Editorial Feature

What is 3D Printing?

3D Printing has the potential to literally turn the world of manufacturing on it's head. It allows objects to be built up a layer at a time from a wide variety of materials. This "additive" manufacturing is the opposite approach to most traditional, "subtractive" manufacturing techniques, where a larger block of material is carved away into the shape required.

3D printing technology is proving most useful in research and education, as prototype products can be iterated rapidly and at little cost. This is especially valuable in engineering fields such as robotics. Researchers in theoretical physics and mathematics can also benefit, as 3D models can help to demonstrate concepts which would otherwise be purely conceptual.

Some large manufacturing businesses are concerned that the increasing availability of affordable 3D printing systems will result in increased levels of counterfeit goods. However, some commentators believe this will lead to a more competitive, more effective ecosystem, and some manufacturers are taking advantage of the opportunities the technology will offer.

Figure 1. Oglaf Diegel, from Massey University, New Zealand, produces 3D printed guitars which would be impossible to create by any other method.

Benefits of 3D Printing in Manufacturing

As 3D printing technology becomes more and more affordable and is adapted for more types of materials, it will begin to bring transformative benefits to the world of manufacturing. Some of the benefits include:

Shorter Assembly Lines - 3D printing allows products to be assembled in a single stage, reducing the need for assembly stages. This will reduce the size of manufacturing facilities, and help them to run more efficiently.

Simple Transfer of Designs - CAD designs for a product can be sent via the internet to locations all over the world in a standard format which can be used by any 3D printing facility. This will make international collaboration and prototyping of product designs more efficient and straightforward, and allow manufacturers to expand into new global regions more easily.

Print-on-Demand Products - 3D printing will provide a huge boost to the practice of "Just in Time" manufacturing. The short manufacturing times and flexibility of 3D printing systems will allow manufacturers to produce products as they are ordered, reducing the amount of surplus stock they will need to hold.

Flexibility for Factories - 3D printers can be used to make a huge variety of products. Factories equipped with 3D printing equipment would be able to switch between a number of products rapidly, with minimal retooling or redesigning of processes. This would allow companies to respond effectively to short-term changes in demand.

Figure 2. 3D printers have already made the transition from home-built machines to polished professional tools. Desktop 3D printers are hotly tipped to be the next big move for the technology. Image credit: University of Iowa.

Shorter Supply Chains - The small footprint and ease of use of manufacturing systems based on 3D printing means that international companies can set up operations in the country where a product is needed, rather than running large, centralized facilities.

Creative Product Design - The capabilities of 3D printing allow shapes and structures to be used which could not be achieved by any other method, or certainly not in large volumes. The technology is already proving a popular medium for artists and sculptors, and decorative 3D-printed objects are commercially available.

Materials for 3D Printing

3D printers can be adapted to work with a very wide range of materials. Custom built systems can even use multiple materials in a single build to create more complex products, containing multiple colours or electrically conductive sections.

Even with the transformative effect of 3D printing on the manufacturing industry, there will mostl likely still be a market for premium quality printing materials with superior properties or novel features.

Plastics are the most common materials used for 3D printing. The plastic is extruded as a fine thread from the printing nozzle as it moves around, constructing the object one layer at a time. The wide array and low cost of available plastics makes them ideally suited for 3D printing, particularly in rapid prototyping scenarios.

Ceramics can also be used to create 3D printed objects. These are usually handled by a different method - layer upon layer of ceramic powder is added in a block, whilst the stucture is temporarily created using a binder or a laser sinter. The excess powder is then removed to reveal the solid object, which is then fired and glazed in a kiln.

Metals can be 3D printed in a similar way - metal powder is sintered, or a binder is added, to create the structure. The object is supported by the rest of the free powder until the metal is fused at high temperatures and the rest of the material is removed.

Figure 3. This video demonstrates 3D printing of ceramics for rapid prototyping.


It is generally accepted that 3D printing will be a revolutionary force in manufacturing, whether positive or negative. Despite concerns over counterfeiting, many companies are already using the technology to repeatably produce intricate components, for example in automotive and aerospace manufacturing.

As 3D printers become more affordable, they will inevitably be used for local, small scale manufacturing, largely eliminating supply chains for many types of product. Consumer units for home use will even become feasible, allowing end users to simply download a design for the product they require and print it out.

There will be major challenges for the conventional manufacturing industry to adapt to these changes. The opportunities for technology and engineering are clearly huge, however, and the creative possibilities in product design and printing material formulation are nearly endless.


  • "Ceramic 3D Printing: A Design Case Study" - Peter Walters, UWE
  • "Integrated 3D-Printed Reactionware for Chemical Synthesis and Analysis" - M.D. Symes et al, Nature Chemistry 2012. DOi: 10.1038/nchem.1313
  • "3D Printing in Colour: Technical Evaluation and Creative Applications" - P.Walters et al, Impact 6 International Printmaking Conference, 2009.
  • "Could 3D Printing Change the World?" - Atlantic Council Strategic Foresight Report
  • "7 Things You Should Know About 3D Printing" - Educause
Will Soutter

Written by

Will Soutter

Will has a B.Sc. in Chemistry from the University of Durham, and a M.Sc. in Green Chemistry from the University of York. Naturally, Will is our resident Chemistry expert but, a love of science and the internet makes Will the all-rounder of the team. In his spare time Will likes to play the drums, cook and brew cider.


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