Part of my work as a designer is choosing the right material for your project. I’ll ask questions such as,
“Is this a prototype, or end-use part?”
“What level of detail is needed?”
“Does this part require multiple colors?”
The answers to these questions determine the method of 3D printing production used to create your part. There are several methods of 3D printing, which I’ll explain below.
Powder-based printers use extremely fine granulated powdered plastic, metal, or other material as a raw material. Interlocking parts, full color prints, and very strong parts can all be made with powder 3D printers. Here is an example of a full-color machine making a working ball-bearing model, no assembly required!
SLS stands for Selective Laser Sintering, and is the material of choice for tough, hard-working prototypes and end-use parts. Watch this video to see how the parts are made.
Direct Metal Laser Sintering
DMLS produces extremely high quality metal parts. Often used in the aerospace and medical fields, this material is expensive and unmatched in strength and accuracy for 3D printed metal parts.
ExOne Metal Printing
ExOne is a company with a unique metal printing process, sacrificing accuracy for cost. These parts are excellent for art and other decorative pieces that do not require high tolerances.
Yes, real ceramic models can be 3D printed! Intricate model that are difficult to make by hand are no problem with these printers.
The very first 3D printer was invented in 1986 by Charles Hull, who created an machine that used a laser to harden liquid resin layer by layer. This technology, called SLA for Stereolithography Apparatus, is still used today to make extremely detailed parts. Here’s a video of the process.
You can think of these printers as computer controlled hot-glue guns. The most common personal printers use plastic filament as a raw material. Popularized by the RepRap project and Makerbot, these printers are inexpensive and easy to use relative to other 3D printers. Here’s a video of a partially 3D printed RepRap printer at work…self-replicating!
Commercial filament printers can produce some of the largest, toughest parts in the world.
Laminating printers start with thin sheets of paper or plastic, cut and adhere each layer, building up the product into a dense strong whole. The waste material is removed by hand, which can be a tedious process for intricate parts.
Which process is right for your project?
While not a definitive list of 3D printing technologies, this does include the most common kinds for product design and development. I intend for this resource to help you be informed about the options available, and will help you make the right choice.