How does a 3D printer work?

3D printers are among the technical achievements that have attracted a great deal of attention in recent years and that have triggered high hopes, especially among visionaries, for future revolutionary possibilities in the field of production. But many laypeople are still wondering: How does a 3D printer actually work? The following lines should shed some light on this.

All processes at a glance

  • Stereolithography

  • Selective laser sintering

  • Fused Deposition Modeling

Definition of the 3D printer

A 3D printer is a device that uses a process in which a material is applied layer by layer to create a three-dimensional object. During the construction process, it is not uncommon for chemical or physical melting or hardening processes to take place. The construction unit of the print is controlled by a computer, on which the construction plan for the workpiece to be completed was created in advance. Modern 3D printers use both liquid and solid materials, and sometimes even filaments made from by-products that are left over from manufacturing processes.

In practice, mainly various plastics, synthetic resins, metals and ceramic materials are used. Today, 3D printers are mainly used in industry or research facilities. Smaller devices can now also be found in private households. Users here mainly produce figurines, smaller vessels or toys. The beginnings of 3D printing date back to the early 1980s, and after the first development steps, the first device, on which today's 3D printer technology is also based, was launched on the market in 1988. Today, simple devices can be purchased for as little as 600 euros, while professional devices in the industry cost several thousand if not tens or hundreds of thousands of euros.

How does a 3D printer work?

The question "How does a 3D printer work?" cannot be answered in a general way, because there are four different processes. What all of the following processes have in common, however, is that the 3D filament is applied to a work plate and assembled layer by layer.


The oldest and still most widely used technique is stereolithography. The stereolithography process can be traced back to the US inventor and engineer Charles W. Hull, in which a thin layer of synthetic resin is poured into a small basin. A UV laser exposes this in a next work step so that the synthetic resin can harden. These steps are then repeated until the desired workpiece is finished. The advantage of this process is that due to the very thin layers of resin, very fine and very smooth layers can be produced.

Selective laser sintering

The second method is called selective laser sintering. This process is also widely used among 3D printers. Various materials in powder form are used here. Usually metals, plastics or ceramics are used. In the first step, the powder is distributed on a work plate. In a second step, a laser is then used, which uses a roller or squeegee mechanism to fuse the working material and shape it into the desired object.

Fused Deposition Modeling

The third process is called fused deposition modeling, or layer melting. This process is also used quite frequently by modern 3D printers. This process can also be used to process various materials, which are passed through heated nozzles and melted in the process. Subsequently, the molten material is applied in individual layers on a work plate and dries out after modeling.

Luminated Object Manufacturing

The "Luminated Object Manufacturing" process primarily uses paper, but plastic can also be processed. The printer glues the material together in layers. A knife or laser is then used as a cutting tool to do the modeling work.

Advantages and disadvantages of the devices

A 3D printer can provide its user with a lot of fun, and it can be used to model a variety of objects and shapes. However, if the work is to be very detailed, then the device should already be of a somewhat higher quality. Of course, this is reflected in the acquisition costs, and good devices cost at least 1000 euros. And the material is not cheap either. A product from a mass production is always cheaper than a self-made unique.

Outlook for the future

Now that the question "How does a 3D printer work?" and the advantages and disadvantages of the devices have been clarified, a brief outlook on the future should be given at this point. Particularly in the field of industry or research, 3D printers have fought their way into a large space in the past, and experts assume that they will make up even more ground and also destroy jobs in the age of advancing automation. Whereas initially only individual components were produced in these areas, the printers can now be used to produce complete workpieces without any problems. They already play an important role in the manufacture of cars, aircraft, organic materials and other machines. Despite initial euphoria, they have not yet been widely used in the private sector, mainly because of the high purchase and material costs. Certainly, 3D printers will also become the private sector, but will certainly not trigger a revolution any time soon.