Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest news and events from TWI:

Subscribe >
Skip to content

What is 3D Printing? - Technology Definition and Types

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a method of creating a three dimensional object layer-by-layer using a computer created design.

3D printing is an additive process whereby layers of material are built up to create a 3D part. This is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing processes, where a final design is cut from a larger block of material. As a result, 3D printing creates less material wastage.

This article is one of a series of TWI frequently asked questions (FAQs).

3D printing is also perfectly suited to the creation of complex, bespoke items, making it ideal for rapid prototyping.


  1. What materials can be used?
  2. History
  3. Technologies
  4. Process types
  5. How long does it take?
  6. Advantages and disadvantages
  7. What is an STL file?
  8. Industries
  9. Services
  10. FAQs


TWI is an Industrial Membership based organisation. TWI's experts can provide your company with an extension to your own resources. Our experts are dedicated to helping industry improve safety, quality, efficiency and profitability in all aspects of materials joining technology. Industrial Membership of TWI currently extends to over 600 companies worldwide, embracing all industrial sectors.

You can find out more by contacting us, below:

What Materials can be used in 3D Printing?

There are a variety of 3D printing materials, including thermoplastics such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), metals (including powders)resins and ceramics.

History of 3D Printing

Who Invented 3D Printing?

The earliest 3D printing manufacturing equipment was developed by Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, when he invented two additive methods for fabricating 3D models.

When was 3D Printing Invented?

Building on Ralf Baker's work in the 1920s for making decorative articles (patent US423647A), Hideo Kodama's early work in laser cured resin rapid prototyping was completed in 1981. His invention was expanded upon over the next three decades, with the introduction of stereolithography in 1984. Chuck Hull of 3D Systems invented the first 3D printer in 1987, which used the stereolithography process. This was followed by developments such as selective laser sintering and selective laser melting, among others. Other expensive 3D printing systems were developed in the 1990s-2000s, although the cost of these dropped dramatically when the patents expired in 2009, opening up the technology for more users.

3D Printing Technologies

There are three broad types of 3D printing technology; sintering, melting, and stereolithography.

  • Sintering is a technology where the material is heated, but not to the point of melting, to create high resolution items. Metal powder is used for direct metal laser sintering while thermoplastic powders are used for selective laser sintering.
  • Melting methods of 3D printing include powder bed fusion, electron beam melting and direct energy deposition, these use lasers, electric arcs or electron beams to print objects by melting the materials together at high temperatures.
  • Stereolithography utilises photopolymerization to create parts. This technology uses the correct light source to interact with the material in a selective manner to cure and solidify a cross section of the object in thin layers.

3D Printing Processes

Types of 3D printing

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, processes have been categorised into seven groups by ISO/ASTM 52900 additive manufacturing - general principles - terminology. All forms of 3D printing fall into one of the following types:

Binder Jetting

Binder jetting deposits a thin layer of powered material, for example metal, polymer sand or ceramic, onto the build platform, after which drops of adhesive are deposited by a print head to bind the particles together. This builds the part layer by layer and once this is complete post processing may be necessary to finish the build. As examples of post processing, metal parts may be thermally sintered or infiltrated with a low melting point metal such as bronze, while full-colour polymer or ceramic parts may be saturated with cyanoacrylate adhesive.

Binder jetting can be used for a variety of applications including 3D metal printing, full colour prototypes and large scale ceramic moulds.

Direct Energy Deposition

Direct energy depositioning uses focussed thermal energy such as an electric arc, laser or electron beam to fuse wire or powder feedstock as it is deposited. The process is traversed horizontally to build a layer, and layers are stacked vertically to create a part.

This process can be used with a variety of materials, including metals, ceramics and polymers.

Material Extrusion

Material extrusion or fused deposition modelling (FDM) uses a spool of filament which is fed to an extrusion head with a heated nozzle. The extrusion head heats, softens and lays down the heated material at set locations, where it cools to create a layer of material, the build platform then moves down ready for the next layer.

This process is cost-effective and has short lead times but also has a low dimensional accuracy and often requires post processing to create a smooth finish. This process also tends to create anisotropic parts, meaning that they are weaker in one direction and therefore unsuitable for critical applications.

Material Jetting

Material jetting works in a similar manner to inkjet printing except, rather than laying down ink on a page, this process deposits layers of liquid material from one or more print heads. The layers are then cured before the process begins again for the next layer. Material jetting requires the use of support structures but these can be made from a water-soluble material that can be washed away once the build is complete.

A precise process, material jetting is one of the most expensive 3D printing methods, and the parts tend to be brittle and will degrade over time. However, this process allows for the creation of full-colour parts in a variety of materials.

Powder Bed Fusion

Powder bed fusion (PBF) is a process in which thermal energy (such as a laser or electron beam) selectively fuses areas of a powder bed to form layer, and layers are built upon each other to create a part. One thing to note is that PBF covers both sintering and melting processes. The basic method of operation of all powder bed systems is the same: a recoating blade or roller deposits a thin layer of the powder onto the build platform, the powder bed surface is then scanned with a heat source which selectively heats the particles to bind them together. Once a layer or cross-section has been scanned by the heat source, the platform moves down to allow the process to begin again on the next layer. The final result is a volume containing one or more fused parts surrounded by unaffected powder. When the build is complete, the bed is fully raised to allow the parts to be removed from the unaffected powder and any required post processing to begin.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) is often used for manufacture of polymer parts and is good for prototypes or functional parts due to the properties produced, while the lack of support structures (the powder bed acts as a support) allows for the creation of pieces with complex geometries. The parts produced may have a grainy surface and inner porosity, meaning there is often a need for post processing.  

Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), selective laser melting (SLM) and electron beam powder bed fusion (EBPBF) are similar to SLS, except these processes create parts from metal, using a laser to bond powder particles together layer-by-layer. While SLM fully melts the metal particles, DMLS only heats them to the point of fusion whereby they join on a molecular level. Both SLM and DMLS require support structures due to the high heat inputs required by the process. These support structures are then removed in post processing ether manually or via CNC machining. Finally, the parts may be thermally treated to remove residual stresses.

Both DMLS and SLM produce parts with excellent physical properties - often stronger than the conventional metal itself, and good surface finishes. They can be used with metal superalloys and sometimes ceramics which are difficult to process by other means. However, these processes can be expensive and the size of the produced parts is limited by the volume of the 3D printing system used.  

Sheet Lamination

Sheet lamination can be split into two different technologies, laminated object manufacturing (LOM) and ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM). LOM uses alternate layers of material and adhesive to create items with visual and aesthetic appeal, while UAM joins thin sheets of metal via ultrasonic welding. UAM is a low temperature, low energy process that can be used with aluminium, stainless steel and titanium.

VAT Photopolymerization

VAT photopolymerization can be broken down into two techniques; stereolithography (SLA) and digital light processing (DLP). These processes both create parts layer-by-layer through the use of a light to selectively cure liquid resin in a vat. SLA uses a single point laser or UV source for the curing process, while DLP flashes a single image of each full layer onto the surface of the vat. Parts need to be cleaned of excess resin after printing and then exposed to a light source to improve the strength of the pieces. Any support structures will also need to be removed and additional post-processing can be used to create a higher quality finish.  

Ideal for parts with a high level of dimensional accuracy, these processes can create intricate details with a smooth finish, making them perfect for prototype production. However, as the parts are more brittle than fused deposition modelling (FDM) they are less suited to functional prototypes. Also, these parts are not suitable for outdoor use as the colour and mechanical properties may degrade when exposed to UV light from the sun. The required support structures can also leave blemishes that need post processing to remove.

How Long Does 3D Printing Take?

The printing time depends on a number of factors, including the size of the part and the settings used for printing. The quality of the finished part is also important when determining printing time as higher quality items take longer to produce. 3D printing can take anything from a few minutes to several hours or days - speed, resolution and the volume of material are all important factors here.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The advantages of 3D printing include:

  • Bespoke, cost-effective creation of complex geometries:
    This technology allows for the easy creation of bespoke geometric parts where added complexity comes at no extra cost. In some instances, 3D printing is cheaper than subtractive production methods as no extra material is used.
  • Affordable start-up costs:
    Since no moulds are required, the costs associated with this manufacturing process are relatively low. The cost of a part is directly related to the amount of material used, the time taken to build the part and any post processing that may be required.
  • Completely customisable:
    Because the process is based upon computer aided designs (CAD), any product alterations are easy to make without impacting the manufacturing cost.
  • Ideal for rapid prototyping:
    Because the technology allows for small batches and in-house production, this process is ideal for prototyping, which means that products can be created faster than with more traditional manufacturing techniques, and without the reliance on external supply chains.
  • Allows for the creation of parts with specific properties:
    Although plastics and metals are the most common materials used in 3D printing, there is also scope for creating parts from specially tailored materials with desired properties. So, for example, parts can be created with high heat resistance, water repellency or higher strengths for specific applications.

The disadvantages of 3D printing include:

  • Can have a lower strength than with traditional manufacture:
    While some parts, such as those made from metal, have excellent mechanical properties, many other 3D printed parts are more brittle than those created by traditional manufacturing techniques. This is because the parts are built up layer-by-layer, which reduces the strength by between 10 and 50%.
  • Increased cost at high volume:
    Large production runs are more expensive with 3D printing as economies of scale do not impact this process as they do with other traditional methods. Estimates suggest that when making a direct comparison for identical parts, 3D printing is less cost effective than CNC machining or injection moulding in excess of 100 units, provided the parts can be manufactured by conventional means.
  • Limitations in accuracy:
    The accuracy of a printed part depends on the type of machine and/or process used. Some desktop printers have lower tolerances than other printers, meaning that the final parts may slightly differ from the designs. While this can be fixed with post-processing, it must be considered that 3D printed parts may not always be exact.
  • Post-processing requirements:
    Most 3D printed parts require some form of post-processing. This may be sanding or smoothing to create a required finish, the removal of support struts which allow the materials to be built up into the designated shape, heat treatment to achieve specific material properties or final machining.

What is an STL File?

An STL file is a simple, portable format used by computer aided design (CAD) systems to define the solid geometry for 3D printable parts. An STL file provides the input information for 3D printing by modelling the surfaces of the object as triangles that share edges and vertices with other neighbouring triangles for the build platform. The resolution of the STL file impacts the quality of the 3D printed parts - if the file resolution is too high the triangle may overlap, if it is too low the model will have gaps, making it unprintable. Many 3D printers require an STL file to print from, however these files can be created in most CAD programs.

3D Printing Industries

Due to the versatility of the process, 3D printing has applications across a range of industries, for example:


3D printing is used across the aerospace (and astrospace) industry due to the ability to create light, yet geometrically complex parts, such as blisks. Rather than building a part from several components, 3D printing allows for an item to be created as one whole component, reducing lead times and material wastage.


The automotive industry has embraced 3D printing due to the inherent weight and cost reductions. It also allows for rapid prototyping of new or bespoke parts for test or small-scale manufacture. So, for example, if a particular part is no longer available, it can be produced as part of a small, bespoke run, including the manufacture of spare parts. Alternatively, items or fixtures can be printed overnight and are ready for testing ahead of a larger manufacturing run.


The medical sector has found uses for 3D printing in the creation of made-to-measure implants and devices. For example, hearing aids can be created quickly from a digital file that is matched to a scan of the patient's body. 3D printing can also dramatically reduce costs and production times.


The rail industry has found a number of applications for 3D printing, including the creation of customised parts, such as arm rests for drivers and housing covers for train couplings. Bespoke parts are just one application for the rail industry, which has also used the process to repair worn rails


The speed of manufacture, design freedom, and ease of design customisation make 3D printing perfectly suited to the robotics industry. This includes work to create bespoke exoskeletons and agile robots with improved agility and efficiency.

3D Printing Services

TWI has one of the most definitive ranges of 3D Printing services, including selective laser melting, laser deposition, wire and arc additive manufacturing, wire and electron beam additive manufacturing and EB powder bed fusion small-scale prototyping, and more.


Can 3D Printing be used for Mass Production?

While there have been great advances in 3D printing, it still struggles to match other manufacturing techniques for high volume production. Techniques such as injection moulding allow for much faster mass production of parts.

Where is 3D Printing Heading in the Future?

As 3D printing technology continues to improve it could democratise the manufacture of goods. With printers becoming faster, they will be able to work on larger scale production projects, while lowering the cost of 3D printing will help its use spread outside of industrial uses and into homes, schools and other settings.

Which 3D Printing Material is most Flexible?

Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) is commonly deemed to be the most flexible material available to the 3D printing industry. TPU possesses bendable and stretchy characteristics that many other filaments do not have.

Which 3D Printing Material is the Strongest?

Polycarbonate is seen as the strongest 3D printing material, with a tensile strength of 9,800 psi, compared to nylon, for example, with just 7,000 psi.

Why is 3D Printing Important?

3D printing is important for the many benefits it brings. It allows users to produce items that have geometries which are difficult or impossible for traditional methods to produce. It also allows users with a limited experience to edit designs and create bespoke, customised parts. On-demand 3D printing also saves on tooling costs and provides an advanced time-to-market. 3D printing is important for industries such as aerospace, where it can create lightweight yet complex parts, offering weight saving, the associated fuel reductions and a better environmental impact as a result. It is also important for the creation of prototypes that can advance industry.

Will 3D Printing Replace Traditional Manufacturing?

3D printing has the capability to disrupt traditional manufacturing through the democratisation of production along with the production of moulds, tools and other bespoke parts. However, challenges around mass production mean that 3D printing is unlikely to replace traditional manufacturing where high volume production of comparatively simple parts is required.

Are 3D Printing Fumes Dangerous?

3D printing fumes can be dangerous to your health as the process produces toxic filament fumes. These emissions are produced as the plastic filaments are melted to create the product layer-by-layer. However, correct procedures such as ensuring sufficient ventilation or using extractors can solve this issue.

Are There Any Further Developments Beyond 3D Printing, Such as 4D and 5D Printing?

Yes, there are ongoing advancements in the world of additive manufacturing, including 4D and 5D printing. While 3D printing focuses on creating three-dimensional objects layer by layer, 4D printing adds the element of time to the process. In essence, the printed objects can self-assemble or change shape in response to external factors like temperature or moisture after they have been created.

On the other hand, 5D printing involves a more advanced approach that centers around optimising material usage and building structures with increased strength and reduced weight. This is achieved by utilising highly precise multi-axis machines, able to print objects in a more intricate manner than conventional methods.

These cutting-edge technologies promise to revolutionise various industries by offering new possibilities for product design and functionality. It’s an exciting time as researchers continue exploring the full potential of these innovative manufacturing techniques.

Related Frequently Asked Question (FAQs)


For more information please email: