How Does 3D Printing Work?

In 2024, 3D Printing has become a great deal more accessible to a wider variety of people. Good quality printers are more affordable, and they are becoming easier to use.

However, there is a lot of misconception about how exactly it works, so today we wanted to guide you through some of the basics of how 3D Printing works, starting with what exactly 3D printing is…

What is 3D Printing?

Put, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, creates three-dimensional objects from a digital file.

Let me break it down into smaller chunks, so you can easily understand how does 3D printing work:

How Does 3D Printing Work:

Imagine you are building a house. You create the foundations and then build up the walls one layer of bricks at a time. 3D printing works in a similar way, however instead of using individual bricks pieced together with cement, you will build up the walls by stacking thin slices of material on top of each other. So, if you are using an FDM 3D printer, it’s kind of like piping frosting onto a cake, if you were able to pipe the frosting into a perfect shape for multiple layers. Resin printing is a little more complicated and we’ll discuss that in a future blog post.

This is the opposite of the more common forms of manufacturing that most of us are more knowledgeable about. Traditionally, manufacturing is “subtractive”, meaning that you start with a block of material (for example wood, or steel) and a machine will remove excess material until they have the finished product.

Creating a 3D Model:

Before creating anything with a 3D printer, you need to tell the printer what you want to make. This starts with a 3D model, which you can purchase or download from a website such as Printables or Thingiverse or create your own from scratch.

If you feel confident enough to design your 3D model, there are multiple software tools available such as Blender, ZBrush, Maya, TinkerCAD, Sketchup and many more.

You will then need to export your 3D model as a printable file; we typically use STL files, although some software will export .3mf or .obj files.

Slicing and Dicing

To prepare your 3D model for printing, you will need to slice it. This involves breaking the model down into multiple layers (the exact number of layers will depend on the size of your project) and can be done using slicing software such as Cura, Prusaslicer, Orcaslicer, Lychee Slicer or others. For FDM printing this will typically be saved as .gcode – gcode files are specific to a printer, so beware of downloading gcode files unless you know they’re compatible with your printer.

Once the model has been successfully sliced, you will normally need to upload the file to an SD card, however depending on the type of 3D printer you own, you may also use a USB cable to connect your computer to your machine or even wi-fi.

The printer uses this information to build the object by each layer created by the slicer. At Tidewater 3D, we use both FDM and Resin printers, which we’ll look at more closely in a future blog post.

Need something 3D Printing? We are here to help, so get in touch and let’s chat.