3D printing or additive manufacturing is the construction of a three-dimensional object from a CAD model or a digital 3D model. It can be done in a variety of processes in which material is deposited, joined or solidified under computer control with the material being added together (such as plastics, liquids or powder grains being fused), typically layer by layer.

In the 1980s, 3D printing techniques were considered suitable only for the production of functional or aesthetic prototypes, and a more appropriate term for it at the time was rapid prototyping. As of 2019, the precision, repeatability, and material range of 3D printing have increased to the point that some 3D printing processes are considered viable as an industrial-production technology, whereby the term additive manufacturing can be used synonymously with 3D printing. One of the key advantages of 3D printing is the ability to produce very complex shapes or geometries that would be otherwise infeasible to construct by hand, including hollow parts or parts with internal truss structures to reduce weight. Fused deposition modeling (FDM), which uses a continuous filament of a thermoplastic material, is the most common 3D printing process in use as of 2020.

The umbrella term additive manufacturing (AM) gained popularity in the 2000s, inspired by the theme of material being added together (in any of various ways). In contrast, the term subtractive manufacturing appeared as a retronym for the large family of machining processes with material removal as their common process. The term 3D printing still referred only to the polymer technologies in most minds, and the term AM was more likely to be used in metalworking and end-use part production contexts than among polymer, inkjet, or stereolithography enthusiasts.


By the early 2010s, the terms 3D printing and additive manufacturing evolved senses in which they were alternate umbrella terms for additive technologies, one being used in popular language by consumer-maker communities and the media, and the other used more formally by industrial end-use part producers, machine manufacturers, and global technical standards organizations. Until recently, the term 3D printing has been associated with machines low in price or capability. 3D printing and additive manufacturing reflect that the technologies share the theme of material addition or joining throughout a 3D work envelope under automated control.

Other terms that have been used as synonyms or hypernyms have included desktop manufacturing, rapid manufacturing (as the logical production-level successor to rapid prototyping), and on-demand manufacturing (which echoes on-demand printing in the 2D sense of printing). The fact that the application of the adjectives rapid and on-demand to the noun manufacturing was novel in the 2000s reveals the long-prevailing mental model of the previous industrial era during which almost all production manufacturing had involved long lead times for laborious tooling development. Today, the term subtractive has not replaced the term machining, instead complementing it when a term that covers any removal method is needed. Agile tooling is the use of modular means to design tooling that is produced by additive manufacturing or 3D printing methods to enable quick prototyping and responses to tooling and fixture needs. Agile tooling uses a cost-effective and high-quality method to quickly respond to customer and market needs, and it can be used in hydro-forming, stamping, injection molding and other manufacturing processes.

Benefits of 3D printing

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing has rapidly gained importance in the field of engineering due to its many benefits. Some of these benefits include enabling faster prototyping, reducing manufacturing costs, increasing product customization, and improving product quality.

Furthermore, the capabilities of 3D printing have extended beyond traditional manufacturing, with applications in renewable energy systems. 3D printing technology can be used to produce battery energy storage systems, which are essential for sustainable energy generation and distribution.

Another benefit of 3D printing is the technology's ability to produce complex geometries with high precision and accuracy. This is particularly relevant in the field of microwave engineering, where 3D printing can be used to produce components with unique properties that are difficult to achieve using traditional manufacturing methods.

General principles


3D printable models may be created with a computer-aided design (CAD) package, via a 3D scanner, or by a plain digital camera and photogrammetry software. 3D printed models created with CAD result in relatively fewer errors than other methods. Errors in 3D printable models can be identified and corrected before printing. The manual modeling process of preparing geometric data for 3D computer graphics is similar to plastic arts such as sculpting. 3D scanning is a process of collecting digital data on the shape and appearance of a real object, and creating a digital model based on it.

CAD models can be saved in the stereolithography file format (STL), a de facto CAD file format for additive manufacturing that stores data based on triangulations of the surface of CAD models. STL is not tailored for additive manufacturing because it generates large file sizes of topology-optimized parts and lattice structures due to the large number of surfaces involved. A newer CAD file format, the Additive Manufacturing File format (AMF) was introduced in 2011 to solve this problem. It stores information using curved triangulations.


Before printing a 3D model from an STL file, it must first be examined for errors. Most CAD applications produce errors in output STL files, of the following types:

  • Holes
  • Faces normals
  • Self-intersections
  • Noise shells
  • Manifold errors
  • Overhang issues

A step in the STL generation known as "repair" fixes such problems in the original model. Generally STLs that have been produced from a model obtained through 3D scanning often have more of these errors as 3D scanning is often achieved by point to point acquisition/mapping. 3D reconstruction often includes errors.

Once completed, the STL file needs to be processed by a piece of software called a "slicer", which converts the model into a series of thin layers and produces a G-code file containing instructions tailored to a specific type of 3D printer (FDM printers). This G-code file can then be printed with 3D printing client software (which loads the G-code and uses it to instruct the 3D printer during the 3D printing process).

Printer resolution describes layer thickness and X–Y resolution in dots per inch (dpi) or micrometers (μm). Typical layer thickness is around 100 μm (250 DPI), although some machines can print layers as thin as 16 μm (1,600 DPI). X–Y resolution is comparable to that of laser printers. The particles (3D dots) are around 0.01 to 0.1 μm (2,540,000 to 250,000 DPI) in diameter. For that printer resolution, specifying a mesh resolution of 0.01–0.03 mm and a chord length ≤ 0.016 mm generates an optimal STL output file for a given model input file.[65] Specifying higher resolution results in larger files without increase in print quality.

3:30 Timelapse of an 80-minute video of an object being made out of PLA using molten polymer deposition.

Construction of a model with contemporary methods can take anywhere from several hours to several days, depending on the method used and the size and complexity of the model. Additive systems can typically reduce this time to a few hours, although it varies widely depending on the type of machine used and the size and number of models being produced simultaneously.


Though the printer-produced resolution and surface finish are sufficient for some applications, post-processing and finishing methods allow for benefits such as greater dimensional accuracy, smoother surfaces, and other modifications such as coloration.

The surface finish of a 3D printed part can improved using subtractive methods such as sanding and bead blasting. When smoothing parts that require dimensional accuracy, it is important to take into account the volume of the material being removed.

Some printable polymers, such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), allow the surface finish to be smoothed and improved using chemical vapor processes based on acetone or similar solvents.

Some additive manufacturing techniques can benefit from annealing annealing as a post-processing step. Annealing a 3D-printed part allows for better internal layer bonding due to recrystallization of the part. It allows for an increase in mechanical properties, some of which are fracture toughness, flexural strength, impact resistance, and heat resistance. Annealing a component may not be suitable for applications where dimensional accuracy is required, as it can introduce warpage or shrinkage due to heating and cooling.

Additive/Subtractive Hybrid Manufacturing (ASHM) is a method that involves producing a 3D printed part and using machining (subtractive manufacturing) to remove material. Machining operations can be completed after each layer, or after the entire 3D print has been completed depending on the application requirements. These hybrid methods allow for 3D-printed parts to achieve better surface finishes and dimensional accuracy.

The layered structure of traditional additive manufacturing processes leads to a stair-stepping effect on part surfaces that are curved or tilted with respect to the building platform. The effect strongly depends on the layer height used, as well as the orientation of a part surface inside the building process. This effect can be minimized using "variable layer heights" or "adaptive layer heights". These methods decreased the layer height in places where higher quality is needed.

Painting a 3D-printed part offers a range of finishes and appearances that may not be achievable through most 3D printing techniques. The process typically involves several steps such as surface preparation, priming, and painting. These steps help prepare the surface of the part and ensuring the paint adheres properly.

Some additive manufacturing techniques are capable of using multiple materials simultaneously. These techniques are able to print in multiple colors and color combinations simultaneously and can produce parts that may not necessarily require painting.

Some printing techniques require internal supports to be built to support overhanging features during construction. These supports must be mechanically removed or dissolved if using a water-soluble support material such as PVA after completing a print.

Some commercial metal 3D printers involve cutting the metal component off the metal substrate after deposition. A new process for the GMAW 3D printing allows for substrate surface modifications to remove aluminium or steel.


Traditionally, 3D printing focused on polymers for printing, due to the ease of manufacturing and handling polymeric materials. However, the method has rapidly evolved to not only print various polymers but also metals and ceramics, making 3D printing a versatile option for manufacturing. Layer-by-layer fabrication of three-dimensional physical models is a modern concept that "stems from the ever-growing CAD industry, more specifically the solid modeling side of CAD. Before solid modeling was introduced in the late 1980s, three-dimensional models were created with wire frames and surfaces." But in all cases the layers of materials are controlled by the printer and the material properties. The three-dimensional material layer is controlled by the deposition rate as set by the printer operator and stored in a computer file. The earliest printed patented material was a Hot melt type ink for printing patterns using a heated metal alloy.

Charles Hull filed the first patent on August 8, 1984, to use a UV-cured acrylic resin using a UV-masked light source at UVP Corp to build a simple model. The SLA-1 was the first SL product announced by 3D Systems at Autofact Exposition, Detroit, November 1978 in Detroit. The SLA-1 Beta shipped in Jan 1988 to Baxter Healthcare, Pratt and Whitney, General Motors and AMP. The first production SLA-1 shipped to Precision Castparts in April 1988. The UV resin material changed over quickly to an epoxy-based material resin. In both cases, SLA-1 models needed UV oven curing after being rinsed in a solvent cleaner to remove uncured boundary resin. A Post Cure Apparatus (PCA) was sold with all systems. The early resin printers required a blade to move fresh resin over the model on each layer. The layer thickness was 0.006 inches and the HeCd Laser model of the SLA-1 was 12 watts and swept across the surface at 30 in per second. UVP was acquired by 3D Systems in January 1990.

A review of the history shows a number of materials (resins, plastic powder, plastic filament and hot-melt plastic ink) were used in the 1980s for patents in the rapid prototyping field. Masked lamp UV-cured resin was also introduced by Cubital's Itzchak Pomerantz in the Soldier 5600, Carl Deckard's (DTM) laser sintered thermoplastic powders, and adhesive-laser cut paper (LOM) stacked to form objects by Michael Feygin before 3D Systems made its first announcement. Scott Crump was also working with extruded "melted" plastic filament modeling (FDM) and Drop deposition had been patented by William E Masters a week after Charles Hull's patent in 1984, but he had to discover Thermoplastic Inkjets introduced by Visual Impact Corporation 3D printer in 1992 using inkjets from Howtek, Inc., before he formed BPM to bring out his own 3D printer product in 1994.

Multi-material 3D printing

Efforts to achieve multi-material 3D printing range from enhanced FDM-like processes like VoxelJet to novel voxel-based printing technologies like layered assembly.

A drawback of many existing 3D printing technologies is that they only allow one material to be printed at a time, limiting many potential applications that require the integration of different materials in the same object. Multi-material 3D printing solves this problem by allowing objects of complex and heterogeneous arrangements of materials to be manufactured using a single printer. Here, a material must be specified for each voxel (or 3D printing pixel element) inside the final object volume.

The process can be fraught with complications, however, due to the isolated and monolithic algorithms. Some commercial devices have sought to solve these issues, such as building a Spec2Fab translator, but the progress is still very limited. Nonetheless, in the medical industry, a concept of 3D printed pills and vaccines has been presented. With this new concept, multiple medications can be combined, which will decrease many risks. With more and more applications of multi-material 3D printing, the costs of daily life and high technology development will become inevitably lower.

Metallographic materials of 3D printing is also being researched. By classifying each material, CIMP-3D can systematically perform 3D printing with multiple materials.

4D printing

Using 3D printing and multi-material structures in additive manufacturing has allowed for the design and creation of what is called 4D printing. 4D printing is an additive manufacturing process in which the printed object changes shape with time, temperature, or some other type of stimulation. 4D printing allows for the creation of dynamic structures with adjustable shapes, properties or functionality. The smart/stimulus-responsive materials that are created using 4D printing can be activated to create calculated responses such as self-assembly, self-repair, multi-functionality, reconfiguration and shape-shifting. This allows for customized printing of shape-changing and shape-memory materials.

4D printing has the potential to find new applications and uses for materials (plastics, composites, metals, etc.) and will create new alloys and composites that were not viable before. The versatility of this technology and materials can lead to advances in multiple fields of industry, including space, commercial and medical fields. The repeatability, precision, and material range for 4D printing must increase to allow the process to become more practical throughout these industries. 

To become a viable industrial production option, there are a couple of challenges that 4D printing must overcome. The challenges of 4D printing include the fact that the microstructures of these printed smart materials must be close to or better than the parts obtained through traditional machining processes. New and customizable materials need to be developed that have the ability to consistently respond to varying external stimuli and change to their desired shape. There is also a need to design new software for the various technique types of 4D printing. The 4D printing software will need to take into consideration the base smart material, printing technique, and structural and geometric requirements of the design.

Material Jetting

The first process where three-dimensional material is deposited to form an object was done with material jetting or as it was originally called particle deposition. Particle deposition by inkjet first started with continuous inkjet technology (CIT) and later with drop-on-demand inkjet technology using hot-melt inks. Wax inks were the first three-dimensional materials jetted and later low-temperature alloy metal was jetted with CIT. Wax and thermoplastic hot melts were jetted next by DOD. Objects were very small and started with text characters and numerals for signage. An object must have form and can be handled.

Material Extrusion

Some methods melt or soften the material to produce the layers. In fused filament fabrication, also known as fused deposition modeling (FDM), the model or part is produced by extruding small beads or streams of material that harden immediately to form layers. A filament of thermoplastic, metal wire, or other material is fed into an extrusion nozzle head (3D printer extruder), which heats the material and turns the flow on and off. FDM is somewhat restricted in the variation of shapes that may be fabricated. Another technique fuses parts of the layer and then moves upward in the working area, adding another layer of granules and repeating the process until the piece has built up. This process uses the unfused media to support overhangs and thin walls in the part being produced, which reduces the need for temporary auxiliary supports for the piece. Recently, FFF/FDM has expanded to 3-D print directly from pellets to avoid the conversion to filament. This process is called fused particle fabrication (FPF) (or fused granular fabrication (FGF) and has the potential to use more recycled materials.

Powder Bed Fusion

Powder Bed Fusion techniques, or PBF, include several processes such as DMLS, SLS, SLM, MJF and EBM. Powder Bed Fusion processes can be used with an array of materials and their flexibility allows for geometrically complex structures, making it a go-to choice for many 3D printing projects. These techniques include selective laser sintering, with both metals and polymers and direct metal laser sintering. Selective laser melting does not use sintering for the fusion of powder granules but will completely melt the powder using a high-energy laser to create fully dense materials in a layer-wise method that has mechanical properties similar to those of conventional manufactured metals. Electron beam melting is a similar type of additive manufacturing technology for metal parts (e.g. titanium alloys). EBM manufactures parts by melting metal powder layer by layer with an electron beam in a high vacuum. Another method consists of an inkjet 3D printing system, which creates the model one layer at a time by spreading a layer of powder (plaster, or resins) and printing a binder in the cross-section of the part using an inkjet-like process. With laminated object manufacturing, thin layers are cut to shape and joined. In addition to the previously mentioned methods, HP has developed the Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) which is a powder base technique, though no lasers are involved. An inkjet array applies fusing and detailing agents which are then combined by heating to create a solid layer.

Binder jetting

The binder jetting 3D printing technique is the deposition of a binding adhesive agent onto layers of material, usually powdered. The materials can be ceramic-based or metal. This method is also known as inkjet 3D printing system. To produce the piece, the printer builds the model using a head that moves over the platform base and deposits, one layer at a time, by spreading a layer of powder (plaster, or resins) and printing a binder in the cross-section of the part using an inkjet-like process. This is repeated until every layer has been printed. This technology allows the printing of full-color prototypes, overhangs, and elastomer parts. The strength of bonded powder prints can be enhanced with wax or thermoset polymer impregnation.


Other methods cure liquid materials using different sophisticated technologies, such as stereolithography. Photopolymerization is primarily used in stereolithography to produce a solid part from a liquid. Inkjet printer systems like the Objet PolyJet system spray photopolymer materials onto a build tray in ultra-thin layers (between 16 and 30 μm) until the part is completed. Each photopolymer layer is cured with UV light after it is jetted, producing fully cured models that can be handled and used immediately, without post-curing. Ultra-small features can be made with the 3D micro-fabrication technique used in multiphoton photopolymerisation. Due to the nonlinear nature of photo excitation, the gel is cured to a solid only in the places where the laser was focused while the remaining gel is then washed away. Feature sizes of under 100 nm are easily produced, as well as complex structures with moving and interlocked parts. Yet another approach uses a synthetic resin that is solidified using LEDs.

In Mask-image-projection-based stereolithography, a 3D digital model is sliced by a set of horizontal planes. Each slice is converted into a two-dimensional mask image. The mask image is then projected onto a photocurable liquid resin surface and light is projected onto the resin to cure it in the shape of the layer. Continuous liquid interface production begins with a pool of liquid photopolymer resin. Part of the pool bottom is transparent to ultraviolet light (the "window"), which causes the resin to solidify. The object rises slowly enough to allow the resin to flow under and maintain contact with the bottom of the object. In powder-fed directed-energy deposition, a high-power laser is used to melt metal powder supplied to the focus of the laser beam. The powder-fed directed energy process is similar to Selective Laser Sintering, but the metal powder is applied only where material is being added to the part at that moment.


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