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
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.
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.
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 software||G2 rating||What it does||Price|
|Fusion 360||4.5 / 5||3D modeling; computer-aided design, manufacturing, and engineering; printed circuit board design||$70 / month|
|Blender||4.5 / 5||Rendering, modeling, sculpting, animation, virtual effects, simulation, video editing for creating 3D computer generated content||Free|
|Tinkercad||4.6 / 5||3D design, electronics, and coding||Free|
|Onshape||4.7 / 5||Computer-aided design, product data management, and enterprise analytics for developing products||$1,500 / year (standard plan)|
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
This course will demonstrate how to use 3D printing software to create digital designs that can be turned into physical objects. It will also demonstrate ...
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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.
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:
Turn Your Ideas into Objects with 3D Printing. Obtain a rich understanding of what 3D printing is and how 3D printers work and develop skills in 3D Modeling. Consider how this new technology is being used by both firms and individuals with revolutionary potential; acquire a set of tangible skills that will allow you to design, prototype, manufacture, and share (or sell) physical objects.
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Prototyping, Fusion360, Tinkercad, 3D printing, 3d modeling, Materials, Product Development, New Product Development, Human–Computer Interaction
Emerging Digital Technologies in Manufacturing. Learn about breakthrough digital technologies in manufacturing and the business value they deliver.
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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.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.