I know—there is so much popping up as “the next big thing” in today’s tech world, it’s hard to know what’s going to stick around for the long run.
The next great mobile game that came and went, countless iPhone and Android phone competitors that didn’t move the needle. Even the DVD, which definitely had a nice run, is now pretty much obsolete.
But 3D printing? Book it, mark the tape, write it in permanent marker—3D printing is here to stay.
3D printing started off as a “that’s cool, but is it practical” type of technology, and has since turned into a full-blown solution for many problems and challenges, changing the world in many positive ways.
I mean, a 3D-printed home proved to be a reality in 2019. We now have 3D printed bones to help combat injuries, prosthetic limbs for those in need, watches, car parts, and more. It’s all been done, and you can bet the technology is only going to get more impressive from here.
Thus, if you or your kids aren’t familiar, now is the time to begin learning—and we thought it best to define a few basic 3D printing terms to get you started.
3D printing terms
I won’t assume your level of knowledge, so let’s start high-level!
3D printing creates a three-dimensional object out of a digital file, and is also known as additive manufacturing. The process creates an object one layer at a time, through many of the parts and pieces explained below.
The build platform is where the print starts! For instance, the first print layer will be placed on the build platform, with each layer built on top of it, and on and on, layer by layer until the object has been completed.
Think of it like an inkjet printer having a “platform” of paper, used to “hold” whatever it is being printed. The build platform is the canvas, allowing for the printing to be created upon it.
The heated bed is a type of platform, and gets warm to help the first print layer stick, while also helping prevent the bottom of the model from cooling off and warping (or shrinking).
With a heated bed, the issue of prints coming off the bed during the print is much less likely, and because of that, your child will find a much higher success rate when their model that is printing has a flat base.
Another type of platform, the removal bed, is useful for removing the entire build from the printer once it is finished.
Filament is the substance used to create the layers being printed. (Think of filament as the ink in a normal printer.) Typically, filament is plastic, but it can be made of different materials such as polylactic acid (PLA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and more.
When choosing a filament, make sure to look up the temperatures before printing—different materials have different melting points!
The extruder is used to heat the filament to its melting point, and then push the material onto layers. It is typically attached to belts that function to move the extruder around as it creates every layer.
The tip of the extruder where the filament comes out is called the nozzle. (The nozzle will heat to temperatures over 200 degrees!)
Never touch the extruder; it is exceedingly hot, takes a long time to cool, and any dust or grease could easily clog the nozzle.
3D printers need help knowing where to place each layer of an object. Specialized software for 3D printers takes a 3D model and breaks it into sliced layers. This new sliced object is then saved to a file the printers can read.
Each of these programs are a bit different. Some can be used with multiple printers, while others require specific slicers.
As mentioned, 3D printers create objects one layer, or slice, at a time. The extruder starts at the bottom of the model and works its way to the top, and will only move to a new layer once the one before it has finished.
Just like an inkjet can’t reverse and reprint, the 3D printer cannot go back to a previous layer—otherwise, it would knock over the entire object.
Overhangs are parts of the model that go past the “safe angle” to be printed. Meaning, most printers can print at a tolerance of 45 degrees, and if there's an area steeper than 45 degrees, there is a high probability of failure.
Different printers and filaments will have varying levels of tolerance when it comes to overhangs.
Supports can be used to bridge the gap between layers, and can enable the printing of "floating" parts such as arms and hands hanging from a body.
Some slicing software can automatically add supports, while others may require the use of an outside program. Manual supports can also be built directly into the model.
When printing, the orientation of the object needs to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, it's easier to print something rotated differently from its intended look!
For instance, many characters are printed on their back to increase the layered surface area. If the character is printed on their feet, there might only be two tiny spots where the character starts.
Though the concept of “gravity” isn’t specific to 3D printing , it’s worth mentioning thanks to its potential impact on any 3D printing project.
Given the descriptions of “overhangs” and “supports,” gravity should not be ignored when 3D printing. (There can’t be big spaces where filament might be floating!) Make sure to think about what direction the model should be placed before creating supports.
Preparing students for the future
Now, if only we could 3D print our destiny!
Until then, the intersection of 3D printing and your child’s future comes in the form of learning the ins and outs of 3D printing technology, and then generating wonderful ideas on how to put that knowledge to use.
While the power 3D printing puts in our hands is obvious, such incredible innovations are only made possible by creative, forward-thinking minds.
If you have a child who might enjoy diving in, check out our more detailed post on 3D printing for kids, or one of the many 3D printing and 3D modeling courses at iD Tech:
3D Printing Lessons (Online, 1-on-1, ages 10+)
3D Printing and Modeling with Take-Home Printer (co-ed, ages 10-12)