3-D printing is a manufacturing process that builds layers to create a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model.
To print a 3-D object, the manufacturer uses a computer-aided design (CAD) program to create a digital model that gets sliced into very thin cross-sections called layers. During the print process, the 3-D printer starts at the bottom of the design and builds up successive layers of material until the object is finished.
In the past, the cost of 3-D printing was expensive and the technology was only used by large corporations, but the development of desktop 3-D printers has made the technology more accessible to small and mid-sized businesses and home users. Today, 3-D printers are used to create anything from a new toy or motorcycle part to manufacturing prototypes for testing purposes. Before 3-D printers existed, creating a prototype was time-consuming and expensive, requiring skilled craftsmen and specific machinery. Instead of sending modeling instructions to a production company, advances in 3-D printing have allowed businesses to insource prototype production on a regular basis.
Michael Feygen is credited with developing the first 3-D printer in 1985. 3-D printing is known by many names; depending upon the context, the term may also be referred to as rapid prototyping, stereolighography, architectural modeling or additive manufacturing. Different 3-D printers use different materials to build layers. Some use liquid polymer or gel; others use resin, which tends to be more expensive.
The ZPrinter 450 is an automated 3-D inkjet printer for offices. This commercial demonstrates how it builds prototypes.