How does a 3D printer work?

3D printer characteristics

In order to understand how a fused deposition 3D printer works and make a comparison between existing models, see the detailed list below of 3D printer features.


The principal elements of a 3D printer

Printer head: Also known as an extruder, a printer head has three parts: the first drags the plastic filament with a toothed wheel; the second melts the filament with a heated resistance to a maximum temperature of 270°C; and finally, a nozzle with a diameter of between 0.15mm and 0.8mm which applies the melted filament.

It is located in the upper part of the 3D printer on a horizontal axis (also called the X axis) while the platform descends on the vertical axis (Z axis) by one notch at a time as the object takes shape.

The extruder of the Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer

The printing platform : The printing material is extruded on to this platform. Layers are piled one after the other, on top of each other.

Some printers have a heated platform to improve bonding during printing.

The filament reel: Hidden inside the machine or on a stand outside the casing of the machine, the filament reel of the 3D printer is the equivalent of a paper printer’s cartridge.

Given the many plastics available (see the page about printing materials), filament reels exist in different sizes: 750g, 1kg, 2kg and must be renewed regularly. Some 3D printers only use one type of reel.

On the UP Box 3D printer, the reel is fitted outside the machine

Printing software: Better known as the slicer, the printing software directs the movements of the printer head and platform.

In concrete terms, the software slices the 3D shape required in thin horizontal slices of approximately 100 microns. Superimposed one on the other, these layers – as thick as a piece of paper – build the object. Imagine the slices of a pyramid for example.

There are proprietary software programmes, such as Z-Suite by Zortrax, UP by PP3DP and XYZware by XYZprinting, as well as universal slicers such as Cura, Repetier and Simplify3D.

Some software programmes have mobile versions for starting and controlling printing remotely.

The optional components of a 3D printer

3D printer brands also have special features which can be very useful, even if they are not essential for printing.

Connectivity: The most basic printers are connected to the computer with a USB cable, in which case the computer must be on for the printer to operate. And there are alternative solutions for connectivity, such as a USB stick, an SD card, or a WiFi connection.

Control screen: Some printers have an LCD screen for controlling basic tasks such as changing the filament, calibrating the platform, preheating the machine, etc. This option can be useful long term.

The control screen of the Stream 20 Pro 3D printer by Volumic

Automatic calibration: Before printing, it is necessary to ensure the printer is calibrated correctly. That means that there is the right distance between the platform and the extruder nozzle so that the layers are perfectly aligned. Some printers calibrate automatically with a remote sensor. The main advantage? This saves time and improves precision in printing.

Double extrusion: Some 3D printers have two extruders for printing with two colours or materials at the same time. Operating this type of machine requires some experience.

Enclosed compartment: It is important to maintain a constant ambient temperature for optimal results. That is why some of the printers on the market have a completely closed printing compartment.

Particle filters: For machines which print with materials like ABS, it is highly recommended to have an air filter to evacuate fine particles which are given off during the printing process.

Camera: Finally, some models have a camera so that the user can watch the progress from a distance or receive a photo of the finished result.

So you see, there are many options available on the market, from Plug&play machines for beginners, to more sophisticated models for professionals and enthusiasts.