How Do 3D Printers Work?

3D printers are poised to make a splash in 2015. Tech Talker explains what they are, how they work, and why they're likely to be such a game-changing technology.

Eric Escobar,
January 8, 2015
Episode #155

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In the episode What to Expect in Tech in 2015, I mentioned 3D printers as one of the technologies that would boom in 2015. I want to do 3D printers justice, so in this episode, I'll cover what they are, how they work, and why they're poised to be such a game-changing device in the near future..

What Are 3D Printers?

3D PrinterA 3D printer is exactly what it sounds like—a printer that can print in three dimensions. Traditional printers are 2D in that they can print on a flat piece of paper. 3D printers, on the other hand, can print more than just flat objects. For example, on your home printer, you can print a two-dimensional picture of an army man toy, but with a 3D printer you can print a real army man toy!

To print something in 3D, you can design what you want to print on your computer ahead of time, or load a design that someone else has already made. Getting started with designing objects in 3D is easier than it sounds. If you head over to 3DTin.com, for example, you can start designing 3D objects for free—no software install required. Everything is done in your Internet browser. A couple other 3D modeling software sites you should check out include AutoDesk 123D and Sketchup.

How 3D Printers Work

3D printers vary in shape and size, and by materials used. Generally, most 3D printers available to consumers use an ABS filament, which is basically a tough plastic wrapped around a spool. ABS filaments come in all different colors, so your designs can get very creative. The printer uses this ABS filament as the "ink" to print your designs. The printer starts building your design from the ground up, slowly layering the melted filament on top of itself. Fully printing a product can take hours based on the complexity of the design.

ABS Filament Depending on how much you're willing to pay, your printer can increase the speed at which it prints, the amount of spools it can hold (if you wanted multiple colors on your design), the total size of your design, and the resolution at which it can print. Multiple spools can be used if you want to automatically have your design use multiple colors, or if you want extra capacity without having to reload while you're printing.

The size of your 3D printer is pretty easy to determine based upon what it is you want to print. For example, most 3D printers on the market can print a solid object that's about 6" by 6" on the base and close to a foot high. The larger the design you want to print, the more time you'll have to wait and the more expensive the 3D printer you'll need to buy.

Right now, a decent home 3D printer will cost around $1,000. Specifically, I'm referencing the Cube3 created by 3DSystems. This is probably one of the best 3D printers for beginners and will allow you to hit the ground running.  There's also Makerbot's Replicator Mini and the Dremel Idea Builder. All three of these printers fall in that $1000 price range and vary in features such as printing size and allowed materials.

If you're not really interested in buying a 3D printer but want to see what the fuss is about, I highly recommend checking out Ponoko.com. You can upload your 3D design to this website and they will print the item for you and ship it to you right away. It's pretty slick and allows you to get a handle on 3D printing with minimal investment other than your time to design your project and the price of having your design printed.


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