Quick and easy guide to understanding how 3D printing works

With 3D printers, the power to create any 3-dimensional object from a multitude of materials is at your fingertips. Personal 3D printers like Cubify (available at Staples starting at $1299) are poised to become the next essential adult toy. Industrially, they may even revolutionize manufacturing as they offer a less expensive route to DIY prototypes. While the printers come in a variety of models, all of the machines share the same basic process. We’ll break it down for you here in 6 simple steps.

Why We All Need 3D Printers

With 3D printers, the power to create any 3-dimensional object from a multitude of materials is at your fingertips. Personal 3D printers like Cubify (available at Staples starting at $1299) are poised to become the next essential adult toy. Industrially, they may even revolutionize manufacturing as they offer a less expensive route to DIY prototypes. While the printers come in a variety of models, all of the machines share the same basic process. We’ll break it down for you here in 6 simple steps.

Step 1

The first step is to obviously pick an object you want to replicate and 3D print.

Step 2

Create a virtual model of your desired object using any computer aided design (CAD) software. Luckily for those of us unfamiliar with computer coding, there are plenty of virtual blueprints available for download online.

Step 3

Convert it into a format compatible with 3D printing machines, commonly a STL (stereolithography) file. This can be done using a converter program, similar to converting a word document to a PDF.

Step 4

The 3D printer reads the STL file and divides the model into 2D cross-sections or “slices.” Imagine taking a three dimensional orange and slicing it into flat sections - ooh that makes me want sangria...

Step 5

The 3D printer constructs the object by printing these “slices” – through an additive process where each successive layer builds onto the previous layer – of desired material about 0.1 millimeter thick, approximately the thickness of a sheet of paper. The materials can be plastic, powder, polymer, metal alloy, paper or film depending on the type of printer.

Step 6

Remove your 3D printed object, dust it off and you’ve got an awesome conversation starter! And quite a head-turner in the case of this little 3D printed number.