3D printing process – A basic guide

What is 3D printing?

For many, 3D printing is a new concept. The idea of fully three dimensional objects being “printed” at home can sound like something straight out of a science fiction story.

The reality is, however, that the process was not only conceived nearly three decades ago, but has been in use for nearly as long. Manufacturers have been using 3D printers for some time now. During a design’s concept phase, 3D printing enables companies to build high quality, accurate prototypes before moving on to traditional, more expensive and time consuming manufacturing processes. In the past, 3D printing was only used for prototyping of globally distributed products by big business, but recently 3D printing has begun making its way into the offices and homes of the average entrepreneur and consumer.

Uses for 3D printers are almost limitless. You can create custom gifts for loved ones like one-of-a-kind jewelry,  customized iPhone and iPad cases, picture frames, toys and figures – almost anything. If you can think it, then you can make it. Follow the link for more gift ideas you can print. Beyond gifts and novelty items, 3D printers can be used to print parts for damaged or broken products. Imagine breaking a switch or dial on your oven, you would need to try and contact the manufacturer and order a replacement, if they even have them. Or, you can choose to live with a dial missing on your oven. But with a 3D printer you can make and print out your own replacement and have the whole thing fixed in an hour or two! Check out this link for more useful things you can print at home.

As 3D printing’s popularity increases, expect to see brand new products available as digital downloads that you print at home yourself. Imagine ordering your new bookshelf online, customizing the size and shape to exactly what you need, and then immediately printing out the parts. Buying and distributing products will never be the same.

As 3D printers get faster and cheaper to own and maintain, more and more businesses will be looking to 3D printing to reduce costs and maximize output. Industrial scale printers can now be bought for tens of thousands of dollars when previously investing in a commercial 3D printer would have cost a company considerably more. Though the idea of spending $10k or more on a printer technology may seem expensive, companies can end up saving much more than the amount spent during the prototyping process alone.


“Designed to Win” 3D printed concept shoe by Luc Fusaro

For example, major sneaker manufacturers like Nike use 3D printers to quickly create full color prototypes of their new shoe designs. Previously they would have spent thousands of dollars building a prototype, and then have to wait weeks for it to show up. Nowadays, the cost of rapid prototyping is in the hundreds of dollars, and design alterations can be made instantaneously through a computer and then reprinted and tested, all on the same day.

Some companies are taking it a step further and utilizing 3D printers for more than just concepting. Short run models or custom “on demand” manufacturing means the finished full color printed objects are the end product, not just a prototype. As printer speeds increase and costs decrease, expect to see one-of-a-kind products, customized to your personal needs. For example, a quick scan of the inside of your ear could allow you to print your own headphones that perfectly match the shape of your ear. Sounds crazy, right? 🙂

Until recently, 3D printing technology has been a niche market mainly for manufacturing professionals, and a handful of hobbyists and enthusiasts. But recent technological developments and an ever increasingly competitive market have driven 3D printer technology forward, and the cost to businesses and home users alike have plummeted. Fully assembled, home 3D printers are now available and affordable!

The Process

How does a design on screen become a finished “printed” object?

Your 3D object begins its life on a computer. You can scan, load or build your model as a 3D mesh (new software makes it easier than it sounds). Then that “mesh” or model is sliced into two-dimensional cross sections that can be layered on top of each other one by one, building up the 3D model.

Check out this awesome time lapse video of the layering process in action!


The thickness of each “2D” layer determines the level of detail that can be achieved. If you can print thinner layers, then you can print more layers and the edges of curves will become smoother. It’s a little bit like screen resolution on your computer. If the resolution is low (layers are thick) then edges are pixelated (jagged), and if the resolution is high (layers are thin) then edges have smooth curves. Once the layers have finished being printed and layered, a simple dust off reveals your finished 3D “print”.

If you would like to know more about the printing process, check out our detailed guide to 3D Printing Techniques.

Home 3D Printers

Home printer technology has come a long way in the last couple years. Previously the domain of hobbyists (willing to assemble their printers, much the same way as owners of early personal computers did), 3D printing is now available in easy to use, well designed and fully assembled printers. Perhaps more interesting is how affordable they are becoming.

Without a doubt, the market leader in bringing 3D printers into the average consumer’s home is 3D Systems. Inventors of the first ever 3D printer, they are also the people behind the most affordable fully assembled home printer, the Up Mini 3D Printer.

If you would like to learn about the first 3D printer and where it all began, check out our interactive History of 3D Printing.

New software advances have also made home 3D printing more viable. Applications like Google’s SketchUp is free and simple to use, compared to professional 3D programs like AutoCAD and Maya. For more advanced users, Blender is a free fully featured 3D application with much of the same features found in expensive professional software. Here is a list of free software for 3D printers.

Even if software isn’t your thing, you can download pre-built models and print away. Customization isn’t everything, the impact to end users will be huge, simply by having physical products delivered almost instantly. Follow this link for free 3D models.

Why 3D Printing Will Change The World

The ability to quickly manufacture your own products at home will change manufacturing in much the same way as the internet has changed how we shop, do business, and communicate. No longer will you suffer another home assembly furniture kit with a missing part! Simply download what you need and print it out.

Ever found a piece of furniture that was just too small or a little too big? Simply scale the model to whatever the size and shape of your room and print. Maybe you really like a table, apart from one detail on the legs – change the mesh model and print the legs YOU want.

Aside from manufacturing, the medical world is already taking huge leaps forward due to 3D printing. Recently a 3D printed jaw was successfully implanted in Europe, and 3D printers are even being used to grow human tissue for organ transplants.

The industrial world is also seeing great benefits from using 3D printers. Complex architectural plans can be printed with incredible detail and accuracy. This can enable architects to show their work to a client like never before, as well as dramatically reduce costs.

The Future Of 3D Printing

Already metals are successfully being printed as well as full color (including black and transparent) models and even organic matter, like food and living cells. Just how far this exciting technology can go is anyone’s guess.

One thing is for certain – 3D printing is going to make a massive impact on the way we design, build, distribute and purchase products. And it could be finding its way into our homes sooner than you think.

For a more detailed guide to 3D printing, check out the great video below.