3D printing is gaining mainstream visibility in the news and magazines. Enthusiasts spend
thousands of dollars and hours of time perfecting the technology for a variety of uses.
This leads someone who has never encountered a printer of more than two dimensions to
wonder, What is 3D printing?
When you first heard the term "3D printing", what did you think of? Home printers that can
print flat images that look like they are floating above the page? Printers that fold
paper for you into a shape, like origami? Perhaps you had a background in related
technology, and your first concept of 3D printing was more accurate. Traditional printers
take flat, 2D images and ink them onto a piece of paper. 3D prints don't involve paper and
can be picked up. Their printers create a physical model from a computerized three-
dimensional image. This model can be made from a variety of materials.
At first, the models that were made with this technology were all a flimsy resin. In the
last few decades, advancements from universities, companies, and obsessed hobbyists have
resulted in objects printed of materials fit to many uses. 3D printing can be done with a
variety of plastics, resins, metals, edible ingredients, and nylon relatives called
polyamides. It's amazing that one basic process can result in so many types of objects.
To print an object, you must start with a 3D image. Images can be scanned from existing
objects. You could change maybe the material, size, or level of detail, but scanning
mirthfully ignores the potential for innovation. A 3D modeler can create a fresh image
using Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) software. Depending on the software, the developer
can start from scratch, or they can tweak a scanned image.
No matter how this image is built, it has to be processed before it can be sent to the
printer. The computer takes the imaginary object and slices it like a tomato. Each slice
is a layer in the printing process. The layer thickness depends upon the thickness of the
Let’s say our 3D printer is making the model out of plastic. The image of the bottom slice
is collected from the computer and laid onto a platform as plastic. The next layer up is
added and fused to the first. This is repeated, for minutes or hours, until the entire
plastic tomato is sitting on the platform.
As you see more news about 3D printing, you can assure your friends that it's not pre-
folded origami. It's a new way of creating new stuff.