What Is 3D Printing? And How to Get Started

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn the fundamentals of 3D printing, what you can do in this field, and ways you can explore your 3D printing goals and potential.

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What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the process of creating physical three-dimensional objects, including product prototypes, product packaging, works of art, musical instruments, tools, human organs, and much more. 

3D printing starts with using software to design a 3D model. Next, the software translates the digital file of the object to data that a 3D printer can understand. Then, the printer uses materials such as thermoplastics, metals, glass, paper, or wood to bring an object from its digital to physical form. The printer prints an object using what’s called an additive process, meaning that it lays down layers of material in succession until an object is complete. 

Additive manufacturing vs. subtractive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing refers to adding layers of material to build objects, while subtractive manufacturing refers to removing material to create objects. 


3D printing offers hobbyists, professionals, and businesses several benefits, including: 

  • Rapid prototyping of new products to improve design and function before manufacturing 

  • Producing new products with less waste and expense than with traditional manufacturing 

  • Automating some of the manufacturing process with the use of software and 3D printers, thus saving time and energy 

How does 3D printing work? 

Now that you have a basic 3D printing definition, let's explore how 3D printing works in more depth, including the different types of 3D printing, popular software, and the typical materials you can use to bring 3D designs to life.  

Types of 3D printing 

  • Vat polymerization is the process of curing special resins, called photopolymers, as the printing material. The liquid molecules bind together and harden into a solid state. 

  • Material extrusion refers to when a nozzle heats material and then deposits it layer by layer to form the object. 

  • Powder bed fusion refers to using a laser or electron beam to melt and fuse powder particles together into an object. 

  • Material jetting is when a nozzle dispenses photosensitive material, layer by layer, onto a surface, where it solidifies. 

  • Binder jetting is when liquid binder is deposited on top of powder in alternating layers. 

  • Direct energy deposition is when a nozzle moves in multiple directions to deposit melted material on specific areas of a surface. The material then solidifies into an object. 

  • Sheet lamination is when thin sheets of material are cut and bonded together, layer by layer, to form an object. 

  • Direct metal laser sintering is when a metal powder is heated and distributed, layer by layer, and then allowed to cool. 

3D printing software 

To give you an idea of the 3D printing software programs that are popular among mechanical engineers, designers, and other users, we consulted software listings on G2, a site for reviewing and discovering software. Here are four 3D printing software programs with user ratings of at least 4.5 out of 5 stars and 50 or more user reviews.

3D printing softwareG2 ratingWhat it doesPrice
Fusion 3604.5 / 53D modeling; computer-aided design, manufacturing, and engineering; printed circuit board design$70 / month
Blender4.5 / 5Rendering, modeling, sculpting, animation, virtual effects, simulation, video editing for creating 3D computer generated contentFree
Tinkercad4.6 / 53D design, electronics, and codingFree
Onshape4.7 / 5Computer-aided design, product data management, and enterprise analytics for developing products$1,500 / year (standard plan)

3D printing materials 

Common materials used in 3D printing to create objects include: 

  • Thermoplastics, such as polylactic acid, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, polyvinyl alcohol plastic, and polycarbonate 

  • Powders, such as polyamide (nylon) and alumide 

  • Resins that can produce detailed, paintable, or transparent objects  

  • Metals, such as stainless steel, bronze, gold, nickel, aluminum, and titanium 

  • Carbon fiber, frequently used as metal alternative for adding a top coat to plastics

  • Graphene, used for products like touchscreens and solar panels that require a combination of strength, flexibility and conductivity

  • Paper, such as cardstock, Bristol board, and watercolor paper  

  • Human tissue, used for scientific research and development in 3D bioprinting to create tissue for regenerative medicine and drug testing, among other uses

What can you make with a 3D printer?

There are a variety of things you can make in 3D printing that intersect with different industries. Here are just a few, so you can get an idea of the range of possibilities:  

  • Fashion: footwear, eyewear, jewelry, and apparel 

  • Art: sculptures, figurines, and decorative objects

  • Food: cultured meats, meat substitutes, chocolate, and pasta

  • Transportation: skateboards, bikes, cars, shuttles, and trains

  • Health care: dental aligners, hearing aids, organs, implants, prostheses, medical devices, and surgical instruments 

  • Education: visual aids, models of biochemical matter and historical artifacts, toys, maps, diagrams, and creative designs 

Did you know?

The first ever functional, synthetic human bladder was 3D printed at Wake Forest Institute in 1999. The organ started as a synthetic 3D scaffold. Then, it was coated with human cells. When tissue formed, the bladder was implanted into a patient, and the patient’s body accepted it.


How much is a 3D printer?

You may be wondering how much a 3D printer costs, especially if you’re looking to invest in one to complete your projects, either for personal or professional use. 3D printers are available for a range of prices as we’ve listed below: 

  • $100 - $400 for beginners 

  • $400 - $1,000 for hobbyists 

  • $1,000 - $3,000 for enthusiasts

  • $3,000 - $10,000 for professionals 

  • $10,000 + for industrial or enterprise use 

As you consider investing in a 3D printer, factor in the additional costs of materials, upgrades, repairs, software, and accessories. To compare prices, features, and capabilities of 3D printers, you can search Amazon, as well as sites devoted to 3D printers and supplies, such as 3D Printers Online Store and All3DP.  

Statista predicts that the number of actual 3D printing and additive manufacturing devices in use will likely increase from 665,000 in 2020 to more than 2.7 million by 2030 [1].


3D printing careers

As 3D printing becomes more widespread among artists, hobbyists, professionals, and businesses, career paths are starting to emerge. We’ve collected just a few of the job titles you may come across in a job search related to 3D printing. For each job title, we’ve included US salary averages (base pay + additional pay such as cash bonuses, commissions, tips, and profit sharing), responsibilities, and qualifications. 

All job information is taken from Glassdoor, Best Accredited Colleges, and Indeed as of November 2022. 

3D printing technician 

  • Salary: $42,345

  • Duties: oversee the printing process, create daily printer schedules, evaluate customers’ designs and ensure compatibility with printers, clean and repair printers, assist with 3D design process

  • Qualifications: bachelor’s degree in engineering, fine arts, computer science, or related field; experience in manufacturing or production; attention to detail; communication skills 

Industrial designer

  • Salary: $75,221

  • Duties: develop products from concept to production; work with stakeholders to get designs approved; collaborate with engineers, product marketers, and manufacturing partners; lead ideation sessions; stay up-to-date on users, trends, materials, and processes 

  • Qualifications: bachelor’s degree in industrial design, architecture, engineering, or related field 

Brand designer 

  • Salary: $63,026

  • Duties: collaborate with customers and stakeholders, design a brand’s look and feel, create brand prototypes using a 3D printer, stay current with industry trends  

  • Qualifications: bachelor’s degree in graphic or brand design, marketing, or related field; experience with CAD software and the Adobe Creative Cloud; creativity 

Product designers 

  • Salary: $94,637

  • Duties: design and develop consumer products, collaborate with product engineers, stay current with industry trends, create product prototypes, research product design technologies 

  • Qualifications: bachelor’s degree in industrial design, engineering, architecture, or related field; knowledge of CAD; experience with product launches

How to get started in 3D printing 

Getting involved in the 3D printing industry can take many forms, from investing in your own printer and completing projects on your own to pursuing a career. Follow the steps below to blaze your trail.

1. Define your 3D printing goals. 

Start by identifying what you want to accomplish in 3D printing and the motivations behind these goals. That way, you can focus on the tasks you need to reach your goals. Here are some examples to draw from: 

  • Design and print one-of-a-kind birthday gifts for loved ones.

  • 3D print prototypes before launching new products in your business. 

  • Find a job related to 3D printing and help a company bring ideas to life in physical form. 

2. Explore what you can do in 3D printing. 

Exploring what’s possible in 3D printing, related to your goals, can be a great way to gain momentum in your journey and refine your goals. Here are some ways to discover possibilities: 

  • Research the materials, software, and printers you need for the projects you want to create or the job you want. 

  • Browse job listings in 3D printing and review the descriptions of job duties and qualifications. 

  • Follow 3D printing enthusiasts and influencers on social media.  

Statista predicts that the market for 3D printing materials will grow to almost $4 billion by 2026, increasing from $1.5 billion in 2018 [2]. 


3. Take a 3D printing course. 

Taking courses in 3D printing can introduce you to valuable skills during the discovery phase of your journey and beyond. Look for courses in which you can apply skills, complete projects, and try out different 3D printing software.   

4. Connect with others in 3D printing. 

Networking with 3D printing hobbyists and professionals can complement your research and education in this field. Connect with others by joining online communities and forums, as well as visiting maker spaces in your city. 

Learn 3D printing with Coursera

Practice using 3D printing software like TinkerCAD and Fusion 360, learn how to prepare and operate a 3D printer, and gain exposure to industry trends in Coursera’s 3D printing learning experiences. Explore options below: 


Article sources


Statista. “Number of 3D printing & additive manufacturing devices worldwide, from 2020 to 2030, by context,   https://www.statista.com/statistics/1259618/3d-printing-and-additive-manufacturing-devices-worldwide/.” Accessed December 1, 2022. 

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