Prototyping Toolbox Series: 3D Printing

Like flying cars and jet packs, 3D printing used to sound like something out of a futuristic sci-fi novel. But the advent and spread of this incredible technology have been a boon to the prototyping industry.

If you’ve read our mini-primer on 3D printing, you’ve gotten an overview of how we use this tool at Treetown Tech. Today, we’re diving deeper. Keep reading as we unveil the two primary 3D printers we use, give you a peek at what we’re creating, and delve into why 3D printing is an invaluable element in our prototyping toolbox!

Types of 3D Printers (that we use)

Fused Deposition Modeling

Fused deposition modeling (FDM) lays down lines of melted plastic onto a fixed build plate. As it prints, the nozzle moves up and away from the plate—like a hot glue gun, but with much better fidelity. FDM works best for larger pieces that you want fast.

For a recent delivery truck design, we went from a 3D CAD concept for a large headlight housing to a 3D-printed prototype in just a few hours. To see how pieces like a headlight housing mate to other parts, there’s really no substitute for having the physical prototype in hand.


Stereolithography (SLA) allows for greater detail than FDM in a clean printed model. Using photopolymerization, a laser cures and “cinches” liquid resin on a slowly rising build plate raised out of the liquid, creating hardened plastic parts with minimal laser lines. As opposed to FDM, where you see your creation build upwards, in SLA printing you see your creation pulled out of the liquid tank at the bottom of the printer. 

Lately, our SLA printers are hard at work churning out prototypes for badges that measure and encourage handwashing in hospital settings. SLA lets us print small, accurate prototypes of these badges. We can even prototype with different materials, using a softer resin for a gasket and a harder resin for the badge shell.

Why 3D Printing?

Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), a tool better for situational awareness and sightlines, 3D printing puts a physical prototype in your hand. You can see how pieces fit—or don’t fit. The ability to “test quickly, fail cheaply” means our engineers immediately understand what works and what doesn’t, so they can move on to improving the next design. Our 3D printers put the rapid in rapid prototyping.

Getting better all the time

Recent developments in 3D technology have made it more accessible than ever before. 3D printing is no longer just an industrial process; it’s great fun for hobbyists of all ages who can create anything from life-size Star Wars droids to kayaks; some new 3D printing technology has even produced full-size boats capable of carrying several shipping containers! You can print anything you can dream up (that fits on your build plate, doesn’t get too hot, or comes into direct contact with food).

We have fun at the office too! Finding ourselves needing a candy dish for the conference room, one of our engineers whipped up a bowl held up by four black cats.

With 3D printing, we can go from an idea scribbled on a whiteboard to holding that part in under two hours. From creating complex prototyping parts to cute candy dishes, 3D printing is a modern tool that we’re thrilled to have in our arsenal.