To print a 3D object, the manufacturer uses a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) program to create a digital model that gets sliced into very thin cross-sections called layers. During the print process, the 3D printer starts at the bottom of the design and builds up successive layers of material until the object is finished.

Once very expensive, the development of desktop 3D printers has made the technology more accessible to small and mid-sized businesses. 3D printers are now used to create anything from a new toy or motorcycle part to manufacturing prototypes for testing purposes.

Michael Feygen is credited with developing the first 3D printer in 1985. 3D printing is known by many names, depending upon the context. The process may also be referred to as rapid prototyping, stereolighography, architectural modeling, or additive manufacturing.

Different 3D printers use different materials to build layers. Some use liquid polymer or gel; others use resin, which tends to be more expensive.

3D concrete printing and patents

Participants in the 3D concrete printing world are closely watching the drama unfolding between a Chinese manufacturing company and Contour Crafting. Earlier this year, WinSun held a press conference to report on its commercialization of 3D concrete printing. The company manufactured several concrete homes in Suzhou, China, and advertises itself as the breakout innovator in a field that will dramatically reduce building waste and labor costs.

But Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis of Contour Crafting claims that WinSun infringed on his patents, stealing innovative techniques that took him decades to formulate. Developers, architects, and researchers remain similarly divided over whether the 3D-printed WinSun structures are safe.

The Chinese manufacturer also announced the creation of Winsun Global, a collaboration with an American firm. They plan to expand their 3D concrete printing technologies into countries around the world with the aim of providing cheap and efficient homes for low-income families.