Life of a 3D printer – How 3D Printers Work

To get started with how 3D printers work, it is important to know what is a 3D printer. With the increased development of technology, the shape and size of printers have altered, from huge printing machines, to smaller devices which everyone can use at home. Now printing is not just limited to 2D realm, but expanded to three dimensional realm. What it means is that objects that one earlier used to print on a piece of paper, can now be printed in 3D. To simply answer the question of what is a 3D printer, it is a new technological machine that can make everyday things, pretty much everything, right from plastic cups to metal machine parts, anything. It basically is called ‘additive manufacturing’.

how 3d printers work
Image Credit: http://tehnologika.net/

Then why is it called printing?

If you look closely (with a microscope) at a page of text from your home printer, you’ll see the letters don’t just stain the paper, they’re actually sitting slightly on top of the surface of the page.
In theory, if you printed over that same page a few thousand times, eventually the ink would build up enough layers on top of each other to create a solid 3D model of each letter. That idea of building a physical form out of tiny layers, is how the first 3D printer worked [Source]. A regular 3D printer, like a 3D printer Makerbot generally uses plastic and metal for printing objects.

But how does a 3D printer work step- by- step?

Imagine building a conventional wooden prototype of a car. You’d start off with a block of solid wood and carve inward, like a sculptor, gradually revealing the object “hidden” inside. Or if you wanted to make an architect’s model of a house, you’d construct it like a real, prefabricated house, probably by cutting miniature replicas of the walls out of card and gluing them together. Now a laser could easily carve wood into shape and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to train a robot to stick cardboard together—but 3D printers don’t work in either of these ways!

how 3d printers work
Image Credit: https://www.threeding.com

A typical 3D printer is very much like an inkjet printer operated from a computer. It builds up a 3D model one layer at a time, from the bottom upward, by repeatedly printing over the same area in a method known as Fused depositional modeling (FDM) [Source]

In a book called “Rapid Prototyping to Direct Digital Manufacturing,” Ian Gibson, David W. Rosen and Brent Stucker list the following eight steps in the generic Additive manufacturing process that the 3D printer follows:

Step 1: CAD

Produce a 3-D model using computer-aided design (CAD) software. The software may provide some hint as to the structural integrity you can expect in the finished product, too, using scientific data about certain materials to create virtual simulations of how the object will behave under certain conditions.

Step 2: Conversion to STL

Convert the CAD drawing to the STL format. STL, which is an acronym for standard tessellation language, is a file format developed for 3D Systems in 1987 for use by its stereolithography apparatus (SLA) machines [source: RapidToday.com]. Most 3-D printers can use STL files in addition to some proprietary file types such as ZPR by Z Corporation and ObjDF by Objet Geometries.

Step 3: Transfer to AM Machine and STL File Manipulation

A user copies the STL file to the computer that controls the 3-D printer. There, the user can designate the size and orientation for printing. This is similar to the way you would set up a 2-D printout to print 2-sided or in landscape versus portrait orientation.

Step 4: Machine Setup

Each machine has its own requirements for how to prepare for a new print job. This includes refilling the polymers, binders and other consumables the printer will use. It also covers adding a tray to serve as a foundation or adding the material to build temporary water-soluble supports.

Step 5: Build

Let the machine do its thing; the build process is mostly automatic. Each layer is usually about 0.1 mm thick, though it can be much thinner or thicker [source: Wohlers]. Depending on the object’s size, the machine and the materials used, this process could take hours or even days to complete. Be sure to check on the machine periodically to make sure there are no errors.

Step 6: Removal

Remove the printed object (or multiple objects in some cases) from the machine. Be sure to take any safety precautions to avoid injury such as wearing gloves to protect yourself from hot surfaces or toxic chemicals.

Step 7: Post processing

Many 3-D printers will require some amount of post-processing for the printed object. This could include brushing off any remaining powder or bathing the printed object to remove water-soluble supports. The new print may be weak during this step since some materials require time to cure, so caution might be necessary to ensure that it doesn’t break or fall apart.

Step 8: Application

 Make use of the newly printed object or objects.

What is a Makerbot and how does it matter?

Makerbot is one of the major 3D printers manufacturing company. 3D printer makerbot is positioned as ‘personalized manufacturer’ in the market. A 3D printer Makerbot is for mostly everyone from students to parents to professionals. For people in general,3D printing can seem like rocket science at first, but 3D printing Makerbot is the most accessible and reliable equipment. [source]

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