Acronyms Ahoy!

7 Types of 3D Printer Technology Explained


There many types of 3D printer technologies in the world. From the well-established to the bleeding edge, meet the magnificent seven.

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Okay, so you’re struggling to tell the difference between 3D printer types like FDM and SLA? Or SLS and EBM? Or LOB and MJF?

We hear your pain. With all these acronyms flying around, you’d be forgiven for mistaking a certain type of 3D printer technology for a genre of dance music.

Have no fear! Our very short guide explains the 7 types of 3D printers currently out there. Have a blitz through this article and you’ll soon be able to tell which from which. And what from what.

We’ve also embedded some videos under each, to better illustrate the types of 3D printer technologies. Enjoy!

3D Printer Types #1: FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling)

FDM is the most common 3D printing method used in desktop 3D printing. Thermoplastic filament is heated and extruded through an extrusion head that deposits the molten plastic in X and Y coordinates, while the build table lowers the object layer by layer in the Z direction.

Effectively, the object is built from the bottom up. If an object has overhanging parts, however, it will need support structures that can be removed after the printing is finished.

This type of 3D printer is a cost-effective means for product development and rapid prototyping in small business and education sectors since it’s capable of fabricating robust parts reliably and quickly.

3D Printer Types #2: SLA (Stereolithography)

SLA has the distinction of being the oldest of the 3D printing technologies, first invented by Chuck Hull in 1983.

SLA works by exposing a layer of photosensitive liquid resin to a UV-laser beam so that the resin hardens and becomes solid. Once the laser has swept a layer of resin in the desired pattern and it begins to harden, the model-building platform in the liquid tank of the printer steps down the thickness of a single layer, and the laser begins to form the next layer. Each layer is built on top of the preceding one.

Like the FDM 3D printer technology, objects with overhangs 3D printed with this type of 3D printer will require support structures. And after printing has completed, the object must be rinsed with a solvent. Sometimes it’s also baked in a UV oven to finish processing.

SLA creates smooth surfaced objects with extreme detail, and it’s increasingly popular in industries like jewelry and cosmetic dentistry for creating castable molds.

3D Printer Types #3: SLS (Selective Laser Sintering)

SLS is similar to SLA, but the key difference is that this type of 3D printer uses powdered material in the build area instead of liquid resin. A laser is used to selectively sinter a layer of granules, which binds the material together to create a solid structure. When the object is fully formed, it’s left to cool in the machine before being removed.

SLS is widely used for product development and rapid prototyping in a wide range of commercial industries, and also for limited-run manufacturing of end-use parts. The materials used in SLS can range from nylon, glass, and ceramics to aluminum, silver, and even steel.

This 3D printer type requires the use of expensive high-powered lasers, however, which puts it a bit beyond the reach of the average consumer — with the exception of professional 3D printing services like Shapeways, Sculpteo, and i.materialise.

3D Printer Types #4: SLM (Selective Laser Melting)

SLM is sometimes regarded as a subcategory of the SLS 3D printer type, where SLM uses a high-powered laser beam to fully melt metallic powders into solid three-dimensional parts.

Typical materials used are stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, and cobalt chrome. For applications in the aerospace or medical orthopedics industry, EBM is used to create parts with complex geometries and thin-walled structures, with hidden channels or voids. Elsewhere, as in the video above, it’s been used to fabricate gas turbines for the energy industry.

3D Printer Types #5: EBM (Electron Beam Melting)

types of 3d printers

In contrast to SLM, the EBM technique uses a computer-controlled electron beam under high vacuum to fully melt the metallic powder at high temperatures up to 1000 °C.

This type of 3D printer can use metals like pure titanium, Inconel718, and Inconel625 to fabricate aerospace parts and medical implants. But while the 3D printer technology is exciting, it’s currently very slow and very expensive.

3D Printer Types #6: LOM (Laminated Object Manufacturing)

LOM uses layers of adhesive-coated paper, plastic or metal laminates, which are fused under heat and pressure and shaped by cutting with a computer controlled laser or knife. This is sometimes followed by machining and drilling. The 3D object is created layer-by-layer, and after excess material is cut away, the object can be sanded or sealed with paint.

Though the dimensional accuracy of this 3D printer type is slightly less than SLA or SLS, LOM is one of the most affordable and fastest 3D printing methods available to create relatively large parts. It also allows for full-color 3D printed objects.

3D Printer Types #7: MJF (Multi Jet Fusion)

MJF works by first laying down a whole layer of material in the build space. Next, a carriage with a thermal inkjet array passes from right-to-left, depositing a pair of chemical agents across the full working area. One is a fusing agent, to create a solid layer from the material, and the other is a detailing agent, to determine the physical outline of the layer being created. Finally, energy is applied to catalyze the fusing agent, and the powder imbued with the detailing agent remains inert. The process begins again for the next layer.

Potential applications for this 3D printer type are for rapid prototyping and short-run manufacturing in the automotive, medical and aerospace industries. However, the full extent of MJF capabilities is yet to be established, with newer fusing agents promising to offer different properties like full color, conductivity, strength, and thermal reactivity.