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Your Complete Guide To the Hows and Whats of a 3D Printer

 A few years ago, 3D printing was just a buzzword. Printers were very expensive and found only in labs or cutting-edge industries. 

Fast forward to the present day, and it has finally become practical. Anyone can get into it, from an industrial facility to a hobbyist.

But for the uninitiated, it can seem like a daunting and complex process. Where to get started? Which printer to buy? What materials to get?

Find out everything you want to know about printing in our complete guide.

How does 3D printing work?

Normally, manufacturing consists of pouring molten material into molds. The resultant parts are then assembled into a complete object.

This makes manufacturing cost-effective only on a large scale. It is difficult, if not impossible, for manufacturing unique standalone objects.

3D printers, on the other hand,  operate on the principle of additive manufacturing. Material is put down layer by layer, gradually building up to the desired structure.

This approach has the advantage of being incredibly versatile. Ony can create almost any shape or object without any extra equipment.

The ‘blueprint’ for creating such an object comes from a digital 3D model created on a computer. The materials used include everything from plastics, resins, to even metals.

Types of 3D printers

There are many different technologies powering the printing process.

Fused Deposition Modeling

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is by far the most common process used in printers, due to its relative simplicity and low cost of materials used.

In an FDM printer, plastic polymers in the form of thin filaments are fed into an extruder. The extruder pushes out molten material through its superheated nozzle, assembling the object on a heated print bed.

This simple mode of operation makes FDM printers easy to assemble. FDM printers are available as DIY kits for enthusiasts to put together themselves.

Another advantage of this process is that the materials are simple too. Filaments are made out of plastic polymers of a high melting point.

Most FDM printers have a single movable extruder. Some of the more expensive models can use two extruders simultaneously.

Stereolithography

Stereolithography (SLA) printers are powered by a different technology. Instead of melting plastics, stereolithography printers use the precision of focused UV rays.

These UV rays are directed into a vat of liquid polymer, ‘curing’ the material at specific points into a solid, contiguous mass.

As might be expected, the resultant print is much smoother and detailed when compared to an FDM printer.

On the flip side, stereolithography printers tend to be more expensive and operate somewhat slower. The resins used with an SLA printer are costlier too, and harder to store as they are extremely sensitive to light.

Still, if you need better print quality than what an FDM printer gives you, stereolithography is the way to go.

Selective Laser Sintering

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is not a type of printer you will find in your typical home studio. The most advanced form of printers, SLS uses a high-intensity laser to melt powdered materials into the desired shape.

This allows SLS printers to use normally unusable materials like metals. The laser is capable of fusing even materials with extremely high melting points.


It also makes this printer more precise than even SLA printers, giving a level of detail that cannot be matched by any other process.

SLS printers are too expensive, though. They are only found in cutting edge industries to create automobile or machinery parts and prototypes.

How long does it take a 3D printer to print?

Generally speaking, printing is a somewhat slow process. It usually takes a couple of hours to print simple designs, while the larger, more complex creations might even take days.

Obviously, industrial printers or simply large ones can work on whole batches at once, greatly reducing the time spent on each copy. Having shorter models helps too, as that decreases the number of layers required.

There are many other factors that weigh into the printing time. This includes the level of detail required or the operating temperature of the extruder and the bed. Even settings on the slicer (more on that later) can affect how fast the model is printed.

What are the Materials and Software Required for Printing 3D objects?

The printer isn’t all you need to get started. These printers require other parts, from the basic materials used in the printing process to the software needed to instruct it. Here is an overview of everything you need

Filaments

FDM printers work with spools of filaments, composed of different types of plastics, such as PLA or ABS.

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is the most commonly used filament in such printers. This is because of its inexpensive cost and ease of use, as its low melting point ensures that PLA layers set easily without much heating. On the flip side, PLA degrades in heat and humidity, so the prints can only be used indoors.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is the industry standard for plastic products. It is durable and heat resistant.

This makes it an excellent choice for printing long-lasting items. Although it is also a little difficult to use due to the high-temperatures required.

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) is food-safe. It is the filament of choice for creating food containers or cake decorations.

Keep in mind though that the end-product needs to be coated in a food-grade epoxy before use.

Resins

Stereolithography printers use lasers to solidify a liquid resin. This has the advantage of being more precise than filament technology, besides being capable of greater detail.

Resins cost much more than filaments though, which is why they are rarely used outside of high-precision applications.

Standard Resin is the most affordable variant, mostly used for quick prototyping or small household prints. For more durable results, you need Tough Resin. It is used by labs and industries for manufacturing sturdy models and parts.

None of them are biocompatible, though; to print dental implants or hearing aids, you need Medical-grade Resin.

What software do I need for printing?

Technically speaking, you need two things. An application to create a 3D model, and then something to convert it into a form your printer can understand.

In practice though, 3D models can be obtained from the internet, without having to fiddle around with modeling. In that case, the only thing you need is a slicer.

A slicer is an application that divides the 3D model into a stack of horizontal layers that can then be fabricated by your printer.

This final output is called ‘G-Code’ – a set of instructions telling the printer exactly what to do.

Now in most cases, the brand you purchase your printer from will also include a slicer, so you are covered. In case that’s not true (or you are just looking for a different one), you can use Slic3r.

Slic3r is an open-source slicing software that works on almost every printer out there, both FDM and SLA. You can also use Ultimaker’s Cura, which while proprietary is still free to use and has excellent performance.

3D Printing Tools

Apart from the printer and the materials that go into it, you may also need some basic tools.

First of all, you need some kind of adhesive to allow the print to stick to the base and not come off while the printing is still in progress.

You can use glue sticks, painter’s tape, or even hairspray for this. While these adhesives do get the job done (at least when applied properly), they are difficult to remove while cleaning the bed.

A better option is to use BuildTak sheets.

BuildTak sheets are specialized for holding your prints to the print surface securely. Some variants help you separate them without a fuss once the printing is done too.

Apart from adhesives, you will need some tools for post-processing your prints.

A utility knife is great for filing away extraneous features and prying off the prints from the base. Sandpaper is useful for sanding the print until you get a smooth surface, after which you can apply a coat or two of primer and paint.

Post-processing a 3D print is not necessary, but by spending a little effort, you can make your prints look like professionally manufactured products.

What Can I Make With a 3D Printer?

Almost anything. The additive manufacturing process at the heart of the printer is well known for its flexibility and reliability. This makes it well suited for building even the most complicated solid objects without much fuss.

Of course, the type of printer decides the range and quality of products you can make. 

Large industrial printers are regularly used to manufacture automobile and machinery parts. For some old cars, printing is often the only way to get working spare parts anymore.

Smaller printers tend to be slightly less precise, and are mostly used for printing simple household objects or tools. For example, these can print decorative figurines or fashion accessories.

The best use case is to simply print things for fun. This works better if you have a complementary hobby.

If you like playing table-top games, for example, printers can be used to print miniatures for use in your gaming sessions.

There are serious uses of it too. Medical equipment, such as critical implants or prosthetics, can also be manufactured by printers. You must use a laser-based process (such as SLA) with a high quality liquid resin.

This can help you get such equipment in hard to reach areas where medical gear is in short supply.

Printing Products for Business

A growing creed of enthusiasts is turning their hobby into a business. Thanks to Amazon, it is easier than ever to sell anything online.

With a printer, you can create products to sell right at your home. Whether you manufacture an inventory in advance or print objects on order, you can earn some good money with your skills.

Though don’t try this with an entry-level printer; the print quality and speed are probably going to be too low. Your best bet is to buy a larger industrial printer that can assemble multiple small objects at once.

You need to use good materials too, instead of the cheapest filament that money can buy. And take care of the logistics.

Like any business, it is not going to be easy to do, but printing products to sell online is a viable business strategy.

The FDM Printing Process

Unboxing and Assembly

If you bought a fully assembled printer then you just have to take it out of the box and you are ready to go. But, if you got a DIY kit, then get down to assembling it.

Manufacturers usually include a fairly detailed guide, but when in doubt, don’t hesitate to head to Youtube to watch the process in action.

Preparing the Print Bed

Before you can get started with printing anything, you need to prepare the printing surface. Essentially, you need to apply some kind of adhesive so that the printed object stays in place.

You can use painter’s tape, dump some hair spray, or just use a glue stick. Those with BuildTak sheets can just place a sheet and you are ready to move forward.

Heating Things Up

In an FDM printer (which we are assuming is what you are using), the whole printing process is based on heat.

The extruder’s nozzle needs to be at a high enough temperature to be able to melt the filament smoothly. The print bed too needs to be heated up to accept the layers.

Take care not to overdo this step though – too much heating can damage your printer, or in the worst-case scenario, even set it on fire.  200℃ for the nozzle and 60℃ for the bed is sufficient for working with PLA.

Loading the Filament

Nowadays, printers are coming with auto-load and auto-unload options. In that case, you just have to hit the buttons and the printer takes care of it for you.

Without a built-in function, you just have to push the filaments in. Once the extruder is heated up, press the release lever and insert the filament. Keep pushing until a little material starts gushing out of the nozzle.

Leveling the Print Bed

As you might expect, the printing surface needs to be completely level for the printer to work properly. Doing this manually can be a bit tricky, as your eye is not the best judge of a level height.

An auto-leveling printer frees you from this chore. It uses its proximity sensor to ensure the perfect level automatically. When auto-leveling is not available, you have to level the printer yourself.

The process goes something like this.

After disabling steppers from the control menu (and fixing the extruder to the Z-axis), you tighten the screws of the bed as far as they go.

Next, bring the nozzle down (it should be free to move) to each of the corners, taking care to stop it just short of touching it. You can even use a piece of paper on the bed to make sure that some gap always remains, and adjust the print bed’s height accordingly.

How to Learn 3D Printing?

Using a printer isn’t exactly rocket science. Still, for a complete beginner, it might seem like a bit too much. So here are a few ways to teach yourself how to use 3D printers.

Youtube Videos

Probably the best way to learn anything is through Youtube. Whether it is playing the guitar to building a computer, there is a video for it on Youtube.

The same goes for printers. You can find videos covering every aspect of operating a printer online. You can learn the very basics of operating your printer, or the method to create specific objects easily.

Online Courses

If you are looking to learn printing from a more professional point of view, consider enrolling for some courses online. Coursera has plenty of courses covering some of the more advanced topics related to it.

Unlike watching videos, these courses can earn you certificates. This helps you get employment in fields that are using 3D printers extensively in their operations.

Just Try it Out

The best way to learn anything is by doing it, and using printers is no exception. Try printing things on your printer, fiddling around with the various options and settings to see what works.

You will learn more from experience than you can from formal instruction or videos. Just refer to a written guide for a resource for the absolute basics of operating your printer, so that you don’t damage anything permanently.

Addendum: How to 3D Print Better

While getting started with a printer is quite easy, it requires some skill and experience to be able to get the most out of it. Here are some additional tips that can enhance your experience.

3D Modeling

Initially, you can download 3D models from a site like Thingiverse, and churn out prints from them.  With time, however, you start running out of designs and start thinking of ways to create them yourself.

With 3D modeling, you can do just that.

3D modeling is the process of constructing digital blueprints of objects in dedicated software. Many people rightly consider 3D modeling to be a tough skill to learn, but for the purposes of printing, you do not really need to go that deep.

Much of the complexity of 3D modeling comes from ‘rigging’ and animation; if all you want is to model static objects, your task becomes much easier.

Moreover, you may not want to make models from scratch, but just to change existing models. That is an even easier skill to master and can make using a printer much more satisfying for you.

All you need is an application like Blender, and you are ready to get started.

Support Structures

Not all objects that you print are going to be flat or perfectly cylindrical. There are many 3D models with difficult to print features like overhangs or rounded bases.

How do you print such models?

It’s simple. You use support structures.

Support structures are just columns of extra material that is tacked onto the model. Their goal is to bridge the gap between the base and the object, giving the layers being printed a surface to rest upon.

Normally, slicing software can automatically add the support structures as needed. But relying on this approach wastes materials, as the algorithm simply stuffs every empty space with columns.

Manually, you can insert support structures in the places where they are required, using the least material required. This not only saves you valuable resources but also reduces the time taken to print the object.

Infills and Thickness

Item strength is a property of the design of the object and the materials used. While you can improve the latter by just using a better material (for example, carbon nanofiber), the first requires some work.

The easiest way to make a 3D print stronger is by introducing infills.

Infills are simple patterns that are used to fill the hollow parts of the object with the aim of making it stronger.

A non-efficient approach would be to just print it as a solid mass. The better way is to use patterns that use a fraction of the material but give similar physical strength.

Honeycomb designs, for example, are an excellent option.

The second way is by increasing the thickness of the walls. Some people like to make the walls of their 3D printed objects very thin, but that runs the risk of making them weak and easy to break. Going to the other extreme and making super-thick walls isn’t exactly the best idea either.

The key is to keep a balance. The walls should be thick enough in ratio with the dimensions of the rest of the object, with the internal walls being even thinner.

How much does a 3D printer cost?

The cost of a printer depends on many factors: the layering technology used, the number of extruders, size, print resolution, etc.

You can get the most barebones printer for as low as $500, with a single FDM extruder, low resolution, and a very small layering area. Even so, it is a good place to start for a complete beginner to printing, or kids looking to mess around.

It is at the $1,500 mark that you start getting a real-sized printer, with enough bells-and-whistles to handle most common printing tasks. This includes both filament and resin-based printers, with only a slight difference in prices.

But if you want to use it in a professional setting, you will need a budget of around $3,500-5,000. This nets you a fully-fledged printer large enough to fabricate complex parts. Some models are even capable of CAD assisted manufacturing, allowing them to be used in an industrial capacity.

Is it worth getting a 3D printer?

In one word, yes.

3D printers have never been more accessible or cost-efficient than they are today. You can now just download a 3D model, fire up your printer, and start printing right away.

Even the materials being used have become a lot more affordable. It is getting cheaper to print complex gadgets and simple accessories rather than manufacture them on the assembly line.

Whether you are a science teacher looking to teach by example or an entrepreneur, this is the best time to get started with 3D printing.

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