What is the difference between digital printing and 3D printing?

You couldn’t have missed it: 3D printing is about to start a real revolution in today’s world. Some are calling it the 4th industrial revolution. But beyond the innovative aspect of this new technology, is it really appropriate to talk about 3D “printing”, in the same context as digital printing, which is now a part of everyone’s daily life?

Two impressions, two definitions

First, let’s look at the definitions specific to these two printing technologies:

  • Digital printing :

Reproduction technique allowing documents or information to be printed identically from computer data, using suitable equipment and a defined medium (paper, cardboard, textile, etc.)

  • 3D printing :

Technique for manufacturing three-dimensional parts by adding or aggregating raw materials specific to this technology

Based on these definitions, we can already make one concrete statement. On the one hand, we have digital printing which allows us to reproduce an existing document. If this document does not yet exist, we will have to create it using an existing technology (creation software, drawing, word processing…). On the other hand, we have 3D printing, which allows us to manufacture in its entirety an object in three dimensions. Of course, the 3D printer cannot create an object without following a plan. But, unlike traditional digital printing, it is capable of producing many types of different shapes, without restrictions on its material , or size. And that in itself is something!

Printing technologies and equipment

Clearly, when we look at the definitions of these two printing technologies, the first differences are marked. But it is not just a matter of words. In concrete terms, digital printing and 3D printing are diametrically opposed in terms of the material used on both sides. With digital printing, there are really only two reference technologies, more or less dominating our entire current use: laser and inkjet. These two printing technologies each have their own advantages and can be adapted to your needs. These two technologies operate through very distinct processes, which are based on different consumables (e. g. inkjet cartridges, laser toners). Quite simple, you may say.

With 3D printing, we are faced with a more diverse range of solutions (because it is much more recent) and which is aimed at much more technophile audiences. There are three 3D printing technologies:

  • The deposit of material

It consists in depositing layer by layer a filament of thermoplastic material melted at 200°C to form an object.

  • Solidification by light

It is the solidification of a photosensitive liquid by means of a laser beam.

  • Agglomeration by gluing

It is based on the spreading of a thin layer of powder on a platform. The print head deposits glue drops that stick together as they create the final object.

As we can see, these three 3D printing technologies have nothing to do with inkjet and laser, which are specific to digital printing. From the point of view of expertise and know-how, digital printing and 3D printing are therefore far apart. A digital printing expert, as Ecoburotic can be called, may not necessarily have the expertise and legitimacy to talk about 3D printing, given the significant gap between these two very distinct worlds.

Overall, 3D printing is more like the world of industry, which prefers to talk about “additive manufacturing“. This new technology will completely change our vision of manufacturing . In the past, we used to remove material to make objects of all kinds (carpentry, sculpture, welding…). Today, with additive manufacturing, we can consider creating any kind of object by adding material, starting from scratch. Compared to current standards this new technology will also revolutionize industry with its ease of use and speed of application.

Different targets and objectives

Beyond the technical considerations, 3D printing is aimed at a very different audience to that of digital printing and has a very different purpose. While digital printing is aimed at both professionals and individuals, 3D printing is aimed at an industrial audience or individuals who are experienced and passionate about new technologies. For example, 3D is widely used in the medical world, for the creation of prostheses and also in the building industry.

As far as the objectives are concerned, these two technologies are also very different: additive manufacturing can help man or nature by creating objects, via new manufacturing processes; digital printing makes it possible to create things mainly on paper , which generally make life easier for companies or individuals without really affecting their overall condition. In short: it is difficult to imagine improving humanity with a Pagewide MFP 477DW from HP, while 3D printing could quickly offer us alternatives to our current operating methods.

Opposed yes, but complementary

Finally, it is clear that digital printing and 3D printing are not the same technologies, targets and objectives. It might be more appropriate to talk about “3D manufacturing” or “additive manufacturing”, as in the industrial world. The future will certainly tell us whether 3D printing will somehow revolutionize our worldview and help humanity create things in a different way. But one thing is certain: digital printing and 3D printing will coexist in the present and in the future!


The author Harry

I am part of the famous "Generation Y" youth, the one who adapts to new technologies in one second. I am passionate about the digital world and I bring you articles related to innovation and the world of office printing.