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3D Printing &
Additive Manufacturing -
A Complete Overview

Technologies, Materials, Designs & Applications

All things 3D printing

3D printing has matured beyond the hype of the early 2010s and now is expanding faster than ever, with new technologies and applications emerging every day. To help both newcomers and veterans navigate the ever-changing landscape of 3D printing we've collected all our knowledge in one place.

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Introduction to 3D printing
What is 3D printing?
What is additive manufacturing?
Additive vs traditional manufacturing
How does a 3D printer work?
A brief history of 3D printing
3D printing technologies
The different types of 3D printing
Selecting the right 3D printing process
3D printing materials
The cost of 3D printing
Benefits and limitations of 3D printing
3D printing design guidelines
Common feature requirements for 3D printing
Design guidelines applicable for all 3D printing processes
Design guidelines for specific processes
Design guidelines for specific parts
3D printing software
Applications of 3D printing
Commercial applications of 3D printing
3D printing case studies
The future of 3D printing
How to start 3D printing
Buy a printer or use a 3D printing service?
How to decide which 3D printer to buy
How to use a 3D printing service
Find a design online
Extra resources
Further reading
The 3D printing handbook
Guides to other manufacturing technologies

Introduction to 3D printing

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a manufacturing process in which 3-dimensional objects are built up by depositing and fusing 2-dimensional layers of cured photopolymers, extruded thermoplastics, welded metals, or fused powders.

ISO/ASTM 52900, created in 2015 to standardize the terminology around 3D Printing, defines it as ‘the process of joining materials to make parts from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing and formative manufacturing methodologies’.

In layman’s terms, it’s a new way of manufacturing things that’s quite different from how things have ‘traditionally’ been made. It’s typically very fast, with low fixed setup costs, and can create much more complex geometries than were previously possible, with an ever-expanding list of materials. It has been used extensively in the engineering industry, particularly for prototyping and creating lightweight geometries, as well as in medicine, education, architecture, and entertainment.

Hubs is a custom parts manufacturer offering 3D Printing, CNC machining, injection molding and sheet metal services. We specialise in making industrial-quality, competitively-priced prototypes & short production parts with FDM, SLS, SLA, MJF & DMLS.
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What is additive manufacturing?

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing however the phrases are used in different contexts and have quite different connotations.

3D printing is commonly associated with maker culture, hobbyists and amateurs, small desktop printers, cheap printing technologies like FDM, and low-cost materials such as ABS and PLA (we’ll explain all those acronyms below). This is largely attributable to the democratization of 3D printing through affordable desktop machines like the original MakerBots and RepRaps, which also led to the explosion of 3D printing in 2009.

3DP parallax 1

By contrast, additive manufacturing (or AM for short) is almost always associated with commercial and industrial applications.

Rapid prototyping is another phrase that’s sometimes used to refer to 3D printing technologies. In the 1980s when they were first invented, they were referred to as rapid prototyping technologies, not 3D printing or additive manufacturing, and the association stuck because back then 3D printing was usually only suitable for prototypes, not production parts.

In recent years additive manufacturing has matured into an excellent solution for many kinds of production parts, and other manufacturing technologies (like CNC machining) have become cheaper and more accessible for prototyping. So whilst some people still use ‘rapid prototyping’ to refer to 3D printing, the phrase is evolving to refer to all forms of very fast prototyping.

Additive vs traditional manufacturing

Additive manufacturing has only been around since the 1980s, so the manufacturing methods developed before it are often referred to as traditional manufacturing. To understand the major differences between additive and traditional manufacturing, let's categorize all methods into 3 groups: additive, subtractive and formative manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing builds up 3D objects by depositing and fusing 2D layers of material.

05 3D Printing Pillar Page Additive manufacturing 01

This method has almost no startup time or costs, making it ideal for prototyping. Parts can be made rapidly and discarded after use. Parts can also be produced in almost any geometry, which is one of the core strengths of 3D printing.

One of the biggest limitations of 3D printing is that most parts are inherently anisotropic or not fully dense, meaning they usually lack the material and mechanical properties of parts made via subtractive or formative techniques. Due to fluctuations in cooling or curing conditions, different prints of the same part are also prone to slight variations, which puts limitations on consistency and repeatability.

Subtractive manufacturing

Subtractive manufacturing, such as milling and turning, creates objects by removing (machining) material from a block of solid material that's also often referred to as a 'blank'.

05 3D Printing Pillar Page Subtractive manufacturing 01

Almost any material can be machined in some way, making it a widely used technique. Because of the amount of control over every aspect of the process this method is capable of producing incredibly accurate parts with high repeatability. Most designs require Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) to plot customized tool paths and efficient material removal, which adds setup time and costs, but for the majority of designs, it’s the most cost-effective method of production.

The major limitation of subtractive manufacturing is that the cutting tool must be able to reach all surfaces to remove material, which limits design complexity quite a lot. While machines like 5-axis machines eliminate some of these restrictions, complex parts still need to be re-orientated during the machining process, adding time and cost. Subtractive manufacturing is also a wasteful process due to the large amounts of material removed to produce the final part geometry.

Formative manufacturing

Formative manufacturing, such as injection molding and stamping, creates objects by forming or molding materials into shape with heat and/or pressure.

05 3D Printing Pillar Page Formative manufacturing 01

Formative techniques are designed to reduce the marginal cost of producing individual parts, but the creation of unique molds or machines used in the production process means setup costs are very, very high. Regardless, these techniques can produce parts in a large range of materials (both metals and plastics) with close to flawless repeatability, so for high volume production, they’re almost always the most cost-efficient.

How these methods compare

Manufacturing is complex, and there are too many dimensions for comprehensively comparing each method against all others. It is near impossible to optimize all at once for cost, speed, geometric complexity, materials, mechanical properties, surface finish, tolerances, and repeatability.

In such complex situations heuristics and rules of thumb are more valuable:

  • Additive manufacturing is best for low volumes, complex designs, and when speed is essential.
  • Subtractive manufacturing is best for medium volumes, simple geometries, tight tolerances, and hard materials
  • Formative manufacturing is best for the high-volume production of identical parts.

Cost per part is usually the governing factor determining which manufacturing process is best. As a rough approximation the unit costs per method can be visualized like this:

05 3D Printing Pillar Page Chart 01

Learn more about 3D printing vs CNC machining.

3D printing is becoming cheaper every year and in some instances, it is starting to compete with injection molding for cost efficiency. However it’s usually 3D printing and CNC machining that are considered interchangeable for particular jobs, so we’ve written a thorough guide comparing them side by side. Read more about 3D printing vs CNC machining.

How does a 3D printer work?

3D printing technology grows more varied every year and there are now thousands of different printers available. They each have their own way of working, but they all share one thing in common:

3D printers work by adding together 2-dimensional layers of material to form 3-dimensional objects, based on a digital 3D model converted into G-Code through a slicer program.

In the next section, The different types of 3D printing, you will find an overview of how the different types of printers layer material.

Learn more about how 3D printers work
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A brief history of 3D printing

3D printing began as an idea for accelerating industrial product development through faster prototyping. Even though there were a few patents beforehand, Chuck Hull is typically credited with the invention of the 3D printer via his Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA), patented in 1984.

Foundations

Despite Chuck’s fame, multiple technologies were being developed in parallel in the late 1980s, and there were several companies founded in this period that was critical to the development of the technology.

  • 1981 - the first patent for a device using UV light to cure photopolymers was awarded to Hideo Kodama in Japan. He designed it for ‘rapid prototyping’ as it was intended for making models and prototypes, but there was no interest and the patent was abandoned.
  • 1984 - French inventors Alain Le Mehaute, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude André submitted a patent in which, like Hideo’s, UV light was used to cure photopolymers. General Electric abandoned the patent citing a lack of significant business potential.
  • 1984 - only a few weeks after Le Mehaute, American Charles ‘Chuck’ Hull filed his own patent for an ‘Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography’, thus also coining the term ‘stereolithography’ (SLA).
  • 1987 - Hull invented the STL file, and in the same year founded 3D Systems.
  • 1987 - American Carl Deckard filed a patent for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and in the same year co-founded Desktop Manufacturing (DTM) Corp. (acquired by 3D Systems in 2001).
  • 1989 - American S. Scott Crump submits a patent for Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and in the same year founded Stratasys with his wife.

Commercialization

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s the industry underwent very rapid commercialization. The first machines were big and expensive and their makers competed for industrial prototyping contracts with mass-market manufacturers in the automotive, aerospace, health, and consumer goods industries.

  • 1987 - 3D Systems released the first commercial SLA printer, the ‘SLA-1’.
  • 1992 - The FDM patent was finally granted to Stratasys, which led them to release the first FDM printer, the ‘3D Modeler’.
  • 1992 - DTM released the first commercial SLS printer, the ‘Sinterstation 2000’
  • 1994 - German company Electro Optical Systems (EOS), founded in 1989, unveiled its ‘EOSINT M160’, the first commercial metal 3D printer

Democratization

In the early 2000s the fierce competition for profits, developments in material science, and the ending of many patents created an environment in which 3D printing finally became affordable for the masses. This was the decade that 3D printing took off in the popular imagination - manufacturing, which had always been the domain of heavy industry and big money, came to the people.

  • 2005 - The open-source RepRap Project (for ‘Replicated Rapid Prototyper’) launched with the aim of creating self-replicating 3D printers capable of printing their own parts, causing popular interest in the technology to skyrocket.
  • 2009 - Key FDM patents fell into the public domain and MakerBot launched their desktop 3D printer, the ‘Cupcake CNC’. It cost hundreds of dollars, not thousands, and all components were downloadable from Thingiverse, a website dedicated to the sharing of user-created digital design files.
  • 2012 - Formlabs release the ‘Form 1’, the first affordable SLA printer, through a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign that raised $2.95 million in funding. They were sued by 3D Systems for patent infringement, but the case was settled in favor of Formlabs
  • 2013 - Hubs launches as a peer-to-peer 3D printing service, allowing mass transactions between people buying prints and people with machines. It quickly grew to be the single biggest 3D printing platform in the world with over 50,000 printing ‘hubs’, before pivoting to focus on helping its business customers by making all forms of custom manufacturing more accessible.
  • 2014 - Key SLS patents fell into the public domain, leading to a whole crop of companies making smaller and more affordable SLS printers.

Maturity

From 2018 the hype around 3D printing had largely disappeared from mass media, but interest in commercial applications for businesses of all sizes has never been higher. Today there are thousands of companies producing printers and offering all sorts of services leveraging 3D printing technology.

Learn more about the history of 3D printing

There are many articles out there, most are just fun reads. For those looking to really delve deep into history, Wikipedia and Wohler Associates are the best resources.

3D printing technologies

The different types of 3D printing

With so many different 3D printers on the market, it can be hard to understand the whole landscape. The International organization for Standardization saw the same problem, and in 2015 ISO/ASTM standard 52900 was created to standardize the exploding terminology around 3D printing.

Every different 3D printer can be categorised into one of seven types of processes:

  1. Vat Polymerization: liquid photopolymer is cured by light
  2. Material Extrusion: molten thermoplastic is deposited through a heated nozzle
  3. Powder Bed Fusion: powder particles are fused by a high-energy source
  4. Material Jetting: droplets of liquid photosensitive fusing agent are deposited on a powder bed and cured by light
  5. Binder Jetting: droplets of liquid binding agent are deposited on a bed of granulated materials, which are later sintered together
  6. Direct Energy Deposition: molten metal simultaneously deposited and fused
  7. Sheet Lamination: individual sheets of material are cut to shape and laminated together

Within each type of process, there are unique technologies, and for every unique technology, there are also many different brands selling similar printers. The most common 3D printing processes are vat photopolymerization (specifically SLA technology), material extrusion (usually called FDM), and powder bed fusion (specifically SLS technology).

The whole landscape of additive manufacturing technologies can be summarized in a simple tree-diagram:

002-005-Additive-Manufacturing-Technologies-Poster DEF Thumbnail (2)

Click here to download a high-resolution version of this poster.

Our articles on The Seven Official Types Of 3D Printers gives a broad overview of how each type of printer works, the materials available, the price and speed of printing, geometric properties (size, complexity & resolution), mechanical properties (accuracy, strength & surface finish) and common applications. Each of the introductory guides go into a lot more detail per process and also provides tried-and-tested rules of thumb for designing parts for each type.

Learn more about the different types of 3D printing

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Selecting the right 3D printing process

Selecting the optimal 3D printing process for a particular part can be difficult as there’s often more than one suitable process but each one will produce subtle variations in cost and output. Generally, there are three key aspects to consider:

  • The required material properties: strength, hardness, impact strength, etc.
  • The functional & visual design requirements: smooth surface, strength, heat resistance, etc.
  • The capabilities of the 3D printing process: accuracy, build size, etc.

These correspond to the three most common methods for selecting the right process:

  • By required material
  • By required functionality or visual appearance
  • By required accuracy or build size

Learn more about selecting a 3D printing process

3D printing materials

The number of available 3D printing materials grows rapidly every year as market demand for specific material and mechanical properties spurs advancements in material science. This makes it impossible to give a complete overview of all 3D printing materials, but each 3D printing process is only compatible with certain materials so there are some easy generalizations to make.

Thermoplastic and thermoset polymers are by far the most common 3D printing materials, but metals, composites, and ceramics can also be 3D printed.

3d printing materials chart

Another way of categorizing materials is by their properties: cheap, chemically resistant, dissolvable, flexible, durable, heat resistant, rigid, water-resistant, UV resistant. Many industrial applications require durable plastics such as Nylon 12, and most hobbyist applications use either PLA or ABS, which are the most common materials used in FDM 3D printing.

Learn more about 3D printing materials

The cost of 3D printing

3D printing costs are mostly a function of the type and amount of material required, and the type of printer chosen. In general, plastics are much cheaper than metals, and smaller parts require less material. Factors influencing the choice of the printer include the desired material and mechanical properties, geometric complexity, dimensional accuracy, and surface finish. Less demanding parts can be made with cheaper printers.

Given that there are so many factors influencing the price it’s difficult to predict exactly how much a specific batch of parts will cost. This is one of the key reasons why Hubs developed its powerful machine learning algorithms to predict prices better than any machinist ever could. The fastest and most accurate way to estimate the cost of a specific part is to upload your CAD to the Hubs quote builder. We’ll quote your parts instantly.

Learn more about the cost of 3d printing

Benefits and limitations of 3D printing

3D printing is an exceptional tool for custom parts and rapid prototyping with a unique set of advantages but also lags behind traditional manufacturing in some ways. The key benefits and limitations can be summarized as follows:

Benefits - Very low start-up costs - Very quick turnaround - Large range of available materials - Design freedom at no extra cost - Each and every part can easily be customized

Limitations - Less cost-competitive at higher volumes - Limited accuracy & tolerances - Lower strength & anisotropic material properties - Requires post-processing & support removal

For a more thorough overview read our article about the benefits and limitations of 3D printing

3D printing design guidelines

Common feature requirements for 3D printing

The exact best practices and rules of thumb vary between the different 3D printing technologies, but there are certain features you always need to pay attention to:

  • Supported wall thickness
  • Unsupported wall thickness
  • Supports and overhangs
  • Embossed and engraved details
  • Horizontal bridges
  • Holes
  • Connecting or moving parts
  • Escape holes
  • Minimum feature size
  • Minimum pin diameter
  • Maximum tolerance

The process-specific design rules for each of these features are summarized in the graphic below:

002-003-3DP-Rules-Poster Hubs DEF Thumbnail

Click here to download a high-resolution version of this poster.

3D printing software

3D printing starts with software and there are many different programs to aid with each stage of the design and printing process, from 3D modeling, to print simulations and slicer programs.

The two main methods of 3D modeling are solid modeling and surface modeling, and there are different CAD software packages for each approach. Solid modeling refers to the creation of virtual objects through defining and joining 3D shapes that are usually predefined and to which refined surface details are added later. Surface modeling is actually very similar except the designer starts with 2D surfaces and shapes them in freeform to create 3D shapes.

Both approaches can produce the same output, but solid modeling is faster for simple and non-organic shapes, whereas surface modeling is faster for more organic shapes. SolidWorks, Fusion 360, and Rhino 3D are the most popular software with professionals, and there are many free programs for amateurs.

Other useful 3D printing software include print simulation tools and file error fixers.

Learn more about 3d printing software

Applications of 3D printing

Commercial applications of 3D printing

3D printing is exceptionally useful for prototyping. Speed is everything in prototyping, and the ability to move from CAD to print with close to zero setup costs means 3D printers can produce parts fast and have great unit economics for single-part and small runs.

For printing production parts, speed and price are also important, but the characteristics most commonly exploited are design freedom and ease of customization. In aerospace and automotive, topology optimized structures with a high strength-to-weight ratio are used for high-performance parts, and components that previously required assembly can be consolidated into a single part. In healthcare customization is critical - most hearing aids manufactured in the US are made almost exclusively using 3D printing. In manufacturing, low-run injection molds can be 3D printed from stiff, heat-resistant plastics instead of machined from metal, making them much cheaper and faster to produce.

Learn more about commercial applications of 3d printing

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3D printing case studies

If you’re interested in diving a little deeper into specific cases of where and how companies have used 3D printing, check out these case studies about some of our customers.

Read more 3d printing case studies

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The future of 3D printing

So where is 3D printing today? Is the hype over? Yes, and now the technology is reaching maturity. Hubs has been around since 2013, and we’ve produced a 3D Printing Trend Report every year since 2017. Over those years we’ve watched the technology reach the height of the hype cycle, drop through the ‘trough of disillusionment, and bounce back to where it is now - on the ‘slope of enlightenment.

The hype of the previous years was based on the idea of widespread consumer adoption. This was a misleading interpretation of where the technology could add value to the world. The most promising applications of 3D printing are in very specific roles in the world of manufacturing.

To understand where 3D printing is headed in the next few years, consult the most recent version of our annual 3D printing trend report.

How to start 3D printing

Buy a printer or use a 3D printing service?

3D printing has come a long way since its inception and it’s now very easy to get something 3D printed very fast for pretty cheap.

Should you buy your own 3D printer or use an online service? It’s an important decision to make, so we’ve collected arguments for both sides to help you make the right choice.

Buy a 3D printer if… Use an online service if…
You need to print regularly, but not in huge volumes (10-25 times a week) You will need only a few (less than 10) or large volumes (25+) of parts printed per week
You have one specific application in mind for the printer You want to print using multiple processes and materials, including industrial printers
You are ready to make a sizeable investment You want to access the latest technologies at all times
You are prepared to set up, tinker and optimize your machine You prefer to focus your time on designing and perfecting your models
You have the necessary space and time to install and operate the printer You want to test and learn first before deciding what printer to buy

How to decide which 3D printer to buy

If you’ve decided it’s a good idea to buy your own 3D printer, you may be overwhelmed by the range of choices now available. To help people make sense of the 3D printer market, we reached out to our entire customer base and our global network of 3D printing service providers to find out about the 3D printers they own and their experiences in using them.

With reviews from more than 10,000 3D printer owners, who’ve completed about 1.48 million prints on 650+ different 3D printer models, our research is the most comprehensive 3D Printer Guide available.

Read our guide to finding the best 3D printer for you.

How to use a 3D printing service

At Hubs, we’re building the smartest manufacturing solution on the planet. One of our main offerings is our 3D Printing service.

When you upload a part to our online 3D printing service our proprietary pricing algorithm gives you a quote in a matter of seconds. As you specify your requirements the price will update automatically, and if you’re happy with the price and the lead times you can submit the order in just a few minutes.

how to use a 3d printing service

Find a design online

If you’re new to designing for 3d printing (or simply looking for something quick and easy to print), then one of the many online repositories might already have what you’re looking for.

These are the websites we recommend:

  • Thingiverse The largest online repository with thousands of free 3D printable files for desktop 3D printing.
  • MyMiniFactory A popular online repository with free 3D models that are tested for quality and are guaranteed to be 3D printable.
  • Cults An online marketplace with high-quality 3D printable models by professional designers, and curated collections connected to big-name brands.
  • Pinshape An online marketplace with both free and premium 3D printable files, focusing mainly on hobbyists.
  • GrabCAD An online repository of many 3D models that also includes some 3D printable files, focusing mainly on engineering professionals.

Extra resources

Further reading

Throughout this page, we’ve tried to provide links to all the relevant articles we’ve ever written about 3d printing, but if you weren't able to find what you were looking for, check out our Knowledge base.

The 3D printing handbook

If you’re interested in diving deeper into any of the topics covered above, we literally wrote the book on 3D printing. If you’re a professional looking to truly master the key aspects of 3D printing, this book is for you. It provides practical advice on selecting the right technology and how-to design for 3D printing, based upon the first-hand experience from the industry’s leading experts.

Here’s what Tony Fadell (creator of the iPod and founder of Nest) had to say about it:

“The Handbook” will help to guide you on your own path as you look to leverage 3D printing and its potential to create your own breakthrough products, that hopefully will change the world. Every designer and engineer should keep it close as it paves your way into new manufacturing technologies that will spur your creativity and unlock your ideas as they become reality. Creation is changing, manufacturing is changing and design is changing, turn the page, it's time to stay ahead...

3d printing handbook

If you’re ready to purchase, The 3D Printing Handbook is available on Amazon. Or, if you like, you can download the first two chapters for free first.

Guides to other manufacturing technologies

Hubs' online manufacturing service offers more than just 3D printing. We also offer CNC machining, injection molding, and sheet metal fabrication, and to try to help our customers understand all these technologies we’ve written guides similar to this one for each of them.

Learn more about other manufacturing technologies