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To the layperson, 3D printing sounds less like a manufacturing technique than magic. Often, people misunderstand it as “a replicator from Star Trek,” said Kent Mages, owner of Custom Design and 3D Printing. “Some sci-fi thing [where]… I can just snap my fingers and boom.”
That’s not how it works, though. Yes, you can 3D-print lots of things, including large-scale things like bridges. But you can’t do so instantaneously, Mages explained. It takes time. It also takes the right hardware and support structures.
“You need something to actually print on,” he said.
Here are the broad strokes of how the process works: You start with a printer. Some models can fit on a desk. Industrial versions, on the other hand, can measure more than 20 feet tall and need lots of space. But they all work roughly the same way: rather than printing line by line, like their 2D brethren, 3D printers print layer by layer.
Instead of printing from PDFs, however, they rely on digital blueprints — or computer-aided designs (CAD). And in place of printing ink, they use sculptural materials like plastic, metal and concrete.