How does a 3D Printer work?

The short version is that it builds stuff by pumping stuff out in layers (additive manufacturing) as opposed to taking a block of material and creating stuff by taking the material not part of the design away (subtractive manufacturing).

It’s me though so obviously there won’t be a short version : D

It’s definitely a theme with the evolution of anything that its origins go back further than when it came into the collective consciousness of us everyday folk and it’s no different with 3D printing with the earliest 3D printer originating in 1981, some 42 years ago! It wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that 3D printing started to become more of a mainstream thing.

These days you can print anything from houses to car parts to dentures to prosthetic limbs and the technology also came to the rescue during the Pandemic with all those with 3D printers pitching in to print PPE and ventilator parts, just mind blowing!

So how does it work? Well there are 3 elements in the 3D recipe; A digital model, the printer, and the material that will create the 3D object.

Digital Model

The first step in 3D printing is to create a digital model and this would normally be done using computer-aided design (CAD) software. There are loads of different CAD software apps, the one most people who have heard of ‘CAD’ is AutoCAD but there are open source CAD programmes such as Free CAD that might suit someone wanting to start down the road of learning to use that type of software.

Once you have created the 3D model file you can save it in a format that is compatible with the 3D printer that is going to use the model to create the 3D object from the material being used.

3D Printer

All 3D printers work by adding material layer by layer until the object is complete. They do it in different ways however by either melting plastic and pushing (extruding) the melted plastic through a nozzle, using a laser to melt and solidify the material that is layered, whilst others use resin that is cured with UV light (if you have ever had Gel nails done that is similar in that it’s a bunch of chemicals that are also cured with a UV light) 

Credit: StockPlanets/Getty Images


The material that 3D printers use to create the object are most commonly plastics, however there are many other materials that can be used to 3D print. FDM printers typically use plastic filament, but there are many other materials available, including metal, ceramics, concrete mixtures and even food! Forgot to nip to the shop for tea? Not a worry I’ll just print some chops out! 

Once the 3 elements are good to go, the printer reads the digital model file and layer by layer, builds the shape until it is complete. 

The Future?

The idea of just printing products rather than ordering them is very appealing but throws up a whole bunch of questions about quality and safety when we are effectively a factory in the house?

Would really like to know what you think!

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