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How Do 3D Printers Work? - 3D Printing Terminology

Updated: Jul 22, 2018

Written by: Eitan Yona and Megan Factor

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If you read the news or use social media, chances are you have a basic understanding of what 3D printing is. But what about all this technical jargon that gets thrown around as soon as you click on an industry article to learn more?


Additive manufacturing terminology may seem overwhelming at first, and sometimes sounding like a foreign language, but once you familiarize yourself with the key concepts, the rest will fall into place. Let’s break down this industry term by term and learn the basics.


Our first stop on the road to 3D printing expertise is the most common form of 3D printing: FDM. This stands for Fused Deposition Modeling. It might not be the buzz word that first comes to mind when thinking of this industry, but if you are considering owning a printer or work in a fab lab, this common machine is what you will most likely be using. In short, FDM technology is where most beginners start.


What are the components of such a printer? We’re glad you asked! The next step is to understand the pieces and parts of an FDM printer and their functions. Let’s being with the 3D printer axis. Since printing takes place in 3 dimensions, it only makes sense that the printer moves in 3 directions as well: X, Y, and Z. The X and Y dimensions are created by the right and left movements of the axis. Height, or dimension Z, is created by a motor that lifts the model up or down.


The build plate is another key component of 3D printing. This is the place that the model will print on and is the part of the printer that moves up and down to create height, or dimension Z. There are many kinds of plates, but you will most likely come in contact with one made from glass. This material is beneficial because when the completed model is removed from the glass, there is a smooth finish on the bottom. Under the build plate, there is the bed. In some printers, such as a Ultimaker, there is a heated bed that makes printing easier.


Filament is probably a term that you have heard before regarding 3D printing, but if you are not familiar with what it is, take note: filament is the material that we will use to print and comes in several forms such as ABS and PLA. These two are the most common, but there are other types as well, such as wood or metal filament. PLA is made from corn or sugarcane and is very flexible and therefore the easiest to work with. ABS is a petroleum-based material that is popular due to its strength and affordability, however it is not ideal for novice 3D printing users because it can shrink if not heated properly.


Next in the 3D printing process is the filament moving through the extruder. This is a motor that puts pressure on the filament to push and guide it through into the hot end. Hot end is a pretty funny name for a printer part, right? But it is very important to the process because it heats up the filament enough to be manipulated into the model shape.


Then, the heated filament is pushed through the nozzle. This is where the filament comes out of after being heated and can drastically vary in size. The smaller the nozzle, the more detailed the model, but it will take more time since a very small amount of filament is being deposited in each layer.


So let’s summarize what we know so far:

1. FDM is where most beginners start their 3D printing journey

2. The axis created the XYZ dimensions

3. The build plate holds the model and sit on top of a bed which can be heated.

4. The two most common filaments are PLA and ABS

5. Filament is fed by the extruder into the hot end and is pushed through the nozzle


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Okay now we can move on to our next topic: How does the printer know how to move?


The beauty of 3D printing is that the operator does not have to manually manipulate how the printer moves, so let’s dive in to the process of creating a set of instructions for the printer to follow.


Just like any programmable machine, the 3D printer has to be told what to do. The directions are in a form called a Gcode. This is a list of movements that tell the printer head where to move and how much time to spend on each of the three axes.

So where does a Gcode come from? It is made using a slicing software. A slicer converts the model into printing instructions by cutting the model into horizontal layers. It also generates the tool paths that the extruder head needs to follow and calculates the amount of material needed for a model.


Now that we’ve covered the basic terminology, we can put it all together to talk more about what the entire FDM printing process is.

Like it was mentioned in the beginning, Fused Deposition Modeling is a 3D printing process that uses a continuous filament of a thermoplastic material, like PLA or ABS. The material is fed from a large coil through a moving heated extruder head. The molten material is forces out of the print head’s nozzle and is deposited on the plate and then on top of each new layer in succession. The head is moved under computer control to define the printed shape. The head usually moves in layers, moving in two dimensions to deposit one horizontal plane at a time before moving slightly upwards to begin on the new layer.


The possibilities of what you can do with this technology are endless, once you’ve mastered the lingo. The best way to familiarize yourself with the correct terminology is to do some research. If you come across a word or process that is unfamiliar, look it up! Continuously learning will keep you up to speed with this fast-paced industry.


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