uses a powerful electron beam in a vacuum.

7. Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM)

This 3D printer is a rapid prototyping system that works by laminating several layers of plastic or paper using both heat and pressure. It was developed by a Californian company called Helisys Inc. One can create affordable prototypes through this printer.

8. Binder Jetting (BJ)

Developed by MIT, this printing technology uses two types of materials to build objects, a powder based material (generally gypsum) and a bonding agent. Popular materials used are metals, ceramics, sand and plastic.

9. Material Jetting (MJ)

Also known as was casting, this 3D printing technique is mostly used by jewellers. It creates objects in a similar method as that of 2D inkjet printer. Material is jetted onto a build platform using either a continuous or Drop on Demand (DOD) approach.

What can 3D Printers make?

3D Printers are completely versatile in nature, and can create almost everything that we can think of. However, depending on the material used and its size, the printer generates limited outputs. These printers are expertise in printing with one type of material only and aren’t dynamic enough to give output using several materials through the same machine. 

If you know how a 3D printer works and can be used to the best of its abilities, then you will end up creating some awesome models. Some interesting objects that can be printed through a 3D printers across categories are as follow:

  • Prosthetic limbs and other parts of body for medical science
  • Homes and buildings for architectural or real estate segment
  • Movie props for entertainment sector
  • Prototypes for machinery 
  • Glass & plastic objects for decorative items
  • Toys, Jewellery & novelty items
  • Spare parts to fix things
  • Musical instruments
  • Acrylic objects for art
  • Medical devices
  • Automotive & aerospace parts
  • Food preparation

Where can I get a 3D Printer?

Once you have decided to buy a 3D Printer and zeroed on the brand, getting it delivered at your doorstep isn’t a hassle. Since, a 3D printer consists both hardware and software, make sure the brand you opted for provides the same.

Most of the branded 3D printers can be availed through their webpages. One can confirm the model and place an order with the respective brand. Alternatively, eCommerce sites like Amazon & Flipkart too sell 3D printers for domestic use, which can be availed at ease. There are B2B marketplaces like IndiaMART, Udaan, wherefrom one can get industrial 3D printers. Even the device and machinery can be imported through sites like Alibaba, ExportersIndia etc.

Advantages and Disadvantages of 3D Printers

As we know that 3D printing has changed the way things were done traditionally and eased a lot of intermediate process thereby improved the lead time of manufacturing processes, there exists few drawbacks too. While 3D printing is fast replacing injection moulding and CNC milling, the disadvantages attached to it shouldn’t be ignored. Let’s now look into the pros & cons of 3D printers.


1. Design flexibility – designing is more flexible and easy to achieve the end result, unlike restrictions observed in traditional methods of manufacturing.

2. Rapid Prototyping – Prototypes can be created at much lesser time without much of an expense. Under traditional processes, it would have effected both cost, time and effort.

3. Print on Demand – through 3D printers, products can be created as and when demand arises thereby saving a lot on stock inventory. This save space and maintenance cost which otherwise would have been produced in bulk amount through conventional processes.

4. Strong and light weight parts – Main material which goes into 3D printing is plastic, which is light weight as well as durable. These days most of the automotive and aerospace spares are strong yet light in weight.

5. Faster design and production – As compared to traditional manufacturing process, 3D printing is quick. Only time consuming part is the designing through a CAD software, rest all is just a print command away.

6. Waste minimization – Wastage is minimum in 3D printing as it utilizes the print material only, unlike manufacturing processes where portions are cut from larger chunks of non-recyclable material.

7. Cost effective – It is cost effective in every sense. It saves on employee cost, operational cost and overhead costs too. Much lesser power is utilized as compared to industrial manufacturing. No operator is needed and minimum to zero wastage of raw materials.

8. Environmental Friendly – no fuel consumption needed, less electricity consumed, which attributes to environment friendly operation.


1. Limited materials – 3D Printers use limited materials to cast an output as compared to traditional manufacturing processes, where various metals and alloys can be used under a certain temperature and pressure.

2. Restricted build size – the print chambers of 3D printers have limited dimensions as a result the only restricted size can be created. For larger objects, printing needs to be done in parts and then assembled.

3. Post processing – depending on material types and size of printed object, at times post-processing such as finishing, sanding, water-jetting, heat drying, assembly and other functions are needed, which might affect the lead time of the entire production.

4. Large volumes – churning out large volume through 3D printers isn’t a cost effective operation, which is better addressed through traditional manufacturing processes like injection moulding.

5. Part structure – at times part structures created through additive layers fall apart from the whole structure which is seen as a major disadvantage of 3D printing process.

6. Design inaccuracies – Another probable issue with 3D printing is lower tolerance level of printers that might give output that drifts apart from the original design.

7. Copyright issues – With gaining popularity of 3D printing there’s possibility of printing renowned designs and creating fake and counterfeit products which becomes impossible to differentiate from the original ones. This has evident issues around copyright as well as for quality control.

8. Reduction in manufacturing jobs – 3D printing technology has posed a threat to human resources. Due to this production automation many operators might lose their job. Through 3D printing several jobs can be outsourced as a contract job from 3D printing hubs set up in other countries or third parties. 

Be it pros or cons, in nutshell 3D printing is here to stay. With 3D printing getting consumer friendly, days are not far when every household will own  their 3D printer and would be creating designs and printing it out as per own whims and fancies, just like the way 2D printers were. At one point in time, every household owned a 2D printer and people wanted to have a piece of their creation printed, same would be the case with 3D printers too. With 3D printers playing a huge role in education system, all the more reasons to procure them at a household level.

Gunaseelan Murugesan
Author | Website

Experienced Project Engineer with a demonstrated history of working in the field of Product Design & Development industry in Mechanical Engineering. Skilled in 3D Printing and Re engineering Technologies with CATIA V5 , Materials Science, Finite Element Analysis (FEA), Mimics, ANSYS Workbench and Casting Simulation software. Strong engineering professional with a Master’s Degree focused in Industrial Metallurgy from PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore.

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