3D Printing FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve been working with 3D printing for many years, and over that time we’ve received many questions from those interested in the technology. These questions tend to fall in similar patterns, so we’ve collected the most popular questions about 3D printing in one place for you. 

How Does 3D Printing Work? 

  • A digital 3D image created on a computer is analyzed and divided into layers, as if sliced horizontally
  • Each “slice” is produced in succession on the 3D printer, layering on top of each other to gradually produce a whole object
  • There are many different processes that can produce an object in this way, some involving liquid resin, powders or thermoplastic materials

How Big An Object Can I 3D Print?

  • It depends on the specific 3D printer you are using. Each has a maximum build volume
  • Typical maximum size for desktop 3D printers: 150-300mm per side
  • Large prints typically take a VERY LONG TIME to complete, often hours or even days
  • Large 3D models can be split into pieces, printed and assembled into a larger object if they don’t fit into a specific 3D printer
  • Industrial 3D printers can handle much larger sizes – but they are very expensive

Which Materials Can Be 3D Printed? Can I Print in <random material>?

  • Personal 3D printers typically support PLA and ABS plastics or similar plastics
  • PLA is biodegradable and made from corn, but is brittle
  • ABS is made from petroleum and is strong
  • Other experimental materials are possible, such as mixing wood, nylon or metal particles into PLA plastic and certain plastics such as nylon, HIPS and others
  • Certain new professional 3D printers offer higher temperature build chambers, where more exotic high-temp materials such as PEEK, ULTEM, PAEK can be used
  • Food paste and other squishy substances can be 3D printed with specialized 3D printers equipped with syringes
  • Industrial 3D printers can print in sand, ceramics or metals, but are very expensive

What Software Do I Need To Use A 3D Printer? 

  • Each 3D printer includes software to drive the printer itself. Types vary by manufacturer, but there are some commonly used open source systems that work on most machines, as well as a couple of pay-for third party tools
  • If you’re designing your own 3D Models, you need a 3D CAD (computer aided design) program, like Autodesk 123D, SolidWorks or any of many others. Note that some are extremely expensive to purchase, others are available at no charge
  • CAD programs frequently specialize in a type of design: mechanical parts, artistic shapes, architecture, etc. There are dozens of 3D CAD programs; choose one that best meets your budget, skill level and design goal 

Where Can I Get A 3D Model Printed? I Don’t Want To Own A 3D Printer?

  • Several popular consumer-oriented 3D print services can be considered: i.materialise, Shapeways, Sculpteo and others
  • Each presents models you can choose from, or you can upload your own design for printing
  • Many commercial 3D print services focus on industrial part production, and often include post processing services beyond the printing stage
  • Depending on the type of application and materials required, you must choose a service provider carefully

Can I 3D Print My Dinner?

  • No. Well, maybe. Certain 3D printers are capable of extruding food paste (melted chocolate, peanut butter, minced meat, squeezable cheese, etc), but like any other 3D printer they are very slow and you will starve while waiting for completion
  • In general personal 3D printers and their prints are NOT FOODSAFE. For example, you should never drink from a 3D printed cup unless it is ceramic, since the tiny layers can harbor bacteria, even after washing

Can I 3D Print A House?

  • Not really. There are several new ventures working on this, but in virtually all cases they are simply 3D printing the concrete walls of the structure
  • The remainder of the building, including plumbing, HVAC, windows, roofing, exterior cladding, interior surfaces, electrical and other finishings are all done using conventional techniques

Where Can I Buy A 3D Printer?

  • Virtually all manufacturers of desktop equipment offer online sales from their websites.Some local and regional resellers exist. Larger commercial equipment is typically sold through local resellers
  • Certain popular brands are sold in large chains (Staples and Home Depot in USA, for example)
  • Large cities may have dedicated 3D printer retail stores (iMakr in London, for example)

What 3D Printer Should I Buy?

  • It depends entirely on your budget, your technical ability, the materials required, and type of object being printed. It’s not ever an obvious decision
  • Ultra-low cost units (less than USD$500) are best used by hobbyists who wish to tinker with the device
  • Moderate level units (USD$500-2000) are best for less experienced consumers
  • Higher priced units are targeted at professionals or industry