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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: A Concise 3D Printing Primer

I just read an article online that captures in three pages the gist of the new 3D commercial printing wave. Written by Tyler Lacoma, this article, entitled “What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know,” presented on Yahoo News, delivers just what its title promises. If you’re interested in the subject, it’s worth your time. It will get you started on your research.

What the Article Includes

Lacoma’s article first defines and explains 3D commercial printing, then breaks down the process into its component parts, then lists and defines five different approaches to 3D printing, and then ends the article with a description of some of the uses for this technology.

What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing has also been termed “additive manufacturing.” This term distinguishes the process from what I grew up with, “subtractive manufacturing.” The latter involves removing metal, for instance, from a block of the raw substance. In the case of producing metal pieces for assembly into an engine, subtractive manufacturing would involve milling or grinding: that is, removing everything that is not relevant to the engine component. Once all the components have been ground, carved, or milled, they can then be assembled.

In contrast, Lacoma’s article defines additive or 3D manufacturing as creating a component part by adding material until the component part is complete. “What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know” focuses on (essentially) a process not unlike inkjet printing for the creation, layer by layer, of the individual components of a machine (or any other project).

Before I explain this more fully, I do want to add my belief that injection molding would also be considered additive manufacturing, since you add material into a premade mold, then remove the mold to access the part you have created.

I’d also like to go further and note that as with subtractive manufacturing, you can in fact produce a complete item if it comprises a single part. For instance, using 3D custom printing, you can print a shoe buckle, a ring, or any other single component item. Or you can manufacture the myriad parts of a complex product.

What makes 3D printing so compelling is that it is, in most cases, digital. If, for example, you are making an object using injection molding (also an additive manufacturing process), you have to first make the mold. This costs money and takes time. In contrast, the 3D printers that are now sold in computer stores create products layer by layer from digital files. These files require no molds. Hence, you can alter the design at will. You can change every product you print. All you need is the digital data.

You might envision this more effectively through an offset commercial printing (and finishing) analogy. If you need to die cut a product, you would normally create a metal cutting die. This would cost money and take time. It also would stamp out the same design, product after product. But if you use a programmable laser (run on digital data) to selectively burn away the scrap in a die cut product, you will have no need for the metal die cutting rule (or the time and cost it involves). And you can also change the die cutting pattern for every printed product.

To get back to Lacoma’s article, here are the three components of digital additive manufacturing:

    1. The digital file. This file breaks down the 3D modeled image into very precise layers and drives the printer.


    1. The printer itself. Just as an inkjet printer has print heads that go back and forth depositing ink as the paper is fed through the machine, a 3D printer has print heads that produce the 3D product layer by layer as the printed 3D product is moved away from the print heads. And instead of using ink to make marks on paper, the 3D printer uses various substances that can be extruded through the print head nozzles in a measured fashion driven by the digital data files. Basically the 3D printer includes a box in which to produce the 3D item and the custom printing heads. In some kinds of 3D printing, the print head nozzles are replaced with (or accompanied by) lasers that can set or cure the printing material as it is produced in layers. Many of these 3D printers are complex, involving precise temperature controls. Some only print within a vacuum.


  1. The printing material. This may include plastic, nylon, resins, synthetic sandstone, ceramic materials, or even metals (steel, silver, gold). I have read other articles describing the printing of body parts and organs (using biological materials) and even food (using food products). Lacoma’s article also notes that hybrid raw materials can be used (plastics plus other substances, for instance) to include the qualities of all the component materials.

Technologies for 3D Printing

These are the methods for digitally printing 3D objects that Lacoma describes in “What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know”:

    1. Fusion Deposition Modeling (FDM): Nozzles melt and then extrude plastic filaments (that look like spools of plastic wire) layer by layer to create the 3D object. The molten filaments cool and solidify into the final printed object. This is akin to the 3D printers I have seen in computer stores.


    1. Stereolithography (SLA): A laser is fired at a liquid resin to instantly harden the material. The object being created is removed from the liquid layer by layer. This can produce more detailed objects than Fusion Deposition Modeling. (In addition, it is not a new process. It was invented in the 1980s.)


    1. Jetting Processes: Lacoma’s article notes the similarity of this process to Stereolithography. However, he also notes that instead of pulling the created object out of a vat of liquid raw material, the jetting process sprays liquid reactive polymer onto a base and then hardens it instantly with UV light (in a method analogous to inkjet printing with UV inks and then curing them instantly with UV light). This 3D printing process proceeds layer by layer. (Other versions of this process use powders and glue to build up the layers.) This technology can produce detailed results, so it is often used for industrial products.


    1. Selective Laser Sintering: This process uses polymides and thermoplastic elastomers, which are powders (not the plastic filaments used in the 3D printing methods noted above). A laser fuses these powders into layer upon layer of the 3D product being created. These products are very durable. This technology is good for both individual production of prototypes and mass production of industrial parts.


  1. Metal Printing: In this method, the 3D object is built on a platform, which is lowered as the object is built up layer by layer. Powerful lasers (selective laser melting) or electron beams (electron beam melting) melt the powdered metal with considerable precision within very controlled printing environments. (Lacoma compares this process to welding.)

What Products Can Be Made?

Lacoma’s article notes a handful of popular products that lend themselves to 3D manufacturing. Here is a selection:

    1. Shoes: Manufacturers include Feetz and 3D Shoes. What makes these products interesting is that the digital nature of the process allows for customization of each pair of shoes.


    1. Houses: Lacoma’s article references 3D printed houses that can be produced and painted within 24 hours.


    1. Healthcare products: These include everything from mass produced items like 3D printed cups to custom products like prostheses, which can be tailored to an individual’s unique bodily requirements. Skin grafts made from biological material are another product Lacoma’s article includes.


    1. Custom orders: Essentially this would be analogous to ordering a print book online (a web-to-print product produced only after you have ordered it). Now web-to-print products can include 3D printed items.


  1. Theatrical set design: 3D manufacturing is ideal for creating component props for a dramatic presentation. You can make anything from science fiction props to historical props.

Why This Matters

“What Is 3D Printing? Here’s Everything You Need to Know” explains why this is a game changer. Because you don’t need to buy expensive milling and grinding machinery or even make expensive injection molds, 3D digital printing is an inexpensive way to make things. You can produce prototypes, and then you can change them before committing to mass production. This is also often the quickest option, allowing a manufacturer to bring a product to market much faster than in the past.

Why This Matters to Print and Web Designers

The short answer is that this is the future, and it also involves the principles of design in the same way that sculpture involves the principles of design. In addition, for many applications, 3D commercial printing will push the creation of objects downstream, from centralized shops with expensive machinery to (perhaps even) the individual end-users (or at least to local shops).

This 3D manufacturing process can operate in much the same way as a commercial printing job can be sent over the Internet from a designer on the East Coast to a local print shop on the West Coast, then printed, then delivered locally—without using an expensive trans-continental delivery service.

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