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3D Printing: Exciting Technology Advances for Consumers

Linda Crampton taught science and information technology to high school students for many years. She enjoys learning about new technology.

These frogs were printed with a different layer thickness of melted and then solidified plastic. Thinner layers produce a smoother appearance.

These frogs were printed with a different layer thickness of melted and then solidified plastic. Thinner layers produce a smoother appearance.

An Exciting and Promising Technology

3D printing is an exciting technology that is rapidly increasing in popularity and affordability. A few years ago, 3D printers cost many thousands of dollars. While devices with advanced capabilities are still expensive, consumer-oriented printers are now affordable for many people. These devices can create a wide variety of useful, artistic, and fun objects.

The most exciting aspect of a home 3D printer is that it's so versatile. Some examples from the huge range of items that can be printed include jewelry, ornaments, tools, cups, vases, cookie cutters, napkin rings, and even items of clothing. Artists can create sculptures and parents—or children—can create toys. Special 3D printers can create edible items and are available in consumer versions as well as professional ones.

A model of the object to be printed must be created in a 3D art program. Information from the model is then sent to the printer. People can create their own unique object designs. Alternatively, they can download designs from websites. It's not necessary to have artistic skills in order to make use of the printers.

Pens that create 3D objects are available for purchase and cost considerably less than a printer. People are finding creative uses for the pens. They are an interesting device for creating three-dimensional art and sculpture, although the resulting objects don't look like those created by a printer.

An Introduction to 3D Printing

3D printing is becoming very useful and important in medicine and manufacturing. This article looks at facts about the technology that are relevant to consumers.

How Do 3D Printers Work?

The first step in the creation of a 3D printed object is to design the object. This is done in a 3D art, CAD (Computer-Aided Design), or animation program. The computer model is then exported as an STL file.

A second program, known as a slicing program, reads the STL file and converts it to G code. This code tells the printer to produce the object in a series of horizontal layers. The printer then prints these layers one at a time, starting with the bottom layer.

The range of printing media available for professional printers is increasing rapidly. Most 3D printers aimed at consumers are plastic extrusion or FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printers, however. High-end FDM printers are available, but the less expensive ones are most likely to be purchased by consumers.

The printers create objects by melting plastic filament and then extruding the hot liquid onto a platform. The plastic solidifies almost immediately after it's released from the extrusion nozzle of the printer onto the build platform. The nozzle moves in different directions to create the object, and the platform moves downwards as the object grows in depth. Each new layer of plastic that is extruded fuses with the one below. This process is sometimes known as additive manufacturing.

This 3D printed bracelet is composed of shoes and created by a jewelry designer. It may have been created by a more advanced printer than a consumer-oriented one.

This 3D printed bracelet is composed of shoes and created by a jewelry designer. It may have been created by a more advanced printer than a consumer-oriented one.

Some 3D printers are now in the price range of popular desktop printers that print with ink. If you're tempted to buy one of these 3D printers, identify the features that you give up in exchange for the relatively low price. In addition, consider the ongoing cost of plastic media purchase.

3D Printers for Consumers

Consumer-oriented FDM printers are dropping in price and are becoming more affordable. It's no longer necessary to spend thousands of dollars to buy a 3D printer for the home. In fact, there are a number of printers that cost under USD $1000. Some models cost only a few hundred dollars. The cheaper models usually print smaller objects than the bigger ones, however.

In addition to the price, another thing to consider when buying a 3D printer is its ability to create thin layers. The thinner the layers, the less obvious they are in the printout and the smoother the appearance and feel of the object. The thinness of the layers is known as the resolution of the printer. Generally, the higher the resolution, the more expensive the printer.

Since the technology is advancing rapidly, yet another factor that a purchaser should explore is the media used by affordable printers. Though plastic is still the most common one for hobbyists, some printers can use metallic filament.

Schools may have a modestly-priced 3D printer, including the last one where I taught. These can can be fun and educational for students, especially when the students don't have one of the printers at home.

People who work with 3D printers predict that within a few years FDM printers will become the equivalent of today's inkjet printers—popular, inexpensive, and able to produce items of good to very good quality.

Filaments That Mimic Natural Materials

Downloading Models

Like the item that’s created, the code that tells a printer how to create a particular 3D object is often referred to as a model. Free models are available for the different computer operating systems. It's not necessary for someone to create their own models unless they enjoy the process and want to create unique designs. A person should probably look for reviews for any model website that they decide to use, however.

The file format and the license for an object should be checked carefully before code is downloaded. The license may allow an object to be created for personal use but not for a commercial one.

One site with a large number of downloadable models is Thingiverse. The site is currently run by a 3D printer manufacturer. The models are free, and the community is active. The site says that people who upload code are encouraged to make their design a Creative Commons one, but the details should be examined carefully before the code is downloaded. I haven't downloaded or used anything on the website myself, but it's a fun site to explore.

It's important to note that websites often change over time. All sites related to 3D printing should be fully investigated to determine the nature of their current offerings before they are used and to discover the rules related to any downloadable items.

Making an iPhone Case With a 3D Printer

Buying a 3D Printer: A Poll

A model depicting the head of L. L. Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language

A model depicting the head of L. L. Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language

Some 3D printers have a sleek and modern design. The mechanism is hidden, as in a microwave oven. In other printers, as in the one above, the parts are clearly visible and there is no attempt to make the printer attractive.

Drawing With a 3D Pen

For some people, even the cheapest 3D printer is too expensive. Comparatively inexpensive products known as 3D pens might enable more people to create three dimensional objects and have fun at the same time.

Multiple companies make the pens. The basic idea behind most of them is to plug the device into an electrical outlet or a USB port and then feed plastic filament into the opening at the end. The pen heats the filament and extrudes the soft material from its "nib". The plastic then solidifies.

The pens enable people to draw with extruded plastic on a flat surface or in the air. Both one-dimensional objects with a raised surface and true 3D objects can be created.

At least some of the manufacturers provide free stencils that can be downloaded. A person can draw over the stencil with the pen. The tracing can then be moved into an upright position. Different tracings can be attached to each other with the pen in order to create a complex object.

3Doodler Pen Versions One and Two

The 3Doodler was the first 3D pen created (as far as I know), but it now has multiple competitors. The video above shows some of the objects that it can create. New versions can use other materials besides plastic in the printing medium, including metal and wood.

Plastic in the Environment

As much as I love to read about the exciting advances in 3D printing technology, one thing worries me. All of the consumer-oriented printers that I've seen have used ABS plastic as a printing medium.

ABS plastic, or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is a tough, impact-resistant material that has many useful applications. Like most plastics, it degrades when it's exposed to ultraviolet light. This is a very slow process, however.

Plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem. The thought of people discarding unsatisfactory objects created by their 3D printers is scary. The problem may become worse as the printers become more popular.

Consumers need to be encouraged to recycle their plastic or to use a more environmentally friendly material for printing. Objects made from ABS plastic can be heated and extruded into filament to be used again. Some companies sell devices that can do this to consumers.

ABS or PLA Plastic

The 3Doodler and some 3D printers can use either ABS plastic or PLA plastic as their "ink". ABS plastic is made from petroleum. PLA (polylactic acid) plastic is made from corn or soybeans and is biodegradable. Some people choose PLA filament for their printer for this reason.

However, being biodegradable doesn't mean that PLA plastic can be thrown into a landfill and left for microbes such as bacteria and fungi to break down, as the term implies. The microbial decomposition of PLA requires exposure to a high temperature, light, and oxygen for two or three months, conditions that are only found in a commercial compost center.

ABS plastic has better properties than PLA plastic with respect to the creation of 3D models. It's less brittle, more bendable, less sticky, and less susceptible to drooping when the temperature rises. The 3Doodler maker recommends that people start with ABS plastic and then try PLA plastic later.

Printed Zombies and False Teeth

New resins for 3D printing are appearing. One with a texture resembling rubber was demonstrated at a recent CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Items printed with the resin can be compressed and then return to their original shape once the pressure is removed.

The Future of 3D Printing

Some people predict that a 3D printing revolution will take place in the near future. The printers are rapidly gaining acceptance in manufacturing and have exciting applications in medicine.

In the future, people may make more of the products that they need at home instead of buying them in a store. Consumer printer technology seems to be advancing more slowly than manufacturing and medical printer technology, however.

Some Requirements for Success

The current state of 3D printing is certainly interesting and provides great scope for creativity. In order to become a more mainstream technology, though, the technology involved needs to be improved.

3D printers for consumers need to have at least some of the following features in order to be successful. They should be able to:

  • create useful items more conveniently or more cheaply than the same item made by other methods and purchased from a store
  • create high-quality objects
  • make improved versions of objects manufactured by other methods
  • make objects that couldn't be created in any other way

3D printers aimed at consumers should also be easy to use and relatively inexpensive to buy and operate. The problem of finding strong but environmentally safe printing media also needs to be solved. I'm optimistic about the future of 3D printing, though. The technology is very promising as well as exciting.

Two 3D Printing Resources

The two news sites mentioned below maintain pages that link to the latest news about consumer and advanced 3D printing. They could be useful as well as interesting. Popular technology often improves rapidly.

  • 3D printing news from ScienceDaily
  • News about the printing method from

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 16, 2014:

Thank you very much for the lovely comment, Glen! 3D printing technology is very exciting. I'm looking forward to the the future of the technology very much. It has so many applications.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on March 16, 2014:

This is the most in-depth article that I have found on 3-D printing, well done, Alicia. I have been following the technology for quite some time.

With all my research the one thing I've been lacking was an understanding of the methods used for creating the digital files, known as the STL files. You explained all this very well in this article. And now I feel I have a much better knowledge.

It's going to be an amazing future without limitations for creative people who design products but who don't have the funds for expensive 3-D printers. As you explained, people can create an online store to sell products printed by fulfillment companies such as Shapeways.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 26, 2013:

Hi, johnooo. It is exciting technology, and regenerative medicine is even more exciting! It will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to manufacturing. It would be nice if the technology helps everyone in some way.

John R Wilsdon from Superior, Arizona on May 26, 2013:

Nice to know about downloadable models for 3d at Thingiverse. This topic gets me so excited; almost as much as regenerative medicine. We live in a truly remarkable time. It would be nice to be able to compete in manufacturing with low wage countries when the price of these printers comes down - after all, we could all become cottage manufacturers - but I fear the countries over there will simply order printers, take them apart, and copy them. After all, what is to stop them?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 19, 2013:

I would love to go to CES! I agree, rose-the-planner - the technology is wonderful, but it is good to wait for any problems to be solved and for the price to come down before we purchase a new device. Thanks for the comment!

rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on May 19, 2013:

I found your article on 3D Printers very insightful and interesting! It's amazing how technology is so expensive when it first comes out and then drastically drops in price as technology evolves. That's the thing with technology it changes every day. I have been to CES in Las Vegas on several occasions with my husband and it's incredible seeing all the latest gizmos and gadgets with exorbitant price tags. I always think it's best to wait so that all the kinks get ironed out of new products and hopefully the price comes down as well. Great article! Thanks for sharing.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 19, 2013:

Thank you very much for the vote and the share, Kathryn! 3D printing is definitely awesome technology. It will be very interesting to see what the future holds.

I hope that you have a great Sunday, too!

Kathryn from Windsor, Connecticut on May 19, 2013:

This is just too awesome! Thanks for sharing this with us. Some of what they come out with nowadays is astounding! Voted up and shared.

Have a great Sunday!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 28, 2013:

It makes me think of Star Trek too, pick807, especially as one popular 3D printer is called the "Replicator"! Thanks for the comment.

pick807 on April 28, 2013:

This technology makes me think of Star Trek!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2013:

Thanks for the visit, wabash annie. Technology often advances so fast that it's hard to keep up! I think that computer technology is very interesting, so I try to keep up to date with the latest information. It's sometimes difficult to do this, though!

wabash annie from Colorado Front Range on April 26, 2013:

Alicia, I think I am keeping up with some technology but, after reading this hub, I realize I need to work harder at learning. I'm not at all familiar with 3D technology so appreciate your information ... now I need to do my part. Thanks much.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2013:

Hi, Bill. It's interesting to hear about the use of 3d printers where you work. I agree with you - I think that this technology is going to become very important. Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on April 26, 2013:

Alicia, the company I work for has started using this technology in a limited fashion to create models instead of having them made. This is a big technology breakthrough. We're going to hear a lot about this in the near future. Great job.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2013:

Hi, Deb. Yes, 3D graphics programs and printers would be good for people who want to work at home. Technology advances are providing many great opportunities for home-based workers!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on April 26, 2013:

These would be great for people that want to work at home, or have to work at home. It is another good avenue to make money and provide jobs for those that are physically unable to leave the house.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 25, 2013:

Hi, drbj. I'm very interested in buying the 3d pen too! I'm looking forward to reading the reviews when it comes to market and to seeing how much it actually costs. Thanks for the comment.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on April 25, 2013:

What an exciting new technology this 3D printing is, Alicia. I've begun saving already for a 3D Doodler pen. Thanks for your research and fascinating overview.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 25, 2013:

Hi, Simey. Thanks for the comment. 3D printers offer a wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs! I hope you succeed in persuading your Dad to buy a printer. It could be very useful for him.

Simon from NJ, USA on April 25, 2013:

I'm trying to persuade my Dad to buy a 3D printer -he is a pretty decent photographer and I feel he could make a killing making iPhone cases and other phone cases. Great article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 25, 2013:

Hi, Heidi. Yes, the ability to customize objects with a 3D printer is very useful. The potential trash problem is definitely a concern, though. Thank you for the comment!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 25, 2013:

Hi, Lela. Investing money in 3D technology to help its development is a good idea. I'm sure that we'll find many uses for the printers as they become more common! Thanks for the visit.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 25, 2013:

My pals and I in the promotional products industry are watching these 3D printing developments with great interest. Why print up hundreds of mugs when you can "print" up just what you need?

I totally agree that the plastics will need to become eco friendly. People, especially on the consumer level, are more apt to pitch bad "copies" and no longer needed items into the trash, thereby increasing our landfill issues.

Great and timely hub!

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on April 25, 2013:

I think we should put a large chunk of our investing dollars into 3d tech now while the technology is young. But I cannot figure out what I would need this for.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 25, 2013:

Thank you, Bill! Yes, technology advancements are certainly amazing. They are so interesting to investigate.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 25, 2013:

It really is pretty spectacular, the advancements in technology. I can't keep up with it all. Thank God I have HP and these great articles to educate me. Well done, Alicia!