How Does 3D Printing Work?


Stereolithography, known colloquially as 3D printing, is a process by which a computer-guided machine builds up a three-dimensional object by attaching slivers of thin material together in a pre-designed shape. The process has been used for a variety of purposes, including creating prototype models of equipment during research and development, and also creating the models in the film "Coraline".


  • The stereolithography process was first patented by American inventor and businessman Charles Hull in 1986 as a way of quickly printing fine layers of material that would build up into a solid shape. His invention required a computer-controlled laser firing ultraviolet light at a UV-reactive liquid, solidifying the surface of the material in thin strips.


  • Modern stereolithography allows 3D printing in a variety of materials. Thin layers of plastic-coated paper can be heated using a laser so the layers bond together, building up an object. The laser can then cut any excess paper from the object before going on to bond the next layer. In addition, Hull's original photopolymer solution method is still a viable means of 3D printing.


  • Each version of the stereolithography process features a laser that provides a controlled beam of energy directed at thin layers of material. The energy from the laser bonds together plastic or causes a photo reactive liquid to undergo chemical changes, solidifying and bonding with the previous layer of material. Because of the complexity of the process, the laser is always computer-controlled.

Time Frame

  • The printing process is not as fast as conventional document printing. Using Hall's design of photopolymer liquid and ultraviolet laser, 3D printing times can range from six to 12 hours. Design of the object on the computer can take a lot longer, too; depending on the complexity of the model.


  • Stereolithography allows complex parts, models and other objects to be created to order quickly and relatively cheaply. The fact that the process does not require molds or other construction materials to be produced before the item itself can be created means it is perfect for designing unique pieces, or creating a prototype for testing before mass-production is considered.

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