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7 Types of 3D Printing Processes (first 2 are most popular)

A look into the seven main Additive Manufacturing types and their applications
3D Printing Processes

3D Printing Processes

Since the invention of 3D printers, in the 1980s, there are now at least seven main 3D Printing technology processes available to date. With a degree in Engineering Technologies and many years of working in the CAD industry I want to share my knowledge and passion of 3D printing. Let’s start with breaking down the technologies to help you better understand the different techniques in the 3D printing world. [1]

Nowadays, a lot of information available on the web use manufacturing jargon that may be challenging to understand right away. I set out to simplify this as best as I can.

3D printers are continuing to advance with new technologies such as printing food pastry and even homes made of concrete. The most common household 3D printers will be the FDM (filament) and SLA (resin) type 3D printers. But, to give you a better picture of the possibilities we now have, how is 3D printing used in practical real-life applications?

Do you have an idea of projects or objects you want to print, but are just not sure which direction to go? This guide should give you a clear idea of which direction suits your budget and your needs and what you may want to consider for the future.

#1 – Material Extrusion – FDM 3D Printers
(Filament)

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D Printing
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D Printing

Printing Process:

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), or filament printing, use thermoplastic materials to produce objects. Like a hot glue gun, material extrudes out thru a heated nozzle adding material onto the platform. This repeats layer-by-layer until the object is complete. [2]

Materials Used:

Since there are so many different types of plastic polymers that can feed into the machine, check out my list of 3D Printer Filaments. A plastic polymer is any kind of material mixed with all kinds of different fillers. Please check your 3D Printer User Manual to see what types of material can be used in your specific machine.

Application:

Common products produced by filament are:

  • Common household items like clips, hangers and containers
  • General hobbyist objects such as miniatures and cosplay
  • Automotive, aerospace and industrial parts
  • Medical devices such as splinters and braces
  • Sports and music equipment

Advantages / Characteristics:

  • Generally most affordable, thus one of the most popular 3D printers commercially available
  • Materials are inexpensive and widely available
  • Relatively easy to operate and learn from
  • Generally faster than other 3D printer types

Disadvantages:

  • Limited complexity in the details they can produce (SLA 3D Printers are a better option)
  • Generally preferred in a ventilated environment
  • Extremely important to calibrate the machine properly
  • Quality varies depending on machine, filament type and cleanliness

Pro Tip:

Take a look at our 3D Printer Filament Property Guide to make sure you are using your 3D printer properly.

#2 – VAT Photopolymerization – SLA 3D Printers
(Resin)

Sterolityhography (SLA) 3D Printing
Sterolityhography (SLA) 3D Printing

Printing Process:

Stereolithography (SLA), or resin printing, is also known VAT Photopolymerization. What is a VAT? A VAT is simply a container. The VAT is full of liquid photopolymer resin, which is material that reacts to radiation from UV light. When light hits the photopolymer resin it causes the object to harden layer by layer until the object is complete. [3]

Material Used:

Resin is a liquid made up all different types of fillers such as carbons, metals, glass, ceramics, etc. to make up the different types of material. The purpose of adding fillers is to produce objects with specific characteristics. Examples of 3D printed characteristics can be: rigid, castable, or tough and durable. Objects can also be clear, composite and high temperature, or any other specialty materials.

Application: 

Common products produced by resin material are:

  • Molds for metal casting
  • Functional prototypes and models
  • High clarity, transparent products
  • Tools, molds, and dies
  • Custom assembly jigs and fixtures

Advantages / Characteristics:

  • Great for high precision models crucial for professional applications
  • Smooth surfaces
  • Can create highly detailed and complex designs
  • Bio compatible material such as for dentistry

Disadvantages:

  • Prolonged exposure to the sun can damage the 3D printed object
  • Higher average cost than filament 3D printers
  • SLA 3D printers are more complex thus requiring more technical knowledge
  • Resin can be highly toxic

Pro Tip:

Take a look at our 3D Printer Resin and filler Guide to make sure you are using your 3D printer properly.

 

#3 – Powder-Bed Fusion – SLS 3D Printers
(Powder)

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D Printing
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D Printing

Printing Process:

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), or powder printing, uses high power laser that shoots onto the powder bed to turn material into a solid object. The laser draws a 2D cross-section on the surface fusing the material together layer-by-layer. [4]

Material Used:

The most common material for SLS 3D printing is nylon because of its resistance to wear and tear. Yet, material can be made up of many different kinds of fillers thus creating almost any kind of composite material.

Application:

Common products produced by powder material are:

  • Durable, functional multi-part prototypes undergoing rigorous functional testing such as duct work or brackets
  • Flame-retardant parts suitable for automotive or aircrafts interior parts and cockpit components
  • Casing for tools such as drills and other appliances
  • Medical braces and prosthesis
  • Light-weight parts for everyday commercial items such as bikes, drones, and guitars

Advantages / Characteristics:

  • Great for producing strong, functional assemblies with complex geometry
  • High level of accuracy
  • No need for support structures, saving print material and post-processing time
  • Ideal for dyeing, or adding colors

Disadvantages:

  • Extremely expensive upwards of $250,000 USD
  • Requires skilled operators
  • Cool-down time can be 12 hours
  • Messy, porous and brittle, is also prone to shrinkage and warping

Pro Tip:

Pay close attention to your CAD design because warping is a bigger issue on large flat surfaces. Take a look at our 3D CAD modeling guidelines.

#4 – Material Jetting 3D Printers
(Multi-material compounds)

Material Jetting 3D Printing
Material Jetting 3D Printing

Printing Process:

Material Jetting uses the same technology as your standard 2D ink-jet printers, but with additional material. A nozzle jets out light-sensitive material, known as photopolymer, onto a build platform. Directly behind the nozzle the material is hit with a UV light to quickly harden the material. Since so many types of material are supported you can print out multi-material parts all in one go. This printer can support both wire feed, resin, and powder materials. [5]

Material Used:

Materials for Material Jetting include polymers that come in the form of liquid resin, plastics, and metals. Check out my list of common material properties such as HDPE, PS, PMMA, ABS, etc.

Application:

Common products produced with multi-material support:

  • Objects with many materials, such as a drill with a plastic handle and a rubber grip
  • Great for everyday products such as eyeglass frames, toothbrushes, shavers, bikes, helmets, and more
  • Electronic devices
  • Multi-color visual products
  • Medical devices such as hearing aids, dentures, and anatomical models for presurgical planning

Advantages / Characteristics:

  • Print multi-material parts together as a single component such as a drill handle
  • Print in many colors
  • Highly accurate layer resolution can produce extremely smooth surfaces
  • Accurate jetting and control of material on demand promotes minimal waste

Disadvantages:

  • Poor mechanical properties which can degrade over time
  • Machines are very expensive making production for some products not reasonable
  • Produces relatively brittle parts so it is not good for load-bearing parts
  • Support material need to be used

Pro Tip:

Since it is crucial to use support structures to hold the model while printing dissolvable materials such as wax can be used.

#5 – Binder Jetting 3D Printers
(Multi-material compounds)

Binder Jetting 3D Printing
Binder Jetting 3D Printing

Printing Process:

Binder Jetting uses the same technology as your standard ink-jet 2D printing along with the use of powder bedding. First, a powder layer is placed onto the platform then the nozzle projects onto the material where object will form. Then, the solvent contained in the binder is evaporated by an incandescent lamp. The powder bed then lowers and a new layer of powder is placed onto the platform repeating the process. Once the part sets after some time it is then removed from the powder and can be infiltrated with another material to make it stronger. [6]

Material Used:

Common materials for Binder Jetting are many different kinds of metals, sand, and ceramics that come in powder or granular form.

Application:

Common products produced by powder material are:

  • Full color prototype of figurines
  • Large sand-casting cores, molds, and casting patterns are possible
  • Great for aerospace, manufacturing, medical and dental industries
  • Reduction in waste makes for lower-cost metal parts
  • Good for jewelry making

Advantages / Characteristics:

  • Unused powder can be reused
  • Great geometrical freedom and scalability
  • Multi-color visual products
  • Printing speed is faster

Disadvantages:

  • Extremely expensive upwards of $400,000 to $800,000 USD
  • Metal and ceramic objects can be printed but must be sintered afterward
  • Parts will shrink over time if not infiltrated after print
  • Products are lower in density

Pro Tip:

When using Binder Jetting printers design your CAD models with escape holes to ensure removal of powder inside the part. Check out our guide for CAD modeling best practices.

#6 – Direct Energy Deposition – DED 3D Printers
(Wire or Powder)

Direct Energy Deposition (DED) 3D Printing
Direct Energy Deposition (DED) 3D Printing

Printing Process:

Direct Energy Deposition (DED) is like welding, wire or powder material is fed thru a nozzle along with a laser beam to extrude material onto a surface. The nozzle moves around, like it would in a CNC machine, depositing material layer-by-layer on top of existing parts. DED can also create completely fabricated parts from scratch. [7]

Material Used:

Most common materials are metals such as titanium, aluminum, stainless steel, and copper.

Application:

Common products produced by … material are:

  • Can be used to print large scale parts in any industry
  • Now growing in the construction industry for new building projects constructing the framework
  • In aerospace DED can print brackets and fixtures to skeleton and exterior panels of aircrafts
  • Military uses DED for producing firearms, body armer, armored vehicles, missiles, aMATEIRnd helmets
  • Can fix damages items in aerospace, military and many other industries

Advantages / Characteristics:

  • Can take a nearly completed shape with 10% machining left to complete the product
  • Help target complex parts with remaining machining areas
  • Improve product performance to repair parts
  • Reduce machining costs and process time as well as reduced material waste

Disadvantages:

  • Expensive raw materials
  • Very expensive with machines costing $200,000 to $2M USD
  • Low build resolution resulting in a sandy-like finish
  • Support structure cannot be used due to how the DED printing process builds parts

Pro Tip:

DED 3D printing can also be used for coating metal, process known as cladding, that is several feet long.

#7 – Sheet Lamination 3D Printers
(Sheets of material)

Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) 3D Printing
Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) 3D Printing

Printing Process:

Sheet Lamination rolls out a sheet of material, such as paper or foil-like material, onto the platform using a heated roller. A blade or laser beam then traces and removes material that is not part of the object. The platform then moves down so the roller can add a new layer of sheet material. The process repeats bonding sheets together until the model is complete. [8]

Material Used:

Sheet Lamination printing uses many different types of materials. Including paper, plastics, ceramics, composite parts, or metals which are bonded, or glued, together.

Application:

Common products produced by … material are:

  • Mainly used for non-functional rapid prototyping plastic parts in any industry as a cost savings option
  • In the automotive industry, OEM components such as sensors and wires can be embedded into the part during the layering process
  • Makes scaled models and conceptual prototyping for testing form and design
  • Create architectural models or replicas
  • One of the better printers for educational and design purposes

Advantages / Characteristics:

  • No support structure is necessary
  • Full color prints
  • Cut material can be recycled
  • Relatively low cost using standard materials

Disadvantages:

  • Layer height cannot be changed without changing sheet thickness
  • Often times finishes can very requiring post processing
  • Limited material options
  • Hollow parts can be difficult to produce

Pro Tip:

Highly consider Sheet Lamentation printing when low cost 3D prints are required. Or, if a first run test prototypes is necessary.

Conclusion

You may realize by now 3D printing technology is constantly expanding into new areas of life, such as printing chocolate and pancakes. And, and new forms of 3D printing are being introduced. So what is the difference between filament and resin 3D printers? Go to Resin vs Filament: Which is best for you? to learn more.

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