Information About 3D Printing

Click on a link below to be taken to that section for more info on 3D printing:

3D printed part

What is 3D Printing?

What is this 3D printing thing?  Don't even know where to start?  Start by reviewing the information on this page to learn more about the technology.  Next, go to the site, where you can browse over 500,000 models available for free download to get an idea of just some of the things people are printing.

Think of three dimensional ("3D") printing like printing ink onto a piece of paper using a normal printer, except that after you print the first layer of ink you would repeatedly print more layers of ink on top of each other.  Eventually, after many layers, the ink would start to build up and create a solid object that has not only width and length (like the piece of paper), but thickness as well.

That is essentially the concept behind 3D printing.  However, instead of ink, the material that is typically used is plastic (but can also be metals, ceramics, etc.).  3D printing is sometimes referred to as Additive Manufacturing, since you are adding material.  This is opposed to so called Subtractive Manufacturing, such as more traditional types of machining, cutting, grinding, drilling, etc.

Want to see an actual printed part?  Contact us for a free sample part!

3D Printing Applications

Why are people using 3D printed parts?  Just some of the many uses include:

  • Rapid prototypes of inventions, parts, or production tooling
    • Faster and lower cost design iterations for checks of fit, form, or function of parts before submitting them for conventional production (machining, casting, molding, etc.)

  • Functional parts
    • 3D printed parts don't just need to sit on the shelf!  In many applications, they can be used as actual functional end use parts.  For example, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane uses about 30 printed parts.  Read more about it here.

  • Bridge / Pilot / Rapid Manufacturing (low to medium quantities)
    • "Bridge" the gap between one off prototyping, and higher volumes that usually require expensive tooling with long lead times.  Produce the low to medium quanities using 3D printing, instead of by other methods.


  • Mold Tooling
    • Cut tooling costs and lead times by using printed molds to test a concept or produce low quantities of parts using injection molding, thermoforming, resin casting, investment casting, or other methods.

  • Jigs & Fixtures
    • 3D printing is well suited for manufacturing jigs and fixtures for holding and aligning components during product assembly and processing.  Printed tooling is often ideal in this application, as the number of tooling sets needed are low, the designs are very specific, and they can often be manufactured cheaper and faster than machined counterparts.

  • Architectural
    • Models of houses, communities, and commercial buildings allow designers to more easily communicate their ideas to prospective buyers or investors

  • Hobbies
    • Custom or replacment parts for radio controlled cars, planes, boat, helicopters, drones, robots, etc.


3D printed extruder drive gears and other parts for a RepRap 3D printer


  • Packaging
    • Print a prototype of custom packaging, or the general outer shape of a part to be able to design packaging around it

  • Around the house
    • Have a broken part in your car, dishwasher, etc., and don't want to replace the appliance or buy the whole replacement subassembly?  Save money, and print just the part you need.

  • Education
    • 3D printers and printed parts are great for hands on STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) projects for kids.

  • Personalized gifts
    • Add your own text, logo, or custom sizing to anything you can print.  

  • Weddings

    • Custom gifts, cake toppers

  • Art, toys, puzzles, mechanisms, and more...

Types of 3D Printing Processes

There are several types of 3D printing processes.  The process described above is called Fused Deposition Modelling, or FDM.  It refers to the material being extruded or deposited onto itself so that it sticks together or fuses with the other layers to create a solid physical object or model.  

Other common 3D printing processes include Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) where powders (usually plastics, though also metals) are melted together using a laser to form a solid object, and Stereolithography (SLA) where lasers or other light sources are used to cure (solidify) a liquid resin into a solid part.

Materials Used in 3D Printing

PLA is relatively strong and is generally easier to print, and so is a commonly used material.  Also, it is biodegradeable and renewable as it is made from plants such as corn (more details here).  However, it can be too brittle for some applications, and is not very resistant to high temperatures.

Typical standard available colors are black, white, red, light blue, dark blue, light green, dark green, neon orange, yellow, gray, silver, and gold.  However, many other colors are available upon request.

There are many other types of materials available.  Just some examples include:

Nylons:  Taulman 618Bridge, 645
Various blends, such as PC-ABS:  Proto-pasta
PLA plastic filled with various materials to change the appearance, texture, or other properties:
     Wood:  colorFabb WoodFill
     Sandstone:  LayBrick
     Brass:  colorFabb BrassFill
     Bronze:  colorFabb BronzeFill
     Copper:  colorFabb CopperFill
     Iron (Magnetic):  colorFabb or Proto-pasta Magnetic Iron PLA
     Stainless Steel:  colorFabb or Proto-pasta
     Carbon Fiber:  colorFabb XT-CF20 or Proto-pasta
     Conductive:  Proto-pasta Conductive PLA
     Other:  colorFabb BambooFill
Flexible:  NinjaFlex, FlexPLA
Tough, Flexible, and Clear:  PETG
Clear or Transparent with Color Tint:  Taulman T-Glase, PET
Glow in the dark:  colorFabb GlowFill
Color Changing with Temperature:  Thermochrome EcoPLA
High Temperature Resistance, Flame Retardant:  ULTEM
Soluble (for support material):  HIPS

Factors That Affect the Cost of 3D Printed Parts

Print times can vary greatly from part to part, and depend on several factors.  These include part size, density, complexity, and quality.

Part size.  Everything else being equal, the greater the part volume, the longer the total print time.

Density.  The solid sections of a model are often printed at lower densities on the actual part.  This is usually referred to as an infill percentage.  Most parts are printed with infill in the range of 10% to 40%. Even functional, load bearing parts are often printed at not much higher percentages than these.  Generally, more infill means a stronger part but a longer print time, and more warpage due to a larger mass of hot plastic cooling to room temperature. 

Complexity.  Since the FDM technology relies on each layer of the part being supported by the layer below it, overhangs or bridges can be difficult features to print.  They can be achieved up to a point (within certain limits of angles or sizes), but are generally best avoided if possible to save on support materials.

Quality.  The layer height of a part can be varied.  The thinner the layer, the better the appearance, but the longer the print will take.  Quality can also be improved by slowing down the print speed, which will also affect print time.

File Types

CAD programs can output models as specific file types called STL files.  Other files are used, such as OBJ and AMF, but STL is the most common.  STL files are simplified representations of CAD models, and are made up of many triangles.  The less triangles in an STL file, the smaller the file size and the faster they can be processed.  However, too few triangles can cause too much loss of detail.

STL files can often have errors, where edges of triangles do not join correctly and you can see right through the model.  This means that the part is not "manifold", or not water tight.  We can usually repair minor issues in your STL files for you, but sometimes they may require the CAD model to be re-exported with different settings to correct the issue.

Processing 3D Files for Printing: Slicing

STLs are processed by programs called Slicers, which convert the STL files into code that the 3D printer can interpret.  They are called Slicers since they slice the solid model into many layers.  This code (called G-Code) instructs the printer how to behave.  It controls precise print head location, starts and stops extrusion, and regulates temperatures.