How To Get Started With 3D Printers

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In this review we’re going to refer to the Makerbot 5th Generation Replicator. We’ll also talk about some of the basics about how 3D printing works and some of the things that you want to take into account when purchasing a 3D printer.

An Overall Summary Of 3D Printing

So how does a 3D printer work exactly? If you seen a glue gun work, you know that a solid stick of glue is inserted into the back of the gun and passes through a very hot nozzle which gets melted into glue and gets directed toward the surface that you want to target. A 3D printer does more or less the same thing. You feed the material called filament into the printer and the nozzle melts it. Instead of you pointing the glue gun, however, the nozzle of the 3D printer is controlled by a very precise motor. That motor is controlled by software, so before you print you need to give the printer a file containing a 3-dimensional design.

3d-printing-starting-nozzle

The software Sliced is designed into layers as thin as a piece of paper and now the printer is drawing each later with melted filament. As each successive layer is added to the one beneath it, a 3D object eventually emerges. Contemporary desktop printers will let you print in two or sometimes even 3 colors. You can use plastic filament like ABS (the stuff legos are made of) or PLA, a biodegradable plastic derived from corn, which is what we’ll be using for a bracelet and a nut & bolt assembly that we’ll be demonstrating via pictures in this review. There are other kinds of material available such as glass, wood nylon and other flexible materials, but not all printers can print with every material. Commercial printers can print with many materials including metals.

What Can You Do Practically With Your Own 3D Printer?

Manufacturers have actually been using this technology for decades to make prototypes. Instead of the costly and time-consuming process of shipping designs and prototypes from engineer to manufacturer and back, inventors can create products and hold them in their hands that very same day. When corrections or alterations are needed, they can be accomplished on-site with very little time and material wasted. Obviously the applications for architecture and design and self-evident. Schools are quickly becoming the biggest purchasers of 3D printers using the technology at a deeper level than traditional teaching practices. Rather than just seeing diagrams of the pyramids for example or just hearing their teachers or professors explains, students are helping to design and label 3D models that they can hold in their hands. At home you can make practical things such as electrical accessories such as a cell phone holder or household items. You can even make a prototype of a great gadget that will turn you into a millionaire, or simply have fun by making toys or jewelry such as a stretchable bracelet. The white elephant you see in the image below is a single print with no assembly required.

started-3d-printers-white-elephant

MakerBot Digitizer 3D Scanner

You can also scan and print almost anything or produce a replica of your baby’s first shoes or wedding cake, and the MakerBot Digitizer 3D Scanner allows you to do just this. The handheld scanner  allows you to scan something as large as ten feet in each dimension. Of course, you’ll have to shrink this image before you feed it directly into your printer. This eventually leads us into software. You can design your own 3D model in a variety of programs such as CAD, create a model from scratch or from scanned image, or download one of the thousands of 3D files available for free or purchase on dozens on websites. There’s a variety of free and commercial softwares available, allowing you to build, sculpt, prepare and position your design.

3d-printing-starting-makerbot-digitizer

The Importance Of Resolution

One of the important factors that you’ll consider when preparing your model for printing is the resolution. The resolution measures the thickness of each layer that is to be printed, which of course will affect the final product. If the layers are thin and fine, your finished object can be detailed, intricate and smooth. If you choose a rougher resolution, the striations created by each layer will be much more visible. Keep in mind that resolutions deeply affect print time. With a fine resolution such as 50 microns, your printer will have to lay down many more layers than it would have to at a resolution at 200 microns. This will likely take about 4 times as long. The castle below was printed with the Makerbot 5th Generation Replicator at a 100 micron resolution and it took about 5 hours to make.

starting-3d-printing-castle

When you have your file ready, to prepare your printer you’ll probably want to cover your print bed with painter’s tape which will help you remove your finished print without harming the build surface. From there, turn the printer on and feed your filament into the extruder. It usually takes anywhere from 5 – 20 minutes for the printer to heat up to the right temperature needed to melt the filament. The length and temperature highly depends on the printer itself. Most printers calibrate their machinery automatically, but you’ll find that some require manual alignment from the user. Now your printer is ready to print and take your design and make it a reality.

How To Use Your Print File

Send your prepared file to the printer via USB or by inserting a flash drive or SD card directly into the printer. Certain models even will let you send it via wifi, but this is rare. From there you can sit back as your printer sets layer upon layer to build your vision. The 5th Generation Makerbot Replicator even has a camera to record your print so that you can share the entire process with your friends. You may find that there is a small learning curve to get consistently accurate results. However, with some practice, the process becomes routine and fairly straightforward. Furthermore, don’t worry about filament because it’s extremely cheap. After removing your 3D print, we recommend sanding it down to make it smoother or glue several parts together to make a larger one. You can also paint or drill your creation to make it better.

How Do You Choose Your 3D Printer?

When selecting a printer to purchase, there are two main questions that you need to take into consideration:

  1. What size objects do I want to print?
  2. Which materials will I want to use?

As for the first question, it’s relatively straightforward. For the second, you just need to decide whether you want to use ABS or PLA plastic. ABS is pretty strong and mildly flexible, making it a great choice for most professional applications. Yet this requires a well-ventilated area. As for PLA, it doesn’t give off unpleasant fumes during printing, but it melts at a considerably less temperature than ABS. Most of the demo prints that we did and shown in this review were done with PLA. Here are some samples of printers that we suggest depending on your level.

  • For hobbyists or beginners, we suggest the MakerBot Replicator Mini. It comes pre-assembled and fits nicely on your desk. It’s finest resolution is 200 microns.
  • If you want to go a little more advance, we suggest the MakerBot Replicator 2X. It has a higher resolution.
  • If you want a very large build volume, the Makerbot Replicator Z18 is probably your best choice. It lets you print up to a foot in the x- and y- axes and a foot and a half in the z-axis.
  • You can also purchase something a bit cheaper such as a 3D printing pen. However, take into account that this is all self-controlled and it may be a bit difficult to keep your hand steady when printing objects.
  • The CubeX Trio 3D Printer on the other hand can print 3 products simultaneously.

Conclusion

It’s now official that the future has arrived and 3D printers are starting to slowly become commonplace in the everyday household. Be sure to check out 3D printing tips and tricks to make the most of your 3D printing and to learn about best practices. Remember, if you end up failing at first, keep practicing until you get the technique down.

5th Generator Makerbot Replicator

5th Generator Makerbot Replicator

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