A field guide to 3D printing

Table of Contents

  1. Summary


You’re reading this because 3D printing has likely popped up on your radar. This is no surprise: Over the past 24 months this 24-year-old industry has enjoyed a tsunami of media coverage and a tidal wave of social-media conversations. So now would seem the time to dive into this “new manufacturing revolution” where tools can print objects from a computer, tablet or web browser.

What may seem apparent, however, may be misguided. Many of the stories being told are an amalgam that take the best from all classes and all types of 3D printers. Mix in elements from each and you have an amazing tale to tell.

The problem is that tale may have fiction blended in with the facts.

Still, 3D printing is undeniably a vibrant industry with plenty of growth potential — growth in the industries served, applications addressed and value delivered. The fiction comes in the forms of predictions of phenomenal growth in the short order and forecasts that consumers will soon become the manufacturers of new and replacement goods.

To make sense of it all — to understand this fragmented industry and the opportunities presented — you must begin with a fundamental understanding of the language of 3D printing, which we will explore in this piece. Without a glossary, your roadmap may lead you down an undesirable path.

What is 3D printing?

For two decades, opposing forces have been trying to control the conversation around 3D printing by dictating the language that defines the industry and its technology. Vendors, standards organizations, pundits, media and the masses all have their preferences. Some use different terms but share a common definition. Others use the same term, but with very different meanings. In effect, the language of 3D printing has many dialects.

Yet there is one thing that all agree on: the overarching description for this technology, which is a process that produces physical 3D objects by adding layer upon layer of material. Direct from a computer model, objects are “grown.” These objects can be almost anything: engineering prototypes of automotive components, tooling for manufacturing, medical implants, architectural models and sellable goods for end users.

This simple definition downplays the uniqueness of the process and its inherent advantages, which include minimal preparation (e.g., no tooling), the fact that the 3D printing process is automated (e.g., no operator standing by), and that the object’s design is virtually unconstrained (e.g., working assemblies in one step).

To assist in adding clarity, the following are common terms for the technology, with some underlying details.

3D printing

This is rapidly becoming the preferred term by the media, and has been quickly adopted by many. It defines the industry and the process of creating parts in an additive, layer-by-layer way. By definition, it does not denote a class of technology, target market or application. It is the broadest term, encompassing all technologies and systems for all industries and applications.

However, companies and individuals will use “3D printing” in a narrower context, which fuels the terminology problem. A few examples of this come from three of the market’s leaders: 3D Systems Corp., Stratasys Inc. and Objet Ltd. (note that the latter two have announced merger plans).

  • 3D Systems Corp. identifies its low-end, lower-cost products as 3D printers. Its connotation is systems for the consumer and small, personal systems for commercial applications.
  • Stratasys Inc. uses the phrase “3D printers” in a similar context but excludes the consumer market, which it does not serve, and extends the range to $40,000 systems.
  • Objet Ltd. considers its full line of products 3D printers designed for designers, engineers and offices.

Additive manufacturing

This is a synonym of “3D printing.” As such, it encompasses all technologies and applications. It does not dictate the strict use as a tool for making production parts. To better understand this distinction, view the term in the context of making (manufacturing) objects additively. So, as with “3D printing,” this term covers applications from simple design-review models to end-use part production.

However, like most synonyms, it carries a subtle contextual difference. While 3D printers are most often associated with less-demanding applications and lower-cost systems, additive manufacturing leans towards more-capable systems for higher-quality objects with stringent requirements. Examples include functional prototypes for product assessment, jigs and fixtures for the factory floor, and production goods.

Legacy terms

Add into the glossary mix all the terms used in days gone by: “rapid prototyping,” “rapid manufacturing,” “additive fabrication,” “direct manufacturing,” “additive layer manufacturing,” “direct digital manufacturing” and “fabbing.” These terms are still used in some circles as synonyms for “3D printing” and “additive manufacturing.”

As time passes, these legacy terms are increasingly used to specify an application. For example, rapid prototyping now implies the use of a 3D printer to make early concept models, prototypes and patterns. At the other extreme, direct digital manufacturing (DDM) denotes the making of production goods.

The bottom line is that it is always best to clarify the definition of a term when gathering information and insight. Without a clear understanding, the details that follow may lead you astray. Operating on assumptions based on the wrong definition will yield incorrect conclusions and flawed plans.


The 3D printing industry has not even attempted to standardize on product segmentation. As is evident from the above discussion, there is no agreed upon terminology for the various classes of machines. While vendors may use the same term, it is often with very different definitions and distinct target markets. As with “3D printing,” it is always best to clarify any system classification.

Although far from being accepted as a standard classification, the 3D printing industry can be broken down into two market classifications and four system classifications.


Consumer class. These are the 3D printers intended for non-professional use. The target markets include homeowners, hobbyists, tinkerers, artists, craftspeople and boot-strapping, budding entrepreneurs.

Printers in this class range from $500 to $4,000. They come as kits (assembly required), flat packs (some assembly required) and pre-assembled devices. Designed for casual use — a few parts a month made in one’s spare time — these 3D printers aren’t as capable as the professional devices, and aren’t engineered for high throughput or long duty cycles. They also lack the advanced functions of the business-class machines.

Currently all consumer-class printers are based on an open-source project called RepRap, which originated at Bath University in the U.K. The process — known as fused filament fabrication — borrows heavily from Stratasys’ early fused deposition modeling patents, which cover printing of objects by extruding plastic filament. RepRap derivatives also rely on open-source software for file preparation and object construction. No business-class machines use this open-source design.

Business class. These 3D printers are tools and resources for commercial applications in a professional setting. For example, engineers rely on them during their product development phase. With more expected of them, and deadlines depending on them, these printers offer a richer set of capabilities, broader material selection and greater dependability. In this class, 3D printers range from $7,000 to well over $1,000,000.


Consumer class. Sharing the same classification name as their target market, these 3D printers have the characteristics described in the consumer-class section above.

Personal class. These are systems intended for individual use or by small teams. They are a distributed solution, often located in or near the office space. Since they are self-serve devices, they offer simple operations and ease-of-use. Maximum part sizes range from two-inch to eight-inch cubes. Personal-class machines are usually limited to one or two materials. Prices range from $7,000 to $40,000.

Professional class. These are centralized machines that are corporate-wide resources. They are bigger and more capable than the personal-class devices, and they address the more-demanding applications that have specific quality requirements. Maximum part sizes range from eight-inch to two-foot cubes. Since quality is a primary goal, simple operations are replaced by advanced user controls. So these machines are often located in a lab or shop that is staffed with technicians. These systems also offer a wide variety of materials. Prices range from $40,000 to $300,000.

Production class. In any product line, these will be the biggest and most capable 3D printers. They will have the most advanced controls — that is, those needed to produce accurate objects repeatedly and reliably. While most often used for making production goods or tooling, they may also be used for high-volume, high-throughput prototyping applications. Prices range from $300,000 to $1,000,000 or more.

Process types

Below the system classification level, 3D printing is rife with product, brand and process names, and most have an associated acronym. At this level, terminology can become confusing, fast. To assist in categorizing 3D printing technology, below are six high-level process classes and the machines that use them. Don’t bother memorizing the names; they aren’t commonly used.

More important are the descriptions of the classes and the listings of companies, processes, products and system classes. Add to that an understanding that at this level, the technologies are multipurpose, spanning broad ranges of industries and applications.

Please note that the following company and product listing is not comprehensive. Those listed are the most recognizable in the industry.

Extrusion. Material, most often a molten plastic, is forced through a nozzle and deposited as a continuous ribbon. When using plastic, it is characterized by tough, durable parts.

Stratasys: fused deposition modeling (FDM)

  • Mojo: business, personal
  • uPrint: business, personal
  • Dimension: business, personal
  • Fortus: business, professional/production

3D Systems (Bits From Bytes and BotMill operating divisions): fused filament fabrication (FFF)

  • Cube: consumer
  • RapMan: consumer
  • 3D Touch: consumer
  • Glider: consumer
  • Axis: consumer

Photo curing. Liquid, plastic resin (photopolymer) is solidified when exposed to light. Common light sources are ultraviolet (UV) lasers, UV lamps and DLP projectors. Objects made with this process are characterized by smooth surfaces and fine details.

3D Systems: stereolithography (SLA)

  • ProJet: business, professional
  • Viper: business, professional
  • iPro: business, professional/production

3D Systems: film transfer imaging (FTI)

  • V-Flash: business, personal
  • ProJet: business, personal

3D Systems: multi-jet modeling (MJM)

  • ProJet: business, personal/professional

envisionTEC: digital light processing (DLP)

  • Perfactory: business, personal/professional
  • Ultra: business, personal
  • Xcede: business, professional

Objet: PolyJet

  • Objet (desktop): business, personal
  • Eden: business, personal/professional
  • Connex: business, professional

Jetting. The broadest of all process classes, this technology deposits material through inkjet-like printer heads. Techniques include jetting binder onto a powder bed, jetting photopolymer — which is then cured with light (see photo curing) — or jetting wax. When depositing binder, the powder bed can consist of plaster, metal, sand and ceramic.

3D Systems: 3D printing

  • ZPrinter: business, personal/professional

3D Systems: multi-jet modeling (MJM)

  • See listing under photo curing

voxeljet: 3D printing

  • VX: business, professional/production

ExOne: N/A

  • ProMetal: business, professional/production

Objet: PolyJet

  • See listing under photo curing

Stratasys (Solidscape subsidiary): smooth curvature printing (SCP)

  • BenchMark: business, personal/professional
  • preXacto: business, personal/professional

Sintering. Plastic powder is melted with a laser or other energy source, which causes the material to fuse. Characterized by tough, durable parts.

3D Systems: selective laser sintering (SLS)

  • Sinterstation: business, professional
  • sPro: business, professional/production

EOS: laser sintering (LS)

  • EOSINT: business, professional/production

Melting. Metal powder is melted and upon cooling bonds to adjacent material. Various techniques are used, including lasers, electron beams and metal deposition nozzles. Objects are characterized by functional parts as well as tools, molds and dies.

EOS: direct metal laser sintering (DMLS)

  • EOSINT: business, professional/production

Arcam: electron beam melting (EBM)

  • N/A: business, professional/production

Renishaw: selective laser melting (SLM)

  • N/A: business, professional/production

SLM Solutions: selective laser melting (SLM)

  • N/A: business, professional/production

Optomec: laser engineered net shaping (LENS)

  • LENS: business, professional/production

Lamination. Sheet material is bonded to the previous layer and then the object’s profile is cut. This process is currently only available with paper, so it is characterized by low-cost models for early design reviews.

Mcor Technologies: 3D printing

  • Matrix: business, personal

Please note products in the same process class and system class aren’t necessarily competitive. The core technology and the materials offered may yield very different output characteristics, operational costs and production speeds. For example, in the jetting category, 3D Systems’ ZPrinters make coarse models in color very quickly. Conversely, Stratasys’ Solidscape systems make highly detailed wax patterns for the jewelry industry at a much slower rate.


As you can see from all the exceptions, even with a firm grasp of 3D printer terminology, misunderstandings are possible. And as you dig deeper into the technologies, applications and industries served, more terms and more definitions emerge.

Yet, with this primer on terminology, you now have a better understanding of the 3D printing industry. And with this understanding, you are better equipped to navigate it and chart a proper course that is fitting to your goals and interests.

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