The many sides of 3D printing

Catherine Chan
16 September 2013

Above: 3D printer (image ©

What do toys, food, and human organs have in common? They can all be made using a three-dimensional (3D) printer! In fact, from manufacturing to medicine, the potential applications of 3D printing are almost endless.

Did you know? About 30,000 3D printers were sold worldwide in 2011. Academic institutions bought about a third of those.Unlike a conventional ink-jet or laser printer, which creates a two-dimensional image from a computer file, a 3D printer is a machine capable of building a 3D object. Instead of ink, a 3D printer squirts out a material like plastic as it creates the shape.

Research labs have been developing 3D printers for over thirty years. However, the technology has only recently become efficient enough to be practical for commercial uses. Products like custom engine parts can now be printed on demand.

One reason why 3D printing is so revolutionary is because it can create structures that would be impossible to build using any other manufacturing technology. For example, architects can use 3D printers to create intricately detailed scale models of buildings.

Did you know? Most 3D printers can produce details on a scale of tens to hundreds of micrometres. A strand of human hair is about 70-100 micrometers thick.A wide range of materials that can be used with 3D printers, including plastics, metals, and even human cells. This means 3D printing can be used in almost any field or for almost any application imaginable. Researchers have even been able to use 3D printing to graft skin directly onto the wounds of burn victims with increased accuracy and precision.

While opening up new possibilities in fields like medicine, 3D printing is also reducing the amount of waste produced by traditional manufacturing techniques. A 3D printer builds a metal gear—or any other object—from the bottom up, using the exact amount of material needed. Traditionally, the manufacturer would have started off with a large sheet of material and then cut out the desired shape, leaving behind a lot of waste.

Did you know? 3D printing technology was first developed in the early 1980s.The general principle behind 3D printing is the same no matter what kind of material is being used. First, the structure of the object is designed using a computer program. Next, the product design data is transferred to the printer. Finally, the printer follows the plan and builds up the object layer by layer. As this happens, the different layers are solidified or fused together.

The most commonly available 3D printers use plastics in either powder or liquid form. They are often used for making models and figurines. Printers using metals are also used for making tools. Metallic materials almost always start off in powder form, since their melting temperatures are at least 10 times higher than the average plastic.

Given its precision and the wide variety of materials that can be used—plastics and metals, even food and human cells—researchers are confident that, over the years to come, 3D printing will increasingly be used for a wide range of applications.


General news and science websites

3D Printers Could Actually Make Donuts Healthy (Bianca Bosker, Huffington Post) 3D-printed sugar could be icing on the cake for kitchens of the future (Rory Carroll, The Guardian UK) Science in three dimensions: The print revolution (Nicola Jones, Nature)


A primer on 3D printing (Lisa Harouni, TED Conferences)

Scholarly publications

Bradshaw S, Bowyer A, Haufe P. 2010. The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing. SCRIPTed. 7(1):5-31. Dimitrov D, Schreve K, de Beer N. 2006. Advances in three dimensional printing – state of the art and future perspectives. Rapid Prototyping Journal. 12(3):136-147. Kruth JP. 1991. Material Incress Manufacturing by Rapid Prototyping Techniques. CIRP Annals - Manufacturing Technology. 40(2):603-614. Sachs E, Cima M., Cornie J. 1900. Three-Dimensional Printing: Rapid Tooling and Prototypes Directly from a CAD Model. CIRP Annals - Manufacturing Technology. 39(1):201-204.

Catherine Chan

An aspiring science writer with a master's in materials science engineering from the University of Toronto.

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