What is 3D printing? Definition and examples

3D printing technology uses a 3D printer to create things. The objects are three dimensional. A cup, for example, has 1. width 2. height, and 3. length. Therefore, a cup is three-dimensional. A graph on a sheet of paper, on the other hand, is just two dimensional. It has height and width, but no depth.

Until recently, printing involved writing or drawing on sheets of paper, i.e., creating two-dimensional things. Since the advent of 3D printing, we have been able to ‘print’ whole objects in three dimensions. You can even 3D print in your own home with a reasonable budget.

DesigningBuildings.co.uk has the following definition of the term:

“3D printing is the computer-controlled sequential layering of materials to create three-dimensional shapes. It is particularly useful for prototyping and for the manufacture of geometrically complex components.”

3D printing – adding layers

3D printers create 3-dimensional objects from a digital file. In this context, ‘digital’ means ‘electronic.’

3D printers make objects using additive processes. In other words, they lay down successive layers of material until the object is completed.

3D printing a jet engine
The Howard Community College’s MakerBot 3D printed this jet engine turbine. (Image: Wikipedia)

The process contrasts with subtractive manufacturing, which involves taking away layers or parts of something. Subtractive manufacturing involves cutting or hollowing out pieces of plastic or metal with, for example, a milling machine.

3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing.

3D printers can create objects of virtually any shape or geometry. They use digital model data from 3D models to create things.

3D printing – process

Below is a very simple description of what happens when a 3D printer creates an object:

  • The device creates an object by depositing or adding layers of material. It does not cut out or subtract pieces from a block of metal, wood, or plastic.
  • The computer file that tells the 3D printer what to do must by converting the data into many slices. This is because the printer creates things layer by layer or slice by slice.
  • We are still in the early stages of 3D printing technology. A printer can take hours or even days to complete something. How long it takes depends on how complicated the object is.
3D Printing at Manchester Metropolitan University
Manchester Metropolitan University in England has a 3D printing workshop – PrintCity. It boasts state-of-the-art printers that can create virtually anything. (Image: mmu.ac.uk)


Not many people use 3D printers today for personal use in their homes. In today’s scenario, 3D printing is used in manufacturing, medical devices, construction, space exploration, and some other sectors.

The food industry is developing techniques to create 3D objects that we can eat. The fashion industry is also interested in the technology. Fashion designers are currently experimenting with 3D printers to make dresses, shoes, and bikinis.

Researchers say that one day 3D printers will have a function in industry, our homes, education, sports, and most other sectors.

Imagine being able to print spare parts for your car, a new lightbulb, or a even your lunch. It probably won’t be that long before we are be able to replace our clothes by just printing them.

3D printing – recent news

In December 2018, MIT scientists explained how they could 3D print transparent glass on an industrial scale.

Also in December 2018, scientists from Washington State University created a 3D-printed glucose biosensor. Millions of people with diabetes could one day use this wearable device to monitor their blood glucose levels.

Cazza Technologies, a leader in 3D printed buildings and homes, plans to create a skyscraper using 3D printing technology.

In December 2018, MIT launched the Center for Additive and Digital Advanced Production Technologies (ADAPT), an additive manufacturing consortium. MIT says that additive manufacturing will transform how we all design, develop, and make goods. In this context, the term ‘goods’ means the same as ‘products.’