How it works

How does 3D printing work? Here’s a brief survey of the components and the process of a 3D printer.

3D modeling

3D printing begins with conceptualizing an idea as a digital model. There are many different methods for creating digital models. The most common method is by using  3D modeling software or by 3D scanning physical objects. donk1The 3D models generated with this software must be a solid (more on this at the Mesh Tools page) and exported as a .stl (STereoLithography) file. This is the file format for 3D printing.

The slicer

For 3D printing, the .stl file has to be prepared donk2with software that’s called a slicer. The slicer works by taking your 3D model and cutting it up into many thin horizontal layers. At each layer the slicer also adds the instructions your 3D printer needs in order to fabricate this layer. After slicing, this new information is saved as a .gcode file.

The Host

The host is simply a software program that allows you to manually control your 3D printerdonk3 and it communicates the information stored in your .gcode file to the 3D printer’s onboard computer. There are many different hosts available. They all have a basic user interface (UI) with some sort of graphical representation of your 3D model.

What is a 3D printer?

A 3D printer is a robotic device that’s controlled by an onboard computer system.20150627_145159 It can move precisely in all three dimensions of space and control aspects of its functions by monitoring its components by the use of sensors. Ideally, once a 3D model is prepared and loaded, you can walk away and the 3D printer will fabricate your model without further human assistance.

The FFF process

compositeThere’s more than a handful of unique 3D printing technologies in use today. This site explores a process called fused filament fabrication (FFF). The FFF process works by heating a thermoplastic filament by way of a toolhead called an extruder. Guided by the instructions provided in the gcode of the 3D model, the extruder will create a thin horizontal layer of plastic that follows the contour of the model. It then lifts slightly and builds another layer on top of the previous layer. The 3D printer will continue to build these layers, one on top of another until the entire 3D model is fabricated.


This method of fabrication can create virtually anything by using many types of thermoplastics. Thermoplastics can consist of an assortment of fillers such as, carbon fibers, wood, stone, kiln ready clay and metal, providing the artist with a variety of materials to work with.  Even transparent and flexible materials are available for 3D printing.

Next: 3D Modelers. An obstacle for many artists will be learning how to use a 3D modeling program. The next page will review recommended software that will make the process easier.

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