Blue Sky Science: What is 3-D printing?

Lily Kopietz


What is 3-D printing?

3-D printing refers to a kind of manufacturing where a part is built up layer by layer. With a typical machine, you take a block of material and subtract away. With additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, you start with nothing and you add layer by layer until you have a final part.

There are a lot of ways to create files for 3-D printing. The most common by far is modeling with computer software. You need to have a file before you can 3-D print something.

We do a lot of 3-D printing at the Morgridge Institute for Research. We also do a lot of standard manufacturing like milling and lathing.

We’re a resource for people around campus who want to get things made.

For 3-D printing, we use a machine called a fused-deposition modeling printer. It uses spools of corded plastic, like you might see in a Weed Wacker or something at home, which it pulls through the machine, heating it up and extruding it through a tiny little die.

That die makes a tiny little filament, which it lays out in lines to create a layer of plastic. Then it moves up and creates another layer of plastic.

Another potential use for 3-D printing is printing of tissue. Scientists are pretty good at making different tissues in layers, but it’s hard to get tissue to live and behave exactly how you want it to behave when you start stacking layers of tissue.

NASA’s actually really interested in this too. They want to be able to print food, so there’s not much packaging waste. The idea there would be, in space, to print exactly the nutrients that each astronaut would need. It might not taste the best, but they wouldn’t have packaging waste.

But anything that you can melt and extrude through a die, you can use in these printers.