3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, allows you to create physical objects from digital models by building them up in layers. This transformative technology is revolutionizing design, manufacturing, and education. As 3D printing becomes more accessible, it’s easier than ever for beginners to get started. This guide covers everything you need to know to take your first steps into the world of 3D printing.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing refers to various processes used to synthesize three-dimensional objects where the material is joined or solidified under computer control to create an object. In 3D printing, the object is built up additive layer-by-layer from a digital 3D model or other electronic data source.
The 3D printing process starts with a digital 3D model of the object, usually created with CAD (computer-aided design) software or from 3D scanning an existing object. This digital model is then sliced into thin layers by the 3D printer software. The 3D printer reads each slice and proceeds to construct the object layer-by-layer from the bottom up by depositing material. The materials used can be plastic, metal, concrete, or even food!
3D printing brings ideas and designs into the physical world directly from a digital model. This enables completely new designs with complex geometries that are not possible using traditional manufacturing methods. From rapid prototyping through to the production of final parts, 3D printing is disrupting and revolutionizing manufacturing and many other fields, such as medicine, aerospace, architecture, and education.
Types of 3D Printing Technologies
There are several different 3D printing technologies that each build objects in different ways. Here are some of the most common ones:
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM): One of the most common and affordable 3D printing technologies uses a thermoplastic filament, which is heated to a semi-liquid state and then extruded layer-by-layer to build an object. Popular beginner FDM printers include the Creality Ender 3 and Prusa i3.
- Stereolithography (SLA): A photopolymer resin is selectively cured layer-by-layer by a laser in a process called photopolymerization. SLA produces highly accurate and smooth surface finish parts. Popular SLA printers include the AnyCubic Photon and Formlabs Form 3.
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS): A high-power laser fuses small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders into a mass representing the desired 3D object. No supports are required, and unused powder can be recycled. Used for both prototyping and production.
- Electron Beam Melting (EBM): Similar to SLS, but uses an electron beam as a power source to melt metal powder layer-by-layer. Widely used for metal part production in the aerospace and medical implant industries.
- PolyJet: Acrylic-based photopolymer resin is jetted layer-by-layer and cured with UV light to build highly detailed and accurate objects. Produces smooth surface finishes. Materials mimicking plastic, rubber or transparent glass can be printed.
- Binder Jetting: A liquid bonding agent is selectively deposited to join powder materials layer-by-layer using inkjet printheads. It is most commonly used with sandstone and metals.
There are over a dozen distinct 3D printing technologies with new methods still emerging. Each has their own set of materials, advantages, and ideal applications.
Key Components of a 3D Printer
While 3D printers can vary greatly in size, complexity and price, they share some common core components:
- Print Head: Dispenses or otherwise deposits the material layer-by-layer. For example, an extruder with nozzle in FDM printers or inkjet printheads in binder jetting.
- Build Plate: The surface upon which the object is constructed. Usually heated for better adhesion and easy removal of printed parts. It can be horizontal or vertical.
- Linear Motion System: Usually based on stepper motors, it allows precise movement in 3 axes (X, Y and Z) for positioning the print head and build plate.
- Controller: Microcontroller or PC that takes the design files, processes and slices the 3D model, and controls the motors, temperature, material flow, and other components.
- Supports, and Frame: Provide overall structure and stability. Allows movement on the axes while keeping vibrations and displacement minimal.
- Supply Materials: Filament, resin or powder supplied to the print head from spool, tank or box to allow continuous printing.
Basic Steps of the 3D Printing Process
While the actual 3D printing technologies vary greatly, the overall process follows similar basic steps:
- Design or Scan Object: Create a 3D model of the object to print using CAD software or 3D scan an existing object.
- Convert to STL: Convert the 3D model to STL format, the standard file type for 3D printing. STL describes only the surface geometry of a 3D object.
- Slice Model: “Slicing” software takes the STL file and turns it into thin layers, generating toolpaths for the print head to follow. Common slicers are Cura, IdeaMaker, and Slic3r.
- Transfer to Printer: Transfer resulting “gcode” file to SD card or connect directly to printer via USB, WiFi or Ethernet.
- Setup Printer: Prepare the the printer by leveling build plate, filling material, etc. Follow the printer manufacturer’s recommendations.
- Start Print: Initiate and monitor the 3D print job. Refill material if needed for long prints.
- Post Processing: Clean up and refine the printed part. Steps like support removal, sanding, polishing, priming and painting improve the finish.
- Utilize Object: With the additive manufacturing process complete, your imagination is the limit for how to best use your creation!
Key Software for 3D Printing
To bring your creations to life with a 3D printer, 3D modeling expertise isn’t required but you will need to become familiar with some basic software. Here are the core programs you’ll need to get started:
- CAD Software: While completely optional, CAD programs like Fusion 360, FreeCAD, and Tinkercad allow you to create and edit 3D models required for printing. Many free options are available.
- Slicing Software: Required to prep and slice the 3D model into layers and generate the toolpaths for your specific 3D printer to follow. Cura, IdeaMaker, Slic3r and Simplify3D are popular choices.
- 3D Printer Control Software: Used to control the printer itself, monitor the print progress and check settings like temperature. Supplied by the printer manufacturer or use open source options like OctoPrint.
- 3D Scanning Software: To recreate existing objects, photogrammetry software like Meshroom or Reality Capture combines photos or scans into 3D models for printing.
- Model Repair Software: To diagnose and repair common STL model errors that could cause failed prints, netfabb, 3D Builder, and MeshMixer are handy.
While the software required has a learning curve, resources like tutorials, documentation and online communities make picking them up easy without prior experience.
Picking Your First 3D Printer
With so many 3D printer options now available at ever more affordable prices, choosing your first 3D printer has become very accessible but still a highly personal decision. Based on your budget, interests, and needs here are some key considerations when selecting a starter 3D printer:
- Print Technology: FDM printers are inexpensive, widely available, and offer good overall print capabilities. SLA produces more detailed prints. Consider build size and materials needed too.
- Reliability & Community: A printer model with a proven track record and widespread adoption helps ensure good reliability and online help resources.
- Documentation: Select a printer with abundantly clear setup instructions and resources like videos to help get started.
- User Interface: Printer controls that are intuitive and responsive can help minimize initial learning curve frustrations.
- Available Materials: Wider material options allow printing of more types of objects. Beginners benefit from printable upgrades and mods, too.
- Print Quality: Resolution, dimensional accuracy, and surface finish vary across printers. Weigh quality versus speed and cost for your needs.
- Print Bed Size: Maximum object size is limited by the print bed dimensions. Bigger is more flexible but not always necessary for starters.
- Additional Features: Auto bed leveling, heated beds, touchscreens and WiFi can improve experience but do add cost. Prioritize based on how you’ll use printer.
Getting Started With Your First Prints
Once you have your shiny new 3D printer unboxed and setup, it’s tempting to want to immediately print out complex and intricate objects. But when you’re just getting started, it’s best to begin with some simple prints to get familiar with the basics of 3D printing before attempting more challenging prints. Here are some recommended ideas for your first prints:
- Test & Calibration Prints: Start by printing any test and calibration objects provided by your printer manufacturer. Confirm basic print settings are tuned properly.
- 2D Shapes: Simple shapes like squares, circles and triangles in a single layer are fast and easy first prints. Lets you validate bed leveling and adhesion.
- Basic Shapes: Blocks, cones, cylinders and pyramids in multiple layers help confirm all printer axes, speeds and temperatures work in harmony.
- Enclosures: Boxes, vases or other hollow closed objects allow validating printing bridges and overhangs with or without supports.
- Fix & Upgrade Parts: Practical early prints like filament guides, spool holders and cable chains improve your printer. Helps build confidence too!
- Toys & Models: Figurines, game pieces, phone stands and other models present new opportunities after mastering basics. Get creative!
Don’t get discouraged by initial failed prints. Issues like poor bed adhesion, layer shifts and stringing are common early challenges with solutions readily searched online. Take it slow, learn from failures and you’ll be consistently printing quality objects in no time. Enjoy the journey into additive manufacturing!
Frequently Used Terminology in 3D Printing
Here are some of the most common technical terms you’ll encounter in the world of 3D printing:
- 3D Model: Digital representation of a physical object created with 3D modeling software or scanning. STL file format widely used.
- Slicing: Process of converting a 3D model into thin layers to generate toolpaths for the 3D printer build head to follow.
- Extruder: Mechanism that draws in and melts filament material, and pushes it out through a nozzle to deposit onto the build platform.
- Filament: Thermoplastic material supplied as a spool of thin wire that is fed into a FDM style 3D printer’s extruder.
- Build Plate: Interchangeable base surface that the object is constructed on top of, usually heated to prevent warping.
- Supports: Temporary structures printed to support overhanging features that would otherwise collapse under their own weight before material hardens. Easily removed later.
- Bed Leveling: Process of precisely adjusting build platform height at different locations so initial layer height equals nozzle height across full bed.
- Raft: A horizontal grid printed onto the build platform underneath the object to improve bed adhesion. Easily removed after printing.
- Resolution: Layer height used while printing. Thinner layers produce higher resolution but take longer to print. Layer heights typically range from 50 to 400 microns.
- Infill: Interior structure printed inside an object. Typically a honeycomb pattern that can be adjusted from 0% to 100% infill density.
- Nozzle: Tiny orifice made from metal or ceramic mounted at the tip of the extruder through which heated filament is forced out. Typical diameters range from 0.2mm to 1.0mm.
These are just a taste of the many terms used in 3D printing. Learning the lingo helps understand the technology at a deeper level. You’ll pick up more 3D printing vocabulary as you gain experience.
The world of 3D printing offers exciting new possibilities for designers, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, artists, hobbyists and students to turn ideas into reality. While additive manufacturing capabilities continue advancing rapidly, the basics needed to get started have become readily accessible. Follow this guide to take your first steps into 3D printing and begin unlocking the many benefits of this transformative technology.
The journey starts with learning the fundamentals, choosing beginner-friendly equipment and software, starting simple, and being patient. There will be failed prints and challenges along the way. But with an open mindset to learn from mistakes, online resources for help and sharing your experiences with a growing community, 3D printing can open up immense new creativity. Welcome to this next industrial revolution!
We hope this post helps you to take your first steps into the world of 3D printing. We thank you for reading this first post. Please visit 3dpringjunction.com for more interesting content like this. We expect your support to produce more such informative content as we believe knowledge increases with sharing.