3D Printing: What Is It? Why Is It Important?

Publish on September 22, 2020
STEM Education
3D Printing

You’ve probably heard about 3D printing in some form or another in the last few years, as it’s one of the most exciting new technologies with some incredible capabilities; but what exactly is it?

What is 3D Printing?

In short, 3D printing is a technology that takes a roll of plastic wire, and turns it into whatever object you want. Sounds like a science fiction movie, right? Well, this technology really does exist, and it’s very easily accessible – but let’s break down the process a little further.

3D printers are small machines with many components, but the three main components are: a control screen, an extruder, and a build plate or bed.

The control screen is used to communicate with the machine, and you can give it commands to print any objects on the SD card you put into it. The extruder takes a long plastic wire (filament) and heats it up to become very moldable, so it can form it into any shape. The build plate is the bed that the extruder deposits the plastic material onto.

All of these components have to work together to create an object, but it is not made how a human would make it, like when we form something with our hands. Instead, the printer builds in layers.

Now, that may not make much sense, but let’s just say we wanted to build a cube. As a human, we would cut out 6 squares and glue them together with their edges touching and create a nice little cube.

A 3D printer, however, would use a different process entirely. The printer would take the model for a cube and slice it up into flat layers. It starts at the bottom of the cube and the extruder draws out a plastic square. The extruder then moves up in the air a little bit and draws another plastic square on top of the one it just made. It continues this process over and over again until it makes a full plastic cube that you can pick up and put on your desk.

3D printers use this process for anything you want them to make. It just cuts up your model into slices and prints them out on top of each other.

So now that we know how it works, what exactly can we make with it?

3D printing filament


What can 3D printing do?

Many people have access to small 3D printers that can fit on your desk, but there are also huge 3D printers that make crazy things! Some 3D printers are used to make car parts, while some are even big enough to build houses! Even though the machines building homes are huge, they still work on the same principles as a desktop 3D printer.

Some industries have been using 3D printing to improve the lives of others, or save money on prototypes by using 3D printed models. In the medical industry, 3D printers have been used to print prosthetic body parts – and in the aerospace and defense field, 3D printing makes it easy and cost effective to manufacture parts in small quantities very quickly.

And while building houses and solving world problems is awesome, you’re probably here to learn about what you can make at home with a 3D printer, and how you can even get one.

The possibilities with a 3D printer are endless.

Related: Ahwatukee 6th-grader using 3D printer to help nurses, doctors

How much do 3D printers cost?

A small 3D printer can range widely in price from $150 for very basic entry-level models to$1,500 for some of the high-end personal printers. However, most desktop 3D printers are available for only about $250, which is pretty inexpensive for a machine that can make virtually whatever you want.

Where can you find things to 3D print?

Many platforms such as Thingiverse or My Mini Factory are free online resources where you can have access to thousands of 3D models from mini figures to full sized Iron Man suits!

Of course, many people don’t like to go and just print out a design, but rather, they design it themselves. One of the most popular programs to use for 3D design is Tinkercad. Tinkercad is an incredibly easy to use software that allows you to build objects in 3D space using very simple shapes. For this reason, many schools use it to introduce students to the concept of 3D design.

After you design your object, you can save it from Tinkercad and print it.

If you are interested in learning more about 3D printing and begin learning how to design using Tinkercad make sure to keep an eye out for an upcoming program at your local Engineering For Kids. Our courses encourage students to use critical thinking to solve problems through their designs and are a great start for your future engineer.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and we may receive commissions if you visit a link and buy something through our recommendations. Purchasing via an affiliate link does not cost you any extra, and we only recommend products that we believe are best for inspiring the next generation of engineers!

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