How to get started with 3D printing — basics

It seems that every news outlet lately has been talking about 3D printing in some way or another. 3D printing in itself may seem like a magical way of making products, so let me lift the veil. In this series of blog posts, I will explain all the aspects of 3D printing needed to start printing (or order prints) yourself. I’ll talk about downloading or designing a model, finding the right programs, and printers or print services. This post is all about the basics.

This is how anyone can get started with 3D printing.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a fabrication technique that uses additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing means that material is added to the model, rather than it being machined away. Almost all printers build models by slicing the 3D model into layers of a set thickness and building the model layer by layer. This can be done using various methods, the most common of which are Fused Deposit Modelling (FDM), Selective LASER Synthering (SLS), Stereolithography (SLA). Consumer printers are often of the FDM type, and it’s the type pictured below.

Fused Deposit Modelling (FDM)

FDM works by taking a source material in the form of a long wire, called filament, and heating it up to the point of becoming malleable (not quite melting). This heated-up material is then extruded through a calibrated hole on the print head (typically less than 0.5mm), and deposited in the form of your model. A set of motors controlling different axes position the print head. This is a cheap method of printing, and this shows in the surface quality and details of prints.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS works by selectively fusing powder together, by heating it locally with a laser. Each layer of the model is created by depositing a new layer of powder over the full width and depth of the printable area and fusing it in the right place. This is a much more expensive method of printing, often only reserved for industrial printers. This method yields tough prints with high details, but stains easily.

Stereolithography (SLA)

SLA takes a bath of resin which hardens at certain frequencies of light and creates each layer of the model by projecting that layer into the resin. The model is slowly lifted out of the resin and later cured. This method yields high detail prints, but isn’t as tough as SLS prints and is therefore often used for visual models. Please beware that the resin used in printing is toxic in its liquid form.

What do you need to get started?

To start printing you’ll need the following:

  • a model (own design or downloaded)
  • a printer or print service

Easy, right?

How to get a model

You can either design your own model in a 3D program or download a model made by someone else on various sites. There are a myriad of tools available for designing a 3D model, but if you’re just starting out, I recommend TinkerCAD. TinkerCAD is a free online design tool by Autodesk, one of the leaders in CAD programs (Computer-Aided Design). The design shown on their front page is colorful and slightly childish, but don’t underestimate how powerful this free design suite is.

You can also find a lot of sites offering 3D models in STL format (the format needed for 3D printing), but my favorite site is Thingiverse. That site has a large userbase and active community plus everything is published under GPL (General Public License), which means it’s all free. The handy thing about sites like Thingiverse is that the files you download are ready for printing, no converting formats, or editing in a 3D program.

Selecting a printer or service

Printer

Selecting a printer can be a daunting process, due to the sheer amount of different printers out there. There’s a printer for any price category, and you can spend as much as you want. Most consumers will have more than enough capability in an FDM-type printer, and I personally own and love the Anycubic i3 Mega. I’ve heard good things about the Ender 3 and Creality CR-10 (I am not affiliated with any of these brands). If you are on Reddit, there is a large and active subreddit dedicated to 3D printing.

If you choose to buy a printer and print yourself, you will also need a slicer program. This is the program that converts your 3D model into code that your printer can use to print the model.

Service

I recommend searching online for a service, as these are largely dictated by locale. These services, like printers, have pricing for every budget. It’s a good idea to think about what your 3D print should do before getting a quote. Will it be functional or visual? Will it need to handle a lot of stress? Some professional services offer different printing techniques and materials to suit even industrial needs, but these come at a price. I always recommend local independent printing services. These are often (not always) enthusiastic hobbyists who will gladly advise and help you.

Another option that might be available to you is the makerspace, fablab or hackerspace. These are places where you can go, fabricate your own things, or get advice and guidance. They usually have fabrication equipment available for rent, ranging from 3D printers to (in some cases) CNC lathes and mills. If you are interested in 3D printing, fabrication, or the Maker movement in general, I highly recommend visiting one of these places near you.

What other info would you like to see on 3D printing? Reach out in the comments below.

Huibert is an innovation engineer, prototyper, maker, 3D printing nerd. He thinks anyone can be an inventor with the right mix of attitude and time investment.