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What is 3D Printing?

Should I Purchase a 3D Printer or Use a 3D Printing Service?

How do I choose which 3D Printer I need?

Can I 3D Print Metal Parts?

Can I 3D print full color parts?

The Basics of 3D Printing

3D Printing is the process of taking a digital design and turning it into a physical object.

Digital model and its 3D printed version

A 3D Printer takes a file, typically designed in a CAD-based program and converts it using software into a pattern that the printer can convert, layer by layer, into coordinates the printer can use to print the model.

3D Printers typically use a meltable medium such as plastic, heat it up to a specific temperature so that it melts then re-hardens in a predictable way. In this way, it is very similar to having a glue gun that is on a mechanical arm that makes a pattern and builds up the object one layer at a time.

Major Types of Desktop 3D Printers

Fused Filament Fabrication

The most common type of 3D Printer is known by a few different names. Fused Deposition Modeling or "FDM" (this term is used exclusively by Stratasys and has been trademarked), it is also known as Fused Filament Fabrication or "FFF". These descibe printers that use a plastic filament and a hot end that melts the plastic.

A vast majority of the consumer level 3D printer market is this kind of printer, due to the ease of assembly and low cost of parts and materials. Filaments are typically plastic-based, but recently there have been other materials created as well, such as rubber-like materials, wood-infused filaments and some with more tensile strength. There are also a wide variety of colors available for the 3D prints, though typically the printers will only be able to print up to 3 different colors.

A Diagram of a Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) style 3D Printer

Standard Fused Filament Fabrication 3D Printer

Another advantage of FFF printers is there really is no maximum size, theoretically they could be built to any size.

An example of a large format FFF printer


The second most common type of 3D printer for the consumer market is the Stereolithography or SLA printer. SLA printers use a laser and a liquid photopolymer resin. Because it uses the precision of a laser, the prints can be of extremely high quality and very tiny details can be printed. This is ideal for jewelry and casting of small items.

In this case, most SLA printers are of smaller build volume than their FFF counterparts. The color options are very limited, however clear resins and highly durable resins are available for robust uses.


Similar in quality to Stereolithography printers, instead of using a laser, they use a DLP projector, just like you would use for watching movies.

The types of materials avaialble are also similar to stereolithograpy, utilizing photopolymer resins.

The 3D Printing Ecosystem

Although the industry is getting closer to the point where you can just push a button and print an object, for now there is still some more steps involved.

Here are the typical steps:

Step 1. Obtaining a 3D Model for Printing

There are 3 ways to obtain a model for 3D printing: Scan an object, using a special 3D scanner, or a camera. You can download an existing model, or you can create a model to print from a special CAD or 3D design program. Click HERE for our list of software for creating 3D models.

Step 2. Converting/Repairing the 3D Model

Depending on how the model was made, some repair or conversion work may need to be done to ensure it is in the correct file type for 3D Printing. There are various software programs available designed specifically for that task.

Step 3. Slicing Programs to put the 3D model into code

Once the model file is in the correct format, it then has to be read by the 3D printer. Slicing programs will tell the printer the coordinates, speed, temperature and other functions for the printout.

Step 4. Printing

This step which will have different instructions and settings, depending on the type of 3D printer.

Should I buy a 3D Printer or use a 3D Printing Service?

Choosing a 3D Printer

There are several things to keep in mind when choosing what kind of 3D Printer you need.

Can I 3D print metal parts?

Here is a list of 3D Printing Companies and services that can print 3D parts in various types of metals.

Industrial Metal 3D Printers

3D Systems ProX Line

SLM Solutions

ExOne M-Flex

Desktop Metal 3D Printers

Newton 3D

3D Metal Printing Services



FKM Laser Sintering

Star Prototype




Can I 3D print full color parts?

Here is a list of 3D Printing Companies and services that can print 3D parts in full color. Please note, there are many printers capable of printing in a few colors, as it only requires changing the color of the filament or resin, however this is not considered "full color". The links below will take you to printers which provide 256 colors and higher for printing.

Full Color Industrial Printers


Stratasys J750

3D Systems Projet 660 Pro

Full Color Desktop Printers

MCOR ARKe 3D Photorealistic Colour Printer

Full Color 3D Printing Services



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