Intro to 3D Printing + Materials

In this post I would like to give a brief introduction into 3D printing and materials. As a relative newcomer to 3D printing myself, this is a good exercise for me to become more familiar with current 3D printing tech and what materials are commonly used. Each application is unique, so it makes sense to throughly understand what options are available to you when printing your 3D objects. This survey is by no means exhaustive, it’s a just a start to help any novice to quickly get up to speed on the ever-evolving landscape of 3D printing.


As of this writing there are over 90 material options available 3D printing. Most 3D print applications center around either plastic or metal materials, ceramics and advanced composites are being printed in more specialized, commercial contexts. A good way to approach this complex topic is to categorize these materials by specific 3D printing technologies. In general there are roughly ten different types 3D printing processes, in this post we will focus on four of the most common - and by extension - will cover the more popular materials employed by these processes.

Back Story

While in graduate school at RISD I had worked on the redesign of a “Talking Book” player - basically a mini-tape deck with speaker that plays audio books for the visually impaired. That year the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) had sponsored a competition to redesign the player and I jumped on the opportunity.

After going through a rigorous design process I had my final 3D design modeled in Solidworks. Instead of realizing my physical model in conventional wood or Strux foam, I opted to 3D print my design. This was somewhat of a provocative move in our ID studio - at that time 3D printing was not a common thing industrial design students leveraged in their projects as it was very expensive.

However, as a sucker for new tech, I didn’t care, I wanted my submission to be exactly they way I had designed it in Solidworks. They only way to achieve that precision was to get it 3D printed. I sent my CAD file away and after a few days I had not one by two models in my hand (submissions were not returned so I had to print two). I proudly displayed the remaining 3D printed model on my desk in studio and for the next several days whenever someone asked about it, I simply said, “O this? Ya it's an SLA print using a Z Corp printer…” - pretending I like I know what I was talking about...

Back then I didn’t fully understand the process, but today I do. My design was 3D printed using a process called Stereo Lithography or SLA. SLA is the oldest 3D printing technology available today. It was invented in 1984 by Chuck Hull (this point can be debated - there are claims of SLA technology emerging from Japan as well as France).

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