Monday, July 18, 2011

What are 3D Printers?

Have you heard people talk about 3D printers and wondered what they are?

A 3D printer is like a paper printer, except that instead of printing on a two dimensional sheet of paper, a 3D printer makes three dimensional objects.  Like an engine part, or a spoon, or a toy dinosaur.

How do 3D printers work? First, you need CAD (computer aided design) software to create a design for your object.  Then the 3D printer uses that design to make the object layer by layer.  If we’re making a toy dinosaur, the printer would start by laying down a thin layer of plastic that will be the bottom of the dinosaur’s feet.  Then it adds a layer, and another, working up the legs and so forth until it reaches the head and finishes your new toy.

Why would you or your business want a 3D printer? From a business standpoint, a 3D printer is all about efficiency.  If your business designs a new object (like a bolt or a part for a car) and you need a prototype, it’s faster to print it than to carve it from wood or form it from clay.  If you think of the car commercials where a designer laboriously carves a new car design from clay, what if you could print a little plastic car and start the wind tunnel tests right then?

Businesses can also use 3D printers for objects that won’t be mass produced because they need to be customized.  An article in Business Insider pointed out that companies making specialized prosthetic limbs could benefit from 3D printing.

An individual who custom makes things in their garage might find a 3D printer very useful.  Going back to our toy dinosaur, you could make several prototypes, hand them to your kids to see which one they like best, then send that model off to a large factory that can make thousands of them.

Like so many other technologies, 3D printing was very expensive at first.  An article in How Stuff Works lists the machines as costing over $250,000.00 USD.  I couldn’t find a date on this article, but now you can buy a small 3D printer for $1,300.00 to $1,500.00 USD.  As costs of the software, the printer and the materials go down, I think you’ll see these printers in more businesses and garages.  Which means more people can create new things and share them with others.

(Here’s the link to a Mythbusters video about 3D printers.  A good article from Explain that Stuff.  The pic is from:


  1. Mark, check out for cuts and information on home 3d printers. I've looked in to them and they are neat!

  2. Thanks for the link! I went to their site and it's impressive. You can buy the kit for their Thing-o-matic for $1300. Best price I've seen so far.

  3. we had one of those down in the animation department at UCF, pretty cool stuff but could only do small things .. I imagine there are way bigger ones out there

  4. Thanks for the comment! I think there are bigger models, but when you try to print large items that aren't solid, you have to consider using braces inside so they don't collapse.

    I'm glad to hear schools are investing in them.

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  7. I thought this was clever.

  8. Wow, that must be one expensive stroller! But putting 3D printing in the hands of people and small companies might be a game changer in the parts replacement business.