5 Tips on Getting Started with 3D Printing

June 13, 2015 -- BIT Magazine Many people know about 3D printing, and many people may have even  had a chance to download a 3D model from an online platform like Thingiverse, YouMagine, or SketchUp's 3D Warehouse and print one out.

The real barrier for wider adoption of 3D printing is the lack of skills most people have regarding 3D design and knowledge of how to actually use a 3D printer. There are innumerable tutorials and support forums online dedicated to addressing this problem, and hopefully these 5 tips will help add to this growing body of knowledge and our collective understanding of this powerful personal fabrication process.

1. Learn to 3D Design! 

Some 3D designers use powerful but complex software tools like 3DMax, Maya, or AutoCAD. These are excellent tools that can virtually do anything. However the learning curve is prohibitively steep to those seeking to jump right into the world of 3D design and printing.

Start with something simple like SketchUp. The tools and techniques learned by using SketchUp's intuitive and easy-to-learn interface can be carried over to more complex software suites later on. But the great thing about SketchUp is that first it is free, and second, those with the professional version can convert your files into a format 3D printers can print.

Check at your local makerspace for workshops and short courses regarding 3D design. If you are interested in 3D printing, learning to design is essential. And once you start you will find it difficult to stop.

In addition to helping you create 3D objects to print out, 3D design can be employed for space planning for interior and architectural design. It can be used for product design and even elements used in graphic design. In a future world where bits and atoms become increasingly indistinguishable from one another, design literacy will be as important as computer literacy is today.

2. 3DP Processes

There are various processes used by 3D printers which includes the most common, FDM (fused deposition modeling) which lays down material layer by layer from bottom to top until the entire object is created. There is also SLA (stereolithography) printers which use lasers or UV light to cure a liquid resin layer by layer as the object is pulled up from the resin reservoir. Additionally, less common because of its cost is laser sintering, where a laser is used to fuse solid powered material layer by layer. Materials can include plastics or even metals.

3. Rafts and Support Material

Rafts are layers of plastic laid down first before your model begins to be printed. The raft helps your model stick to the surface of the build plate better. Support material helps your 3D printer bridge gaps where nothing exists below a surface. Say you were 3D printing an arched doorway. How would the 3D printer bridge the arch? By building up thin layer of material below the arch, it has something to build on when it reaches the arch.

See the material supporting the bird? Without this, the hot, pliable plastic filament would simply sag down incoherently, ruining the print.  Support material is very fragile and intended only to work during the print thus making it very easy to break away leaving your model intact. 

4. Shells, Infill, and Layer Resolution

Shells refer to the top layer that covers the surface of your model. The more shells you include, the thicker this outer layer will be. Typically there is only one or two shells printed by default. If you plan on sanding your model, you may accidentally sand through this layer and reach the infill below, ruining your model. The more shells you include, the stronger the surface will be, the more sanding you can do, and the more water resistant it will be.

Infill refers to what is printed under the surface. Printers to save time and resources, will print a solid shell as described above, then print a less dense inner structure similar to a honeycomb. The percentage you set the infill to will determine how big (less dense) or small (denser) these structures will be. Typically you will find default settings to be around 10%. 20-30% will give you a very strong and dense model and is what is recommended when printing objects like prosthetic limbs.

100% infill means your model will be solid plastic.

Layer resolution is the next thing to consider. On printers such as the prolific MakerBot or Ultimaker, you will have low, medium, and high resolution settings with layer heights of 0.3, 0.2, and 0.1mm respectively. If you look closely at each, you will notice a difference in texture across the surface, with the highest resolution being the smoothest.

5. Filament 

There are two basic kinds of filament out there. PLA plastic and ABS. ABS requires higher temperatures to use and printers designed to use it will typically have a heated build plate. The benefit of ABS (the same plastic Lego blocks are made of) is its durability and increased flexibility.

PLA on the other hand does not require a heated build plate and can be used at lower temperatures. PLA is more brittle than ABS so when designing an object that will be printed in PLA, this must be taken into consideration. A benefit of PLA is its ability to be thermoformed. Thermoforming means heating the plastic and then forming it around a specific shape. This technique is perfect for creating wearables, art, and even prosthetic limbs.

When using any kind of filament, make sure you are in a well ventilated area. ABS in particular releases noxious fumes that can be hazardous to your health. However, just like anything else, with some commonsense and care, you can safely use either.

When setting up your 3D printer, there will be options for filament choice. This is because your printer needs to know what temperature and other setting to prepare for each. Using the wrong filament with the wrong settings will result in a failed print.

Extra: Caring For Your Printer 

And just in case you have a printer already or are thinking of getting one, there are a few things you need to learn how to do to get maximum use from it. 3D printers all have a procedure needed to level the build plate and set the correct distance between it and the extruder. Learning to do this is essential.

You will also need to learn how to disassemble the extruder to clean it out occasionally. Many users have noted that passing a thin piece of soft, electrical wire (around 0.26 mm diameter) through the extruder helps clean it out when the printer is no longer working properly. If prints seem to be suffering from weak, thin, whispy filament layers, you may need to do this.

Finally, keep track of your filament rolls. They can get tangled and jammed, ruining a print. Every chance you get, check it during a long build and ensure there is good slack.

One could and probably has written a book about the basics of 3D printing, but the best way to learn is to hang out often at your local makerspace and try to learn by doing as much as possible. Eventually you will get the hang of it and hopefully will get good enough to help teach someone else just getting started.

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