3D Printer for Beginners: What You Need To Know Before Going Into 3D Printing
There is something really exciting about having the power to make anything you want, whenever you want, right in your hands. 3D printers are changing the way we think about production, not only in an industrial or professional capacity but also in a personal one.
Just as personal computers brought advanced software applications to homes and small businesses, 3D printers are democratizing the power to create products.
But for many people out there, 3D printers are still an unknown technology. How does it work? What are the things needed? How much does it cost?
If you are wondering about the same things, don’t worry. Here is a comprehensive guide to tell you all that you need to know before going into 3D printing.
The 3D printing process
You must be thinking how a printer can create solid, three-dimensional objects, right? It's simple. It builds them up layer by layer.
Think back to those high-school classes on 3D geometry. Just like stacking a series of circles gives you a cylinder, 3D printers stack up horizontal slices of various shapes to construct any type of solid object.
Types of 3D printers
3D printing is just an umbrella term referring to any technology based on the principle of additive manufacturing. In practice, 3D printers often use widely varying technologies, with completely different capabilities and material needs.
Fused Deposition Modeling
Search for 3D printers on any e-commerce platform, and chances are, most of the options on the page will be FDM printers.
This is because FDM, or Fused Deposition Modeling, is the most cost-effective 3D printing process out there. Not only is the machine itself simpler, but FDM uses plastic filaments as materials, which are inexpensive and easy to print.
Basically, an FDM printer passes the polymer filament through a heated tube, extruding the resultant semi-liquid material in a layer that sets upon cooling down. While straightforward in operation, it is not a very precise method and can result in irregular surfaces.
The other approach toward 3D printing involves UV light. Focused lights cause a liquid (or powder) resin to solidify at specific points, leaving the rest of the material to fall away.
This difference is clear when watching the printing in progress; FDM printers extrude materials on top of a plain surface, while resin printers gradually pull out the object from a formless basin.
But apart from a different technology in use, are there any other changes?
A lot, actually. The use of a pin-point light to print items gives a level of precision that cannot be matched by a solid filament extruder, giving much smoother, more detailed prints.
On top of that, as the object is pulled out of a vat of resin, the layers are free of any detritus, unlike FDM, where dust and bacteria are routinely trapped in between. The vat polymerization process also results in stronger, more durable prints, making it the perfect choice for fabricating machinery parts or gadgets.
Selective Laser Sintering or SLS is a modification of the stereolithographic process, using a precise laser to melt powdered resin, instead of a vat of liquid. This process has the advantage of giving much higher durability, with the possibility of printing even metal objects, along with much finer detail.
As a result, SLS based 3D printers give the highest quality prints and are used regularly in industrial and commercial applications where the end product is a functioning component rather than just a showpiece.
The Materials Used
As you might have already learned from the previous section, 3D printers use mainly two kinds of materials: spools of solid filaments and vats of liquid (or powder) polymer.
But even in these categories, there are various choices with their own applications.
Polylactic Acid (PLA) is the most commonly used filament in FDM printers. This is because PLA is cheap, and melts quite easily. Many budget 3D printers are capable of working with PLA alone, as their extruders cannot handle higher temperatures required for other materials very well.
But PLA objects do not last long, degrading easily to heat and humidity, not to mention physical impacts. Use it only for small prints to keep within your room.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is the industry standard for plastic products, and with good reason; it is extremely durable and heat resistant. While this makes it an excellent choice for printing long-lasting items, it also makes it a little difficult to use due to the high-temperatures required.
Still, it costs less than liquid resins and is the material of choice for most hobbyists working with mid-range printers, used to fabricate toys, tools, or artificial jewelry.
Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) is one of the few food-safe filaments. That said, the FDM process itself is not food-safe; the layers are open to the air and tend to accumulate dirt and microbes.
Products intended to come in contact with food should be finished with a food-grade epoxy before use.
Standard Resin is a simple liquid polymer that solidifies on UV exposure. While not as strong as ABS, it results in smooth prints that are good enough for household usage or simple wearables.
Tough Resin usually comes in the form of a powder usable only with the SLS process. As the name suggests, it is much stronger and durable than usual vat polymers and can be used to fabricate tools and components.
Though much more expensive than standard resin, it is the material used in most industrial 3D printing applications and prototyping needs.
Medical-grade resin is simply a type of polymer that is bio-compatible. Tough and inert, it is used to print dental implants or medical devices, such as hearing aids.
Cost of a 3D Printer
Once you have narrowed down the style of 3D printer and the materials you will likely be using, then the next thing to think about is the price. 3D printer prices vary wildly, starting from as low as $250 and going up to $2,000 or even more.
As a rule of thumb, the sub $500 space is for beginner level printers that are only good for messing around, while the $1,000-$1,500 is for models that you can actually use.
Go above $2,000 only if you need professional-quality prints, and want to fabricate components and gadgets for long-term usage.
3D Printing Software
On the software side, things are much simpler. All you need is a digital 3D model and a ‘slicing’ software, and you are ready to start printing.
3D models need to be in the STL format. You can easily download them from the internet or make one in any modeling or CAD software.
Slicing software is an application that converts the digital 3D model into layers that can be printed by a 3D printer, sending this information in the form of G-code instructions. Leading brands often have their own slicing software, such as the MakerBot Print or Cura.
Alternatively, you can download any free, open-source slicing software like Slic3r, which is designed to be an easy 3D printing software for beginners.
Things to know before buying a 3D printer
Apart from all the factors we have already discussed – the printing technology, size, supported materials – there are a few more things to keep in mind when shopping for a 3D printer.
The most important of these is print resolution. Measured in microns, print resolution tells you the minimum size of a detail that can be printed; ie. the smaller the print resolution, the more detailed the end product.
Print speed, on the other hand, determines how fast the printer’s extruder can move. Obviously, a better print speed will translate to a lower printing time, although slower speeds are generally better at capturing fine detail.
Finally, auto-leveling is a feature that ensures that the printer is able to measure the distance to the print bed with a proximity sensor, saving you the effort of manually leveling, and preventing adjustment errors from spoiling your prints.
While 3D printing is not exactly rocket science, there are some key things to keep in mind before jumping into it headfirst.
Things like the printing technology, the materials used, or the size of the printer have to be decided before you buy a 3D printer, to ensure that you get the right device for your needs.
But once you get over this learning curve, 3D printing is a very enjoyable and satisfying process. So whether you are a hobbyist or a budding entrepreneur, there has never been a better time to get into 3D printing.