A Quick Guide to 3D Printer Parts and Software Requirements
Maybe you are trying to assemble a 3D printer on your own. Or perhaps you just want to understand the inner workings of your 3D printer much better.
This means learning about not just the physical parts that make up a 3D printer, but also the digital applications that power it. So let us take a quick dive into what makes a 3D printer tick.
3D Printer Parts
Contrary to what many people believe, a 3D printer has a rather simple structure. Here are the crucial components that make up a 3D printer:
The extruder is the key to the whole 3D printing process.
An extruder is rather straightforward in its functioning. A thin plastic filament is fed into the tube by a motor, where a super-heated nozzle melts it.
Basically, it is a mechanical arm that extrudes molten plastic in a thin stream, painstakingly building up each layer. Ideally, the plastic cools by the time the extruder returns to deposit the second layer, allowing for a proper shape and adhesion.
Setting the print speed too fast can disrupt this structure, as layers meld into each other without getting the time to solidify. The slower the extruder is allowed to move, the better the quality of the print that results.
The thickness of the nozzle also has a bearing on the precision of the print. The thinner the nozzle, the more detailed the print, so larger nozzles are not recommended.
In some of the larger industrial printers, there are often two extruders. This helps in creating multi-material or multi-color builds without any complicated workarounds.
The print bed is the platform upon which your prints come to life. Essentially, it is just a smooth, flat surface to hold the print while the extruder is working on it.
Most printers use glass for their flatbed, though a metal surface is occasionally used as well. The problem is that while you need the bed to be smooth, you also want the first layer to stick to it, as even the slightest shift can destroy the whole print.
This is why print beds using BuildTak or FlexPlate are preferred. With normal materials, you have to use masking tape or glue (which then has to be removed at the end) to achieve the same thing.
The frame is the component holding it all together. A 3D printer is not a bulky machine, but it does have a number of moving parts.
This means that a metallic frame should be your preferred choice when buying (or assembling) a 3D printer. Not only is it more durable, but owing to the high temperatures involved during printing, is less likely to suffer a catastrophic failure.
Apart from the material, a frame can be open or enclosed. An enclosed frame protects the heated elements from accidental contact with your fingers, as well as keeping the internal temperature high enough for a smooth printing experience.
You must be wondering why we need slicing software in the first place. Can’t the printer just print out the 3D model itself? Not quite.
Digital 3D models store the object in terms of vertices and triangles. A 3D printer, on the other hand, operates on layers.
A slicer is simply a software application that makes this conversion, slicing the 3D model into horizontal layers that can be printed by a 3D printer. It also adjusts additional parameters like the support structures or making the object hollow.
Best Slicing Software for Beginners
When you are just starting out, all you want out of a slicing software is for it to convert a 3D model into printer compatible G-code with the minimum fuss possible.
Slic3r is an open-source slicing software designed for beginners. It is easy to use right off the bat, with minimal knowledge required.
Supported by almost all 3D printers (including both FDM and stereolithography printers), Slic3r gives you both GUI and command-line interfaces to generate G-code from any 3D model. It can even convert the OBJ file format, allowing you to source your 3D models from anywhere.
The best thing is that while Slic3r emphasizes simplicity, it still retains all the bells and whistles one can expect from an advanced slicing software. From previewing tool paths to printing on multiple printers simultaneously, Slic3r has it all.
It even supports multiple extruders and conditional G-code logic, allowing you to construct multi-colored, multi-layer objects easily.
Best Slicing Software for Experts
Once you have gotten the hang of 3D printing a little, you need software that gives you a bit more control over the process. Trying to print anything remotely complicated involves a bunch of support structures that can quickly run your materials dry and leave ugly marks all over the print.
You need slicing software that offers advanced options to customize the slicing and allows you to delve right into the G-code itself if required.
The MakerBot series of industrial printers are one of the most well regarded 3D printers in the market. And with good reason: their models break the stereotype of FDM printers being less capable than resin printers.
MakerBot Print is a free slicing software released by the same company to power their line of 3D printers. As a professionally produced application, it has many advanced features not present in community-developed programs.
While it is undeniably best used with MakerBot printers, the software is capable of operating other brands too, making it a good alternative to Slic3r.
The Ultimaker Cura is another free slicing software developed by a major 3D printer company. Just like MakerBot Print, Cura offers a carefully selected suite of features that enhances the 3D printing capabilities of any printer, not just their own.
Of the three options we have mentioned, Cura is probably the most commonly used. This is due to its slick user interface and easily accessible features, which make it a breeze to get started with and yet powerful enough for all your needs.
The best thing is the vibrant online community; whatever issue you might face, chances are, it has already been solved by other users.
Starting out, the wealth of 3D models available online is more than enough to keep you satisfied. After a while though, you will find yourself wishing to make tiny adjustments.
The slicer (and even some printers) will allow you to change the scale and the printing parameters – the thickness of the layers, the support structures, so on – but do not have the capability to modify the model itself.
For that, you need to delve into 3D modeling.
And contrary to what most people expect, it is not that difficult. Sure, creating a complex 3D model from scratch is an involved process requiring quite a bit of skill. Making small changes though? That just needs basic knowledge and the right software.
Professional 3D modeling software is some of the more expensive programs out there, but for our purposes, free software would do just fine. You don’t need advanced animation features, only the fundamental modeling tools.
An application like Blender, for example, is perfect. With a wealth of tutorials available online and a helpful community of 3D artists, you will be designing your own 3D models in no time.
3D Printing Apps for Android
First of all, don’t expect to find a slicer on mobile. The slicing process is too complex to be handled by mobile hardware (for now at least) and has to be done on a computer. That said, there are plenty of apps that can help in your 3D printing in other ways.
Thingiverse is the universe of things. More specifically, it is a platform where anyone can share 3D models of their own creation.
While there are many such platforms there, Thingiverse is by far the most popular and most high-quality resource. You can find 3D models of almost every object, ready to be downloaded, on the app.
If creating your own designs is your sort of thing, you might be interested in this app. Tinkerplay allows you to create your own 3D models.
Instead of forcing you to build things from scratch (which is somewhat difficult), Tinkerplay simply gives you a toolbox of pre-designed parts that you can attach and arrange however you like. The results are more stunning than you might imagine, with users creating everything from geometric designs to complex miniatures.
The 3D printers of today are easy to understand and use. Thanks to a dedicated community, even the software tools such as slicers have been remade into user-friendly versions that even a beginner can get started with.
With a little more experience you can even try your hands at some 3D modeling, leveraging Android apps like Tinkerplay or even a full-fledged modeling software like Blender. There is much scope for advanced tinkering with the slicing process too, allowing an intermediate user to adjust the layers to their own liking.
So keep printing, and before you know it, you will be churning out beautiful miniatures and complex prints like a pro.