Wednesday, April 28, 2010

So, what is 3D printing?

We are all faced with the question “so, what do you do?” I often think that for most people that’s an easy question to answer. I’m a banker, or a fireman, or a teacher. No explanation required. But when I meet new people at my son’s afterschool sporting events or at a social party and I know I’ll be faced with that question, I start thinking about my answer. I usually start out by saying that the company I work for designs, manufactures and sell 3D printers. The typical response I get from that “OK – sure” as if they know exactly what 3D printing is. This response is usually followed up by a confused look that signals me to start explaining…

Imagine starting with a virtual 3D object, one that can be rotated on your computer screen like a video game character or a model car. Most people I talk to have seen the old Lee Iacocca commercial where he showed off the Chrysler Motors design center and how they design cars using 3D software (Catia I believe). Now, imagine taking that model and slicing a very thin layer off the bottom. Looking down on that layer you could print what you see on any home or office inkjet color printer. So, now imagine that you place a second piece of paper on top of the first and print the next layer from the model. Continue this process until you have sliced and printed each layer of the model all the way to the top. You now have a stack of paper the height of the virtual model. If everyplace that was printed on within and between layers became bound together and everything that was not printed on just fell apart, you would have a print out of a 3D model. By replacing the paper with a thin layer of powder we are able to do just that.

Of course there is more to it than that and there are different technologies that might work a bit differently but I think the way I describe it helps people unfamiliar with 3DP to at least have a basic understanding of the technology. What do you think? Are people just nodding their heads at me to be polite or does my explanation make sense?

What other 3DP processes are you familiar with and how would you describe it?

And – do you have an occupation that is hard to explain what you do? What is it and how do you explain it?


  1. Duncan Wood said: This blog post amused me! I should think nearly all of us in this group have been in this situation! Read more:

  2. Mike Harvey said: Rang a bell for me too. People outside the industry are simply incredulous that such a thing can be done, even some new clients hold samples in their hands for the first time with a look of disbelief in their eyes. Read more:

  3. Thanks for starting this blog Mark. I know exactly how you feel. I run into the same scenario on a daily basis. I try to keep it simple, as if I'm talking to a 5th grader. I tell them we sell machines that build prototypes... Which of course then leads me to the next question, what types of industries use 3d printers? As we all know we could spend an hr talking about the applications, and that's when I have to make a decision. Do I overwhelm them with information even though I know they won't get it, or do I come off as non-sociable and give them some vague answer like "everything"

  4. Shawn O'Grady said: I interact with the public quite a bit so I try to use terminology the accurately represents the technology.

    We have two Z Corp machines and a Dimension Elite. I believe Z Corp was one of the first to use the term 3D Printer; which makes a lot a sense when you consider how binder is applied to the material. Dimension also refers to their machine as a 3D Printer, but it's an FDM???

    It appears '3D Printer' has become more so a term to represent inexpensive office or home machine.

    I refer to our equipment as Additive Manufacturing 3D Printers. The Dimension is a FDM and the Z Corp is a Powder-Binder based system. Read more:

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  8. Andrew McEwen said: I believe the term 3d printing was originally used to describe the Z Corp additive manufacturing technology. Additive manufacturing being the umbrella and 3DP corresponding to ZCorp, just as FDM relates to Stratasys, MJM to Objet, and SLA to 3D Systems. Since these technologies emerged other "brands" have come into play using similar technology. IE: Makerbot and Rap both use FDM technology. EOS and 3D Systems both make SLS machines. But What the heck do you call Z Corps specific technology?? 3D printing has now become a generic term used interchangeably with additive manufacturing.

    - Source: Wholer's Report 2005.