It’s 3D, but is it printing?

Industries are abuzz over technology known as 3D printing, a process that produces three-dimensional objects from a drafted computer model. The technology has emerged in both commercial and industrial manufacturing and is expected to more than triple in utilization over the next several years. According to, companies have used it to create everything from auto parts and aircraft components to prosthetic limbs, architectural models, and energy systems. But what is it really? And is it printing?

3D printing is a means of desktop fabrication. It is, by definition, a process of producing a three-dimensional object from anything that can be obtained as a powder. A digital 3D model is drawn using computer-assisted design (CAD) software and then sent to desktop equipment for production. Fundamentally, the process is additive manufacturing – thin sheets of powder are laid down layer-by-layer to create the formation. Therefore, one might associate this technique with the process of laying down inkjet toner and dub the practice “printing”. It is similar in concept, and subsequently, the association may be fitting. Likewise, the process seems to warrant a description different than the familiar manufacturing terms – machining, turning, milling, and sawing – because these production processes are all subtractive: taken out of a larger whole.

But printing as we know it has always involved ink (or toner) and a substrate. The definition of print is “to produce by applying inked types, plates, blocks, or the like, to paper or other material either by direct pressure or indirectly by offsetting an image onto an intermediate roller”. Surely, as an industry, we print onto three-dimensional objects. But is the actual process of producing a 3D object “printing” if it is void of ink?

We’re not so convinced that this method of production should truly be called printing. We contest that it might be more appropriately named fabrication, construction, or depending on its end-use, prototyping or modeling. But to deem it printing seems to stretch the definition of print as we know it. We invite you to share your thoughts and join the conversation here.

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Let's make something incredible