Alternative Solutions, Inc.

3D Printing

ASI has always had a culture of learning.  Heck, half of our staff has over 25+ years of IT and Insurance experience, so it’s just about required as we start to get more employees!  One of our amazing mentors, Steve, has recently introduced Tech Nights to ASI.  And while I’ll save the topic of Tech Nights for another day, let’s just say they’ve been a hit.

Last week Steve brought in two 3D printers for us to ‘play’ with!  I don’t know about you, but to me, 3D printers are still things of movies and magic.  For example, I think of Iron Man 3D printing his suit or Oceans 8 replicating a cubic zirconia diamond necklace – flawlessly, of course!  And even though both examples are somewhat fantastical in the real world, they’re actually not as far off as I would have assumed…

Steve is a mentor for his kids’ high school robotics team, who uses 3D printers to print many different parts for their competition robot.  They can easily design, prototype, and print custom-made parts – all quickly and affordably!  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Even though 3D printing is a relatively recent technology, it’s history doesn’t date back to the early 2000s, nope, not even the 90s!  In 1981 (that’s right – THE EARLY 80s!!) Hideo Kodama was trying to develop a rapid prototyping system in Japan.  He produced a layer-by-layer approach for manufacturing using a photosensitive resin that polymerized by UV light.  Now, unfortunately, he didn’t file a patent for this technology, but he’s still credited as being the first inventor of what would become an early version of the modern SLA machine.  (We’ll get there).

From 1986-1988, the three leading 3D printing technologies were patented – SLA, SLS, and FDM/FFF.  What’s the alphabet soup stand for?  So glad you asked.

SLA – Stereolithography

Creates 3D models by curing photosensitive resin layer by layer.

SLS – Selective Laser Sintering

Fuses powders – instead of liquid – by using a laser.

FFF – Fused Filament Fabrication, or FDM – Fused Deposition Modeling

Extrudes filament from a heated nozzle.

The last one, FFF/FDM technology, has become the most common form of 3D printing today.  These aren’t the only three types of 3D printing that now exist, but they are the three main ones.

3D Printer Basics

Now, there are quite a few different materials you can print with on these machines as well.  And (surprisingly again for me) they’re mostly quite affordable, ranging from $20-$40+ (usually) per roll!

Filament v Resin

  • Filament constructs 3D objects layer by layer, starting at the bottom and moving upwards by heating and extruding thermoplastic filament ( the most commonly used with FFF/FDM)

  • Resin works by exposing a layer of photosensitive liquid resin to a UV-laser beam (SLA machines)

PLA Filament (Polylactic Acid)

  • A type of thermoplastic made from organic materials, mostly cornstarch and sugarcane.  The main benefits of PLA are it’s safety and ease to work with, with no toxic fumes to worry about (thingk about it, heating plastic would usually release some strong fumes).

ABS Filament (Acrylonitrille Butadiene Styrene)

  • ABS is popular due to it’s strength and impact-resistant properties, making it moderately flexible.  It’s also easy to extrude from the printer’s nozzles, making it an easy material to work with. 

TPU Filament

  • TPU is stretchy, can take substantial impacts, and looks great when 3D printed.


  • High Impact Polystyrene is a bright, white colored 3D biodegradable material.

3D printers allow you to go straight from concept and design to physical models.  But how?  You first need to design what you would like to print on a computer using 3D design software.  Once you design your creation, you import the file into the software specific to the 3D printer you have (because of course, they all take different file types), which will slice the part and send the printer a list of paths and directions used to create it.

The best part of 3D modeling software is the availability of several FREE options.  For instance, 3D Builder, TinkerCad, OnShape, FreeCAD, and Sketchup are just a handful of examples.

Some other Significant Milestones in 3D Printing:

On a smaller scale, we’ve been experimenting at ASI with our little borrowed 3D printer this past week, making everything from stadium models, to buddhas (apparently a traditional first build on 3D printers).  We love learning about new things and can’t wait for our next Tech Night to learn something new!