DEFINITION of '3D Printing'

The creation of a 3-D object through an additive printing process. 3-D printing allows the small scale manufacturing of objects out of a variety of materials, including plastics and powders, through a variety of processes. The additive processes used vary according to materials used and budget, and may include laminates (laminated object manufacturing, LOM), resins (stereolithography, SLA), or melted materials (selective laser melting).


In 3-D printing the object details, such as its shape and structure, are outlined using computer aided design (CAD) software or a digital scanning device. The details are stored in a computer, which determines how the 3-D printer will create the desired object.

Printing an object using a 3-D printer is different than printing a word document. The 3-D printer follows an additive process, meaning that the print nozzle lays down successive layers of a material, such as plastic or powder. The layers are built up until the object is complete, though further finishing may be required in order to add details or remove imperfections.

The amount of time it takes to print an object depends on its size and complexity. Objects constructed using thin layers will likely take longer to produce, though may provide greater detail than objects constructed of thicker layers. Layer thickness and the size of material particles is typically measured in micrometers.

As a technology, 3-D printing has been lauded for its ability to give small scale manufacturers the ability to create prototypes of new products quickly and cheaply, especially when compared to older manufacturing processes. Because it follows an additive process, 3-D printing could be used to create complicated objects, such as those with holes or curves. While objects can be highly customized, the slow speed at which 3-D printed objects are created makes it difficult to create objects through mass production.

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