"3D Printing" or "Additive Manufacturing"
refers to a process by which digital 3D design data is used to build up a component in layers by depositing material. 


It enables the production of extremely complex structures unattainable using conventional manufacturing methods.

What is

3D Printing

3D printing has its roots in the 1980s. 


In 1984, Chuck Hull, invented a process called Stereolithography (SLA) which used UV lasers to solidify photopolymer that made 3D parts layer by layer. 


Hull went on to launch one of the world’s largest 3D printer manufacturers, 3D Systems.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) was developed and patented by Dr. Carl Deckard and Dr. Joe Beaman at the University of Texas at Austin in 1986. They were both involved in the resulting start up company DTM, established to design and build the SLS machines.

Chuck Hull: The Father of 3D Printing, The Guardian, 2014.

Chuck Hull: The Father of 3D Printing, The Guardian, 2014.

Photo of Carl Deckard & Joe Beaman, Austin American Newspaper, 1987.

Photo of Carl Deckard & Joe Beaman, Austin American Newspaper, 1987.

Since that time numerous other 3D printing technologies have been developed, such as Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)/ Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), PolyJetting and others, all of which rely on layer-by-layer fabrication and are based on a computer code fed to the printer. 

The majority of 3D printers one will find within a home or an office setting are based on the SLA or FDM/FFF processes, as these technologies are currently cheaper and easier to implement within a machine.


Before acquiring DTM in 2001, 3D Systems was the biggest competitor of DTM and SLS technology. Now owning both technologies, 3D Systems currently controls the largest share of the additive manufacturing market worldwide. 

Their main US competitor Stratasys, Inc., inventors of FDM, has more unit sales and a larger installed base, but a smaller market than 3D Systems' technologies. 


The biggest foreign competitor, German manufacturer EOS GmbH, sold its stereolithography business to 3D Systems in 1997. EOS continues to make SLS machines and is now focused on selective laser melting, a similar technology that focuses on making metal parts. This process was originally developed by Suman Das, a former graduate student of Beaman's and now a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

3D Systems continues to sell SLS and stereolithography machines and remains the industry's revenue leader.

Though 3D printing has been around for nearly three decades, the desktop 3D printing revolution started around 2009, when key patents on the most advanced 3D printers expired.

Since then, desktop 3D printers have really become accessible.

Industrial SLS System by EOS, 2015.

Industrial SLS System by EOS, 2015.

Moreover, the technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, creating new possibilities for 3D printing and drastically increasing the list of things that can be 3D printed.

SLA Desktop 3D Printer by Formlabs, 2015.

SLA Desktop 3D Printer by Formlabs, 2015.

"Quin" SLS Pendant Light by .MGX, 2005.
"Printed Perfection" by Iris van Herpen, 2010.

"Quin" SLS Pendant Light by .MGX, 2005.

"Printed Perfection"

by Iris van Herpen, 2010.

Objects are printed

How do 3d printers work?

In the 2D world, a sheet of printed paper output from a printer has been “designed” on the computer in a program such as Microsoft Word. The file - the Word document - contains the instructions that tell the printer what to do.


In the 3D world, a 3D printer also needs to have instructions for what to print. It needs a file as well. The file - a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file - is created with the use of a 3D modelling program, either from scratch or beginning with a 3D model created by a 3D scanner. Either way, the program creates a file that is sent to the 3D printer. 


Along the way, software slices the design into hundreds, or more likely thousands, of horizontal layers. These layers will be printed one atop the other until the 3D object is done.

Additive Manufacturing: EOS Industrial 3D printing.

There are three different ways 3D printers work but they all rely on the printer converting a design into individual 2D slices which are then combined to make the final 3D object.


1. A pool of chemicals that turns solid when light, typically a UV laser, is shone on to it. The laser moves across a thin layer of liquid, drawing the required design. Once the first layer is finished the resulting solid is lowered to allow a second thin layer of liquid to be deposited on its surface. The laser is then used to outline and solidify the design. More and more layers are built up until the final product is finished.


2. Molten ink (or even chocolate or cheese) that becomes solid when it emerges from the printer head. Designs are drawn out by the ink and again built up layer by layer until the final product is complete. 


3. Layers of powdered material, held together with glue or heated to fuse the powder together, to translate the design into reality.

Selective Laser Sintering: Models are built up layer-by-layer
out of powder particles,
which are selectively melted via a laser. 

SLS Technology

3D Systems: Selective Laser Sintering Process.

Starting from a 3D model, a model is built by cutting it into thin layers via specialised software. 


The model is then printed layer by layer by a laser that draws thin lines in the powder, which melts and bonds it together in order to form a thin layer of the model. 

The Process of SLS, Illustration by Superlora.

After a layer is printed, a new layer of fresh powder is spread over the surface by a roller. 


The printer has a print chamber that is heated to just below the melting point of the powder; the laser beam adds the extra energy to melt the powder, forming a solid model. 


After a print job is finished, the result is a big block of heated powder with the printed models contained inside. 

Any unused material is being recycled, resulting in less waste.

The Process of SLS, Illustration by Superlora.

Powder-based printing technologies are used to create 3D prints in polystyrene, ceramics, glass, nylon, and metals including steel, titanium, aluminium, and silver.

The range of objects the technology
can manufacture is rapidly expanding.

Applications of 3d printing

Taking its roots in manufacturing, 3D printing was primarily used for rapid prototyping products but is increasingly being used to create finished projects.


Applications include architectural scale models, healthcare (3d printed prosthetics, hearing aid and printing with human tissue), dental care, 3D printed houses, Art pieces, drones, clothing, jewellery, table wear, film props, shoes, automobiles, plastic toys, coffee makers, and all sorts of plastic bottles, packaging and containers.


Other examples of 3D printing would include reconstructing fossils in palaeontology, replicating ancient artefacts in archaeology, reconstructing bones and body parts in forensic pathology and reconstructing heavily damaged evidence acquired from crime scene investigations.


3D printing is a growing training area in schools and is also being used to integrate students with disabilities in programs that have traditionally excluded them. For younger students, art, design, entrepreneurship and engineering are unlocked with increasingly simple 3D modelling tools.

3D Printed Mechanical Hand
3D Printed Mechanical Hand

Developed by e-NABLE Community, 2012-2015.

3D Printed Light Objects
3D Printed Light Objects

"Chaos.MGX" designed by Strand + Hvass.

3D Printed Skull Implant
3D Printed Skull Implant

Developed by Hospital Donostia San Sebastian.

3D Printed Natural History Model
3D Printed Natural History Model

Woolly Mammoth created from laser scan data by Smithsonian X 3D - Smithsonian Institution.

3D Printed Light Objects
3D Printed Light Objects

"Tulip.MGX" designed by Peter Jansen.

3D Printed Shoe
3D Printed Shoe

"Biomimicry" shoe designed by Dutch fashion designer Marieka Ratsma in collaboration with American architect Kostika Spaho, 2011.

3D Printed Bike Frame
3D Printed Bike Frame

Designed by James Novak.

3D Printed Sculpture
3D Printed Sculpture

"Runner" by Peter Jansen.

3D Printed Dress
3D Printed Dress

"Escapism" collection by Iris Van Herpen, Autumn/Winter 2011.

Applications of 3D printing. (click to expand)

The growth in utilisation of 3D printing in the aerospace and aviation industries can, for a large part, be derived from the developments in the metal additive manufacturing sector.


NASA for instance prints combustion chamber liners using selective laser melting and as of March 2015 the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) 

cleared GE Aviation’s first 3D printed jet engine part to fly: a laser sintered housing for a compressor inlet temperature sensor.

3D Printed Full-Scale Copper Engine Part by NASA, 2015.

3D Printed Full-Scale Copper Engine Part by NASA, 2015.

3D Printed T25 Sensor by GE Aviation, 2015.

3D Printed T25 Sensor by GE Aviation, 2015.

Since the 80s, many new materials for 3D printing have entered the market, including gold, silver, concrete, and various other metals. Scientists are currently working on new, bigger projects. They are hard at work perfecting the next generation of 3D printed materials. One day, we may even see 3D printed human organs!

3D printing is
a game changer.

3D printing Industry

Engineers and designers have been using 3D printing to create prototypes for over 30 years, but falling technology costs are making it increasing accessible to other people. In 2002, even a budget 3D printer would cost €28.000. Today you can get a desktop device for under €1.400.


Siemens predicts that 3D printing will become 50% cheaper and up to 400% faster in the next five years. Siemens is also predicting 3D Printing will be a €7.7B global market by 2023. 

Worldwide 3D Printing Industry Forecast, Billions, Wohlers Report 2014.

The additive manufacturing industry is expected to quadruple in size in 4 years. 


According to Wohlers Report 2014, the worldwide 3D printing industry is expected to grow from €2.77B in revenue in 2013 to €11.56B by 2018, and €19B in worldwide revenue by 2020. Wohlers Report 2013 had forecast the industry would grow to become a €9.75B industry by 2021.

Worldwide 3D Printing Industry Forecast, Billions, Wohlers Report 2014.

3D Printed Chopper by Luma3Dprint & 3DprintUK.

3D Printed Chopper by Luma3Dprint & 3DprintUK.

Prototyping (24.5%), product development (16.1%) and innovation (11.1%) are the three most common reasons companies are pursuing 3D printing.


Additive manufacturing can 3D print parts, with effects on energy use, waste and customisation.

As it evolves, 3D printing technology is destined to transform almost every major industry and change the way we live, work, and play in the future.


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"Tomato Paint Soup" by Emanuele Niri, 3D Printed Sculpture, 2013.

Any comments or suggestions are welcome to 


"Tomato Paint Soup" by Emanuele Niri, 3D Printed Sculpture, 2013.