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Your Step by Step Guide On How To Use A 3D Printing Machine

Your brand new 3D printer has just arrived, and you are itching to get started with some cool prints. But the accompanying user manual far less information than you would like, and you are not sure how to proceed.

Well, look no further. Our step-by-step guide walks you through the whole 3D printing process, from loading up filaments to leveling the bed. While it will not make a 3D printing master, it will arm you with all the basic skills you need to use a 3D printing machine.

So let’s get started.

Step 1: Unboxing and Assembly

This step can be very easy or very time-consuming, depending on which type of printer you have bought.

Some 3D printers come in the form of a DIY kit which needs to be assembled before use. If yours is pre-built, just unwrap it, plug it into a power supply, and jump over to the next step.

Still here? Then you need to start building your 3D printer.

The good news is that your manufacturer probably included a detailed instruction manual on assembling the whole thing. The bad news is that juggling all those parts can get you confused pretty quickly.

Your best bet is to find an assembly video of your printer model online and follow the instructions to the dot.

Step 2: Preparing the Print Bed

This is perhaps the most important step for the quality of your prints, and the step most skip over, much to their later regret.

The thing is, print beds do not automatically stick to the filament polymer. This means that while the heated plastic will get deposited on it, it will likely get scooped up again or at least messed around when the extruder moves.

Basically, we need to apply some sort of adhesive on the print bed to make sure that the print does not come away during the printing process. You can use blue painter’s tape, hair spray, or even glue sticks, but the best option is using BuildTak sheets, as it makes removing the finished product easier.

Step 3: Heating Things Up

Before you can start printing, your printer needs to be hot enough to work with the thermoplastic filaments. Different materials have their own heat requirements, but if you are using PLA – which you should, if this is your first time printing anything – then a temperature of around 200℃ is enough for the nozzle.

The printing bed needs to be heated too, but don’t go too far; temperatures above 90℃ can wreck your printer. For the printing bed, 60℃ is the right level to maintain when working with PLA.

Step 4: Loading the Filament

Some 3D printers come with built-in load and unload options, making your task infinitely easier. Just hit the unload option first to expel any filament residue already in the extruder before loading up new filaments.

If your printer does not support these options, you just have to do it manually.

Inserting new filaments is easy enough; once the extruder nozzle is sufficiently heated up (a little above 200℃), push the filament into it, while keeping the extruder release lever pressed. Keep pushing until some filament flows out of the nozzle, and you are ready to start printing.

Unloading can be a bit tricky though; you must first load a filament using the method described above, and then yank it out while still pressing the lever. This ensures that any remaining bits were either pushed out of the nozzle or pulled out with your filament.

Step 5: Leveling the Print Bed

And now we come to the most difficult step of all – ensuring that the print bed is perfectly level. If this sounds easy to you, think again.

A 3D printer works on such a microscopic scale that even a centimeter of deviation can cause your whole print to unravel. This is why buying an auto-leveling 3D printer is recommended, as its proximity sensor allows it to maintain a perfect level at all times, with no scope for human error.

That said, manually leveling the print bed is quite doable.

Begin by selecting the ‘Home the Z-axis’, followed by ‘Disable Steppers’ from the control menu. This allows you to move around the extruder nozzle manually without breaking anything.

Now tighten the leveling screws of the print bed as much as you can. The idea is to bring the nozzle to each of the corners one by one, adjusting the height of the print bed until it just touches it.

Be careful though; while we want the corners aligned, we do not want the nozzle to actually touch the print bed and melt it. To make sure that doesn’t happen, take a piece of paper or something just as thin and place it on the bed before leveling. That way, there will always be a tiny gap even if you overdo it a little.

Step 6: The Software Side

Whether you assembled your 3D printer yourself or got one pre-built, the firmware is already loaded in it. All you need is a 3D model and a slicer.

Most leading brands like MakerBot or Cura have their own slicing software, though you can always use a beginner-friendly tool like slic3r instead.

Whichever slicer you use, don’t bother with any of the advanced options; the default should be enough, to begin with. Once you have a better understanding of the process, you can fiddle around with the slicer to change how the layers are printed.

Step 7: Start a Test Print

Finally, you are ready to actually print anything. Before you get down to printing all those cool things you have in mind, however, start with something small to test the waters. A 3DBenchy, for example, is a great first print to vet the performance of your 3D printer.

This little boat-like toy contains all sorts of features to trip up a printer, from smooth surfaces to curved overhands, and slanting holes to tiny surface details. If your printer was configured correctly, you should get a perfect print.

If not, try leveling the printer and print again. 

From 3D Model to Print – Things to Keep in Mind

In theory, you can take any 3D model and print it right away. In practice though, things aren’t that simple. There are many factors to keep in mind before 3D printing some of the more complex models.

Choice of Material

While PLA is the best material to start with, ultimately you would want to move to other, better materials. But which material you choose also has a bearing on how you print.

For example, ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) requires incredibly high temperatures to use. While this makes it tougher and more resistant to heat degradation, it also means a much slower print time as the filament takes forever to melt.

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG), on the other hand, needs only a slightly higher temperature than PLA. This makes it not only easier, but also safer to use.

Even within the same material, different filament brands tend to have slightly different temperatures. You should tinker around with the heat settings to determine the perfect temperature where the layers stick easily and yet the print isn’t droopy either.

Area of Contact

As you might have noticed, your 3D printer builds up objects by stacking layers. This means that the taller the object, the more layers that are required, slowing down the build time.

Thus when you are printing things like miniatures or figurines, it might be a better idea to build them lying down instead of standing up. An added advantage of this approach is that the larger surface area of contact supports the build better, needing much less extraneous support material.

Quality vs Speed

Many 3D printers have impressive print speeds, churning out simple objects in minutes. But this increased speed usually comes with a cost; the print quality deteriorates, swallowing up minor details and surface boundaries.

The slower you set the print speed, the more precise the print you get. This is because it takes time for the plastic to cool down and set, and throwing another layer on top of it before that can make them flow into each other.

Experiment with different print speeds to determine the sweet spot where prints do not take forever but can print accurately too.

Overhang and Support

When 3D printing, you must start thinking in terms of layers rather than geometries.

For example, if you are printing an object with features curving down from the main body (such as the hands or wings on a miniature), then those features would be built from the bottom up, leaving the parts unattached to anything.

This is where support material comes in. Generally, slicing software can take care of adding supports itself but be warned, it usually overcompensates, wasting tons of material where very little was required.

Also, separating the support material always damages the main print too, so minimizing the support and keeping it in out of notice areas is important. Take some time to go over your 3D model before you send it to the printer, determining areas that need to be shored up.

Some Useful Tools

Technically, your 3D printer is all that you need to churn out some eye-catching prints. In practice, however, you will find many stages of the printing process difficult to manage without the right tools.

A utility knife for example is almost essential. Not only does it help you pry off your prints from the adhesive print bed, but also cleans up edges and unfinished corners without damaging the print.

It is particularly helpful in separating support material from the print without leaving any distinguishable marks.

Another useful tool in the arsenal of any 3D print enthusiast is the humble sandpaper. 3D Prints, especially when produced by an FDM printer, can come out rough and unfinished. A little sanding is all that is needed to smoothen the surfaces.

Though sanding tends to make the surfaces look a bit ugly, so it might be best to have some paint in hand too. Airbrush paints lend the most ‘polished’ look, though spray paint works too.

3D Printer Refills

If you are using an FDM printer, your printer refills will come in the form of filaments. Filaments are spools of thin plastic polymers, fed into the extruder’s hot nozzle during printing.

Compared to some other material types out there, filaments are rather cheap, and the preferred choice of most hobbyists.

For a stereolithography printer, you will need to buy resin. Resins are chemical liquids that harden on exposure to UV-light so you should keep any spare bottles of resin away from sunlight.

SLS printers require their own specialized form of resin, which comes in the form of powders, and are generally not meant for hobbyists. Only high-grade industrial printers use this kind of material, as it is the most expensive.

Is it Worth Getting a 3D Scanner?

A 3D scanner is in many ways the direct inverse of a 3D printer. Instead of creating a solid object from a digital model, it scans a real-world item and creates a digital representation of it.

Basically, a 3D scanner is useful if you want to fiddle around with the designs of objects that you already have and print variations of them. With it, you can scan the object, modify the 3D model, and print the result.

It is also great for those without much experience in 3D modeling; you can build a prototype design with any ‘traditional’ art method, scan it, then print it in the material of your choice.

When just starting out with 3D printing, it might be a better idea to focus on printing the models already available. That said, integrating a 3D scanner in your process allows you to get models of almost anything, and print variations of them quite easily.

Do I Need a Professional Printer?

A basic 3D printer is great to get started with 3D printing, familiarizing yourself with the process, and learning the possibilities. Ultimately, if you want to make 3D printing more than just an idle hobby, you will need a professional 3D printer.

Don’t worry, we are not talking about some bulky contraption that takes up a whole room to itself; Today's professional printers are sleek, desktop-sized machines with an accessible price tag.

But what difference does it make?

Well, an entry-level 3D printer has two main shortcomings – print size and resolution. The printing area is too small to build anything larger than a pencil case, and the level of detail too low for something meant for sale or even a work of art.

A professional 3D printer is better on both counts, along with many additional features that make your prints even better.

So if you want to use your 3D printer for actual prototyping or original miniatures, a professional printer is an absolute must.

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