If you’re like me, then you know that 3D printing is one of the best ways to builid specialty items. With 3D printing, you can create objects that you have invented to solve a specific problem or do a particular job. You can create common objects like a gardening trowel or ceiling hook. The only limit to the things you create is your creativity. 3D printing is not a perfect replacement for the many professionally manufactured tools and trinkets you can find in a hardware store, but it’s a fun and fairly simple way to build your own items.
I love 3D printing because it lets me solve problems in any way I can think to do. Before 3D printing came around, you could only use someone else’s solutions, buy their tools, and do the job their way. With 3D printing, you figure out how to get a job done and do it your way. It’s very satisfying and fun. Now let’s get into it!
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What is 3D Printing?
To put it simply, 3D printing is a process that allows you to produce objects in almost any shape or size. They can be simple or complex. You have the ability to design these objects using modeling software, which we will talk about in a moment.
3D printed objects are made by using an additive process. 3D printing is a sub-category of what is called “additive manufacturing.” Sometimes these two terms are used interchangeably, but we will be learning about 3D printing, not covering additive manufacturing in its entirety. So it will be clearer to keep in mind that it is a type of additive manufacturing and is not that same thing as additive manufacturing.
If you understand how a normal printer for putting text on paper works, then it’s easy to understand how 3D printing works. With a normal printer, the letters are “built” up from the top to the bottom, or from the bottom to the top, one line or layer at a time. For example, if we were going to print the word “it,” the printer would start by printing the dot of the “i” and the top of the “t” and it would print the tops of those letters at the same time. It does not print a whole letter the way a typewriter does. It prints parts of all the letters in a line and then goes to the next line until a string of letters and words is finished.
A 3D printer is similar to this. Imagine a coffee cup. If you were to print this object, it would likely start with the circle of porcelain that touches the table and print the very bottom of it all at once. Then it would move to the bottom of the container part of the cup and print that all at once. So your 3D printed coffee cup would be made up of connected layers, each of which was printed as a phase of the total process.
Just like regular printers can use different types of ink, 3D printers use different types of material to build objects. One of the most common materials is called “filament” and is usually a form of plastic. There are different types of filament for different types of objects and different preferences. Some filaments are more expensive than others. In time you will learn which you like best and which is best for the types of jobs you like to do.
Uses for 3D Printing
Using this process, you can make nearly any object. Most people create simple objects that they can use around the house like a hinge for a cabinet or a sheetrock screw for holding a picture up on the wall. Others create moderately complex objects that they invent to solve new problems, like building a stand for an electric unicycle.
In the case of the unicycle stands, this is an example of a unique use for 3D printing that solves a modern problem. The makers of those particular objects sell them online to an audience with a unique and very specific hobby. You might be interested to know one man who makes these 3D printed stands in his garage earns more than enough to pay for the handful of machines he uses, the filament it takes, and the electricity needed to run his printers. Hopefully, that gives you some idea of what you can accomplish with 3D printing if you put your mind to it.
Though 3D printing is probably most practical for creating fairly simple objects, it can also be used to make things that are surprisingly sophisticated. The team on the set of the James Bond film, Skyfall (2012) built a perfect 1:3 scale model of 007’s Aston Martin car for the movie. It takes a considerable amount of precision to make a model that looks convincing to moviegoers. So that goes to show how much detail you can put into your 3D printing if you want to.
3D Printing Software
A 3D printer is a lot like any peripheral computing device, like the traditional computer printers we talked about. What any peripheral computing device needs to work is the software that lets it communicate with the machine you control it through and the instructions that tell it how to do its job. You will need to pay attention to the computing requirements which should be on the packaging, or in some other way presented to you before you buy. These requirements will tell you what operating systems you can use your 3D printing software with. They will tell you how powerful your computer needs to be, and any other requirements should also be made clear.
Now, you may have specific projects that you are thinking about already. That being the case, some 3D printing software, also called modeling software, is better suited to some tasks than others. Here, we’ll cover some of the most popular and useful modeling software on the market right now.
The items on this list are mostly for beginners, which is the best place to start. These programs will give you a solid foundation that will prepare you for more complex tasks later on. Don’t be afraid to try out a bunch of different ones to find the one that works best for you.
This is a program designed for beginners. It is free, and its abilities are simple. It is browser-based, so the impact on your computer will be minimal. Unlike other beginner 3D modeling products, it does “solid modeling.” This means that it lets you generate 3Dimensional shapes in fewer steps than it would take to make flat geometric shapes and build objects from them. Keep in mind, solid modeling is more advanced than geometric modeling.
Another solid modeling printing software product, Fusion 360 is not free. It has a $595 per year price tag because it’s for users who know what they are doing, and it gives you access to advanced tools. If in the future, you manage to get up to the level of our friend with the electric unicycle stand business, this will be a good option to keep in mind.
Another free product, Blender only does geometric modeling. That means it might be easier to use if you’re just starting out. But you’re likely to want to move up to a solid modeling product like Tinkercad in the future. Blender is free and open-source. So, if you’re a DIY programmer, this could be a great choice for you.
If you’ve come this far, you’re ready to take on the next level of complexity, which is slicing software. 3D printers can’t translate a CAD drawing without help. A slicer takes your 3D design and converts it into a series of commands for the printer to follow so it knows how to bring your creation to life. Here are a few useful examples for you to consider.
- Cura: Meant for users of all proficiency levels, Cura is free and it works on Mac, Linux, and Windows.
- Slic3r: Made for the advanced and the professional user, Slic3r is also free and also works on Mac, Linux, and Windows.
- PrusaSlicer: Meant for users of all proficiency levels, Cura is free and works on Mac, Linux, and Windows.
When it comes to slicers, you probably won’t have much trouble finding one you like. They’re much more simple than the modeling software.
Beginner-Friendly 3D Printers
As with any modern device, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a 3D printer, and the price tags on these devices can make any problems you encounter even more painful. Fortunately, there are 3D printers designed, marketed, and priced for beginners. But what you really need to understand is the two types that are best for beginners: filament printers and resin printers.
Filament 3D Printers
These devices run a string of plastic (your filament) through the machine, melt it, and then, with fantastic accuracy, layer the melted filament into layers and build your design. These are simpler than FDM printers and are better suited to beginners and those who wish to keep potential complications to a minimum. It’s similar to how a hot glue gun works, but the result is far more impressive.
Types of Filaments
Unlike a hot glue gun, any 3D printing job is best done with a specific type of filament. Here, we’ll cover some of the basic types and their uses.
- PLA: This is a biodegradable “thermoplastic” derived from sustainable sources. It’s a good type to start with, and your creations will also be biodegradable, which is great if you mess up.
- ABS: This petroleum-based filament is not biodegradable. That makes it great for items to be used outdoors, and for anything that you want to last.
- Nylon: This synthetic filament is ideal for complex projects with a lot of fine detail. It can also be remelted and reused.
- PETG: This type of filament is a step up from ABS. It is biodegradable, but it produces little to no harmful chemicals when it is heated up.
- Polycarbonate: This type of filament is extremely strong and durable. It is more expensive, and mistakes are more punishing. But when you’re ready to use it, you’ll appreciate its attractive qualities.
- PVA: Non-toxic and biodegradable, PVA is a great filament for beginners and for minor projects. It’s one weakness is it draws in moisture. That means you don’t want to use it on anything electronic or anything you expect to last a long time.
An alternative to filament printing, these use plastic resin rather than a plastic filament. The advantages are that you get higher resolution, faster printing, and stronger finished products. They are more expensive. However, if you come up with a high quality, precision invention that is in high demand, you can easily make up the difference.
These materials are melted using UV light, and they are excellent for creating smaller and more precise designs. Resin printers are usually fully enclosed because you don’t want to be exposed to the fumes that are created in the process.
The Difference Between SLA and DLP Printers
If you’re interested in a resin printer, you’ll see that many people recommend starting with either an SLA or DLP printer. Here’s the difference between the two:
SLA, or “Stereolithography,” is the first type of 3D printing invented. As such, it’s still the most accurate and detail-oriented way to do 3D printing.
DLP, or “Digital Light Processing,” combines a newer type of image projection with the older SLA method. It is similar to SLA, except that it forms whole layers at once—which is pretty impressive if you think about it.
3D Printing Safety Tips
Because we’re working with hot plastic, expensive tools, and materials, and because there are obvious hazards involved, safety is a key concern of 3D printing.
- Never Overheat Filaments: Overheating filaments can damage or destroy your printer. It can cause fires, injure you, or someone else- and it can make your creation fall apart on the printing bed.
- Do Not Touch Moving Parts: Sure these things seem intelligent. But that doesn’t mean they will avoid your fingers if you interfere with the process. Always stay clear of moving parts.
- Ensure Fans are On During Use: Certain parts of the machine will get hot, and fumes can accumulate into your design as it forms. Keeping the fans running is an important part of the process.
- Keep the Printer in a Well-Ventilated Room: 3D printing generates dangerous fumes. Always do your printing in a well-ventilated area, and make sure others understand the hazards of being near a printer while in operation.
- Plug it in Properly: If you’re using an extension cord to power your printer, make sure you’re doing so safely.
Questions to Ask Before Buying a 3D Printer
Before you choose a 3D printer, you should ask yourself some questions to ensure that you are choosing the right type and model.
What Is Your Budget?
Everyone has a budget of some sort, and 3D printers can get expensive quickly. You need to decide how much money you’re willing to spend not only on the machine, but also the resin or filament and any other extra supplies that are required for 3D printing.
How Large Are the Items Being Printed?
If you want to make objects larger than the printer you buy can produce, you will have a problem. Conversely, if you buy a printer that’s larger than you need, it can be too expensive to run and take up too much space. If you want to print large decorations for homes, you’re going to need a much larger machine than if you just want to print miniatures for your favorite tabletop games.
Are the Objects For Personal Use or For Sale?
If you can afford to make objects only for personal use, your budget concerns might be more of an issue. If you intend to sell your creations, it’s important to know that your sales may cover and exceed the cost of building them.
How Important is Fine Detail?
As mentioned above, different printers and different resins will accommodate different levels of detail. More detail-oriented products and materials cost more. So this is an important consideration when you’re building out your 3D printing facility.
Now that you know the basics of 3D printing, it’s easy to see why starting with the less expensive products designed for beginners is a good idea. Once you get going, you’ll quickly see how immensely useful and fun 3D printing can be. Plus, if you’re creative and industrious, you might even be able to turn your 3D printing workshop into a viable business.