3D Printing: How Does it Really Work?

Here are the nine most common 3D printer technologies.

3D printing

Three-D printers are the hottest thing on the IT landscape. Everyone — users and vendors alike — wants a piece of this pie and, with many 3D systems now printing candy and food, they could get their wish; that is, an actual, edible piece of pie. 3D printers are the 21st century version of Star Trek's replicators and they can, literally, print (or replicate) anything from a piece of pumpkin pie to a full-blown multi-story house. But 3D printing is not just one thing – there are many ways to do 3D printing. This slideshow illustrates the nine most common 3D printer technologies.

Technology No. 1: FDM
Technology No. 1: FDM

What it is: Fused Deposition Modeling (patented additive manufacturing method trademarked by Stratasys, Inc.)

Inventor: Scott Crump

Year: Late 1980s

Materials: Plastics are most common, but other compound materials are also used.

Process: Material is extruded through a nozzle that moves over a build platform, which is lowered as each layer is added; that is, fine lines of molten thermoplastics are extruded onto a platform following a 3D design pattern. The material solidifies when deposited.

Price Range: $200 to $18,000

Systems Sold by: Stratasys, Makerbot, 3D Systems, Fab@Home, Solid Concepts

Featured Printer: Stratasys Makerbot Replicator 2X
Featured Printer: Stratasys Makerbot Replicator 2X

Company/Founders: Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach Smith; purchased by Stratasys in June 2013 for $403 million

Printer Cost: $2,899

Software: MakerBot MakerWare

Operating Systems: Windows 7+, Mac OS X 10.6+, Linux Ubuntu 12.04+

Connectivity: USB, SD card (both included)

Makerbot Materials: MakerBot PLA Filament

Products based on FDM technology

Products based on FDM technology.

Technology No. 2: FFF
Technology No. 2: FFF

What it is: Fused Filament Fabrication (similar process to FDM, but not trademarked)

Inventor: Scott Crump

Year: Late 1980s

Materials: Plastics are most common, but other compound materials are also used.

Process: Material is extruded through a nozzle that moves over a build platform, which is lowered as each layer is added; that is, fine lines of molten thermoplastics are extruded onto a platform (following a 3D design pattern), which solidify when deposited

Price Range: $200 to $18,000

Systems Sold by: Stratasys, Makerbot, 3D Systems, Fab@Home, Solid Concepts

Featured Printer: 3D Systems Cubify CubeX
Featured Printer: 3D Systems Cubify CubeX

Company/Founders: 3D Systems

Printer Cost: $2,499

Software:  Includes complementary CubeX Client Software (conversion software that converts 3D models into layered slices)

Operating Systems: Microsoft Windows 7, Microsoft Windows XP (SP3 or higher), Microsoft Windows 8

Connectivity: Memory stick USB port and PC connection USB port

CubeX Materials: ABS and PLA plastic filament, both recyclable

Products based on FFF technology

Products based on FFF technology.

Technology No. 3: SLA
Technology No. 3: SLA

What it is: Stereolithography (high-quality surface finishes and design accuracy). Also known as DLP: Digital Light Processing, a similar process that uses digital light processors instead of a laser to cure the resin.)

Inventors: Chuck Hull, 3D Systems

Year: 1984

Materials: ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), PC (polycarbonate), and PP (polypropylene) plastics plus other materials such as clear and high-heat materials.

Process: An ultraviolet laser travels across a tray of liquid curable photopolymer resin. One thin layer at a time solidifies to the next layer as the build platform rises up from the tray. After object is printed, it's cleaned in a chemical bath and cured in a UV oven.

Price Range: $600 to $50,000

Systems Sold by: 3D Systems, Formlabs, Envisiontec (DLP) and ZCorp (DLP)

Featured Printer: Formlabs Form 1
Featured Printer: Formlabs Form 1

Company/Founders: Formlabs; Maxim Lobovsky, David Cranor, Natan Linder

Printer Cost: $3,299

Software: PreForm Software 1.1 

Operating Systems: Windows XP or higher, Mac OSX 10.6.8 or higher

Connectivity: USB

Form 1 Materials: Formlabs methacrylate photopolymer resin, $149 for a one-liter bottle

Products based on SLA technology.

Products based on SLA technology.

Technology No. 4: DLP
Technology No. 4: DLP

What it is: Similar to SLA but uses digital light processors instead of a laser to cure the resin.

Featured Printer: Solidator DLP Desktop 3D Printer

Company/Founders: tangible engineering; President & CEO Tim Fischer

Printer Cost: $4,950

Software: Solidator Studio 

Operating Systems: Windows XP/7/8, MAC OS X, Linux

Connectivity: Wireless LAN, Ethernet, USB

Solidator Materials: Solidator custom liquid plastic resin materials (similar to nail polish) with approximately the same value as PLA (about 85D), harder than ABS (about 75D), and harder than POM (about 80D). D stands for durometer, which is measure of hardness. Cost about $50 a liter, and prints approximately 28, eight-inch Eiffel Towers.

Examples of Solidator DLP products

Examples of Solidator DLP products.

Technology No. 5: SLS
Technology No. 5: SLS

What it is: Selective Laser Sintering

Inventors: Dr. Carl Deckard and Dr. Joe Beaman developed and patented at the University of Texas at Austin. Startup company DTM, purchased by 3D Systems in 2001

Year: Mid-1980s

Materials: Powder materials including polymers such as nylon (neat, glass-filled, other fillers); polystyrene; metals (steel, titanium, alloy mixtures); composites; green sand

Process: High-powered laser fuses small powdered particles into three-dimensional objects. Cross sections are scanned, then layers are fused together. Base lowers as each new layer is added.

Price Range: Up to $250,000

Systems Sold by: EOS and 3D Systems

Featured Printer: Formiga P110
Featured Printer: Formiga P110

Company/Founders: EOS GmbH Electro Optical Systems founded by Dr. Hans J. Langer, Dr. Hans Steinbichler

Printer Cost: Base price: $175,000 + costs for the material you will process

Software: EOS RP Tools (optional); Desktop PSW; CAD interface = STL (optional: converter to all common formats) 

Operating Systems: Linux-based; GUI/controller with touch-screen software

Connectivity: Network Ethernet

Formiga Materials: PA 2200 (PA 12 unfilled), PA 2105 (PA 12 for dental models), PA 2201 (PA 12 natural unfilled), PA 3200 GF (PA 12 glass-filled), PrimePart PLUS (economic PA 12 unfilled), Alumide (aluminium-filled PA 12), PrimeCast 101 (Polystyrene), PA 1101 (PA 11 natural unfilled)

Examples of SLS-based products products

Examples of SLS-based products products.

Technology No. 6: DMLS
Technology No. 6: DMLS

What it is: Direct Metal Laser Sintering (generic term: MLS: Metal Laser Sintering)

Inventors: EOS GmbH Electro Optical Systems founded by Dr. Hans J. Langer, Dr. Hans Steinbichler

Year: 1989

Materials: stainless steel, maraging steel, cobalt chromium, inconel 625 and 718, and titanium Ti6Alv4

Process: Fiber laser melts fine metal powder that pushes materials over the base, fusing each layer to the next layer, which builds up the object. Base lowers as each new layer is added.

Price Range: Up to $600,000

Systems Sold by: EOC, 3D Systems

Featured Printer: (Industrial) EOSINT M 280 (400 Watt)
Featured Printer: (Industrial) EOSINT M 280 (400 Watt)

Company/Founders: EOS GmbH Electro Optical Systems founded by Dr. Hans J. Langer, Dr. Hans Steinbichler

Printer Cost: Base $570,000

Software: EOS RP Tools, EOSTATE Magics RP (Materialise); CAD interface = STL Optional: converter for all standard formats

Operating Systems: Windows XP (for the system); Windows 7 (for EOS RP Tools, EOSTATE)

Connectivity: Network Ethernet

EOSINT M 280 Materials: EOS Maraging Steel MS1, EOS Stainless Steel GP1, EOS Stainless Steel PH1,

EOS Stainless Steel 316L, EOS Cobalt Chrome MP1, EOS Titanium Ti6Al4V, EOS Aluminum AlSi10Mg,

EOS Nickel Alloy IN718, EOS Nickel Alloy IN 625, EOS Nickel Alloy HX

Products based on DMLS printer technology

Products based on DMLS printer technology.

Technology No. 7: SLM
Technology No. 7: SLM

What it is: Selective laser melting

Inventors: Dr. Dieter Schwarze and Dr. Matthias Fockele of F&S Stereolithographietechnik GmbH; and ILT researchers Dr. Wilhelm Meiners and Dr. Konrad Wissenbach

Year: 1995

Materials: Stainless steel, tool steel, cobalt chrome, titanium, aluminum in atomized form

Process: A high-powered fiber laser beam fuses fine metallic powders together to create three-dimensional metal parts. Although known as laser sintering, this SLM process actually fully melts the metal into a solid homogeneous mass, which is more similar to Electron Beam Melting (EBM), which uses an electron beam as the energy source. Trade names include DMLS and LaserCusing.

Price Range: up to $500,000

Systems Sold by: ReaLizer, Renishaw

Featured Printer: The ReaLizer SLM 100
Featured Printer: The ReaLizer SLM 100

Company/Founders: Physicist Dr. Matthias Fockele founded the company ReaLizer GmbH in 2004.

Printer Cost: Around $342,000

Software: ReaLizer control software

Operating Systems: Windows

Connectivity: USB, Network

ReaLizer SLM 100 Materials: Tool steel H 13, titanium, titanium V4, aluminium, cobalt chrome, stainless steel 316 L, Inconel, gold alloys, ceramic materials under development, others on request.

Examples of SLM-based products.

Examples of SLM-based products.

Technology No. 8: SHS
Technology No. 8: SHS

What it is: Selective heat sintering technology

Inventors: Blueprinter ApS; Danish start-up company with patent SHS (selective heat sintering) technology.

Year: 2009

Materials: Thermoplastic powder optimized to work with SHS technology

Process: Sintering using a thermal printer head; that is, printer spreads thin layer of plastic powder across the build chamber, then thermal printer head moves and melts picture of cross section into a plastic powder layer. Object is built inside chamber surrounded by unmelted powders.

Price Range: Up to $25,000

Systems Sold by: Blueprinter ApS

Featured Printer: Blueprinter SHS
Featured Printer: Blueprinter SHS

Company/Founders: Blueprinter ApS

Printer Cost: $13,672

Software: Everything is included in the printer, just need to connect to printer through network

Operating Systems: Not dependent on an OS, works through a browser

Connectivity: Through network browser

Blueprinter Materials: Thermoplastic powder optimized to work with SHS technology

Material cost: $135.37

Examples of SHS technology.

Examples of SHS technology.

Technology No. 9: PolyJet 3D printing
Technology No. 9: PolyJet 3D printing

Inventors: Objet; Rami Bonen, Gershon Miller and Hanan Gotaiit; merged with Stratasys

Year: 1998

Materials: Seven different materials; printer with clear transparent, high temperature and rigid opaque polypropylene-like materials -- four rigid opaque materials in a variety of colors plus transparent material (VeroClear), high temperature material (RGD525), and polypropylene-like material (DurusWhite)

Process: Similar to inkjet document printing, but instead of ink on paper, layers of liquid photopolymer spill onto a build tray, which are then cured with ultraviolet light. Fine layers build up until object is created.

Price Range: $15,000 - $750,000

Systems Sold by: Stratasys

Featured Printer: Objet30 Pro Desktop 3D Printer
Featured Printer: Objet30 Pro Desktop 3D Printer

Company/Founders: Stratasys

Printer Cost: Starts at $19,900 (estimate, price unconfirmed)

Software: Objet Studio

Operating Systems: Windows XP, Windows 7 32/64-bit

Connectivity: Ethernet TCP/IP 10/100 base T

Objet30 Pro Materials: Transparent rigid (VeroClear), Rigid Opaque white (VeroWhitePlus), Rigid Opaque blue (VeroBlue), Rigid Opaque black (VeroBlack), Rigid Opaque gray (VeroGray), Polypropylene-like (DurusWhite), High Temperature (RGD525)

Examples of PolyJet 3D printed products.

Examples of PolyJet 3D printed products.

3D printed house

Build a 2,500-square-foot house in 20 hours

 

Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, Industrial & Systems Engineering and Civil & Environmental Engineering professor at the University of Southern California, is an avid CAD/CAM, robotics, and mechatronics designer/creator responsible for the development of the novel Solid Free Form (aka Rapid Prototyping) processes such as those used in Contour Crafting and SIS. He is also the Director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT), the Director of Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at USC, and he is the inventor/creator of the first (and only) 3D printed house.

Build a 2,500-square-foot house in 20 hours
Build a 2,500-square-foot house in 20 hours

His automated construction of civil structures includes actual life size, inhabitable buildings. His work also includes biomedical applications such as restorative dentistry, rehabilitation engineering, and haptics devices for medical applications, plus autonomous mobile and modular robots for assembly applications on Earth and in space.