As our CampIO series continues, Nick Tinsley shares his insights into one of his favorite hobbies, 3D printing.
As a man of many hobbies, my beautiful and wonderful wife (who is probably reading this now) can tell you I did not need a new hobby. That is most likely why I got the hairy eyeball when I asked for a 3D printer for the holidays last year. But, she was understanding, and I found an Ender 3 Pro FDM printer under the tree.
Though she made me wait till after dinner before I could disappear into my dungeon — I mean basement office — to start putting my new toy together, I could not be more excited. I had been researching for months up to the day on what I could do with this printer and had big plans. And since that day, I always get excited when I find a new model or have a new idea about what to make with my Ender 3 Pro.
If you have ever thought of getting a 3D printer, or if this is the first time you had the idea, I want to share with you what this hobby is, how it works, share some tips and give you, the reader, some help in deciding if 3D printing is right for you.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing. That is a “manufacturing process where a 3D printer creates three-dimensional objects by depositing materials layer by layer in accordance with the object’s 3D model.”
In other words, a 3D printer builds a physical object layer by layer until the printer finishes the object. You can do this in many ways, which I will explain in detail below.
Why Use 3D Printing?
In manufacturing, people use 3D printers to create affordable rapid prototypes. I don’t mean to sound vague, but for anyone producing parts, tools or other “needed” things, 3D printing is a cheaper and quicker alternative to building and rebuilding injection molds for the prototypes.
Manufacturers use 3D printing for building parts for devices or the company’s needs. For example, a company I used to work for used 3D printers to make lens cases for countertop pill counters. Meanwhile, some companies are using large 3D printers to build cement houses.
For the hobbyist, there are many ways to use a 3D printer. One way is printing “cool stuff.” Have you ever wanted a fleet of F-14 Tomcats to create your own Top Gun academy? Well, you can print that. Or, do you miss your favorite GI-Joe action figure? You can print that, too. Want an Iron Man mask for Halloween? Load up your filament and print away.
Hobbyists have also used 3D printers for prototyping what I call “in garage””prototypes. Have you ever had an idea for something you feel would be useful to the world but don’t have the money to have a maker prototype your product? By using an entry-level 3D printer, you can turn your idea into a usable physical item.
Different Types of 3D Printers
Per MakeShaper, while “there are many printers available, only nine basic types of 3D printing technology currently exist: Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), Digital Light Processing (DLP), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Electron Beam Melting (EMB), Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM), Binder Jetting (BJ), and Material Jetting/Wax Casting.”
For hobbyists, the two most common are SLA and FDM.
How 3D Printers Work
The Physical Properties
The platform sits in a vat of printing resin. The printhead uses a laser beam light reflected off a mirror toward the platform to harden the resin in that space for the layer. The platform moves up a small portion, and the laser hardens the next layer. This process continues until each layer of the model is created out of the resin.
Benefits of Using SLA printers
- You get better quality and higher definition models.
- Medical grade materials are available.
Some Pain Points of Using SLA Printers
- These can be messy, and you need to thoroughly clean it after your print runs.
- The models go through extra steps of cleansing and hardening after print finishes.
You feed the printing material into a heated nozzle through an extractor motor. The nozzle extracts the first layer of plastic onto the platform. Depending on the printer’s model, either the print head moves up while the print bed stays in place and prints the next layer. In other models, the platform moves down for each layer while the print head extracts the next layer of material. This continues until the printer completes each layer.
Benefits of Using FDM printers
- You have a wide array of printing material options. You can purchase most of these at very reasonable prices.
- Your prints are usually ready for use as soon as the printer finishes printing. Then, you have the option to take the extra steps to sand and paint your model.
Some Pain Points of Using FDM Printers
- It can be difficult and frustrating for a beginner to use. You may have many issues with your print. For example:
- Leveling – You need to calibrate the bed properly so that the nozzle extracts the correct amount of plastic.
- Adhesion issues – Even if the bed is level, the plastic many not stick to bed. There are many tricks to fix this, such as cleaning the bed, hairspray, or a thin layer of Elmer’s glue.
- Extraction issues – Under-extraction (not enough plastic coming out of the nozzle) or over-extraction (too much plastic) are two common extraction issues.
- Temperature and humidity of the room – Find out what your materials print conditions need to be and configure to those.
- Slicer settings – You need to set these correctly. This is fun for a beginner, but there is no silver bullet. You need to tweak your printer to your settings. Other makers will show you what they use, but it is up to you to choose which settings are right for you.
- You usually don’t discover these issues until hours into your prints. This generally happens on long overnight prints. Everything looks fine when you go to bed, but when you wake up, you can find a big blob of plastic hanging off the nozzle.
One thing to keep in mind, no matter what printer you decide to go with, 3D printing takes time to complete. You can do small prints in under an hour, but most prints will be one to eight hours to print. Larger models can take over 24 to 48 hours to print. There are settings to speed things up, but do not expect instant objects like an inkjet printer will give you.
Using 3D Printer Software
To get started, use a CAD 3D modeling software to design your model. There are many options for free CAD software, but I admit I am not a CAD professional. I like to use TinkerCad.com. It is free to use and is simple for someone to learn. After you design your model, export the model into a .stl file. Next, we need to use a slicer software to turn the .stl file into a GCODE for the printer to read. Like CAD, there are many different options for Slicer software. I like using Cura Ultimaker.
After building the GCODE file, you will load the file into the printer and start the print. The SD card usually does this, but I use OctoPrint, which turns a Raspberry Pi into a print server for your 3D printer. The printer reads the code in the GCODE file and performs what the code tells it to do.
What Can You Build with a 3D Printer?
Every time I mention that I have a 3D printer in conversation, the one question I always get is, “What can you build with a 3D printer?” I typically reply with another question, “What do you want to make?” That is the best answer I can honestly come up with. It is up to you and your imagination, and printer bed size on what you can build with a 3D printer.
If you are like me (and not a CAD professional), you can go to sites like thingiverse.com, where other makers have shared their .stl files for their model designs. It’s like a shopping market for prints, but most of the projects are free to download. You can download their files, put one through your slicer, and then print.
The Best 3D Printers for Beginners
One of my favorite sources of all things 3D printing is All3dp.com. They keep up on printer reviews, fixes, best models to print and anything else about 3D printing. Per their article by Florian Gehrke, as of June 18, 2020, this is the list of Best 3D printers for beginners. It’s not the only list, but I suggest that if you are getting into this hobby, do your research to find the right printer for you before you purchase. See below for an example list.
It took me some time to get going with my Ender 3 Pro, but I enjoy using it.
Getting your first 3D printer is exciting. Here are some tips that come from my experience with my first printer.
Get the printer running before adding any upgrades to the printer itself.
This is a big mistake I made from the start. Before getting my printer, I searched for the best upgrades for my printer and added new parts before I fully set it up. This left me frustrated for a month and a half because I was troubleshooting issues that I caused in the first place. There are some great upgrades you can do, like adding a BL Touch sensor that helps with bed leveling, but get the printer to print first before doing anything to it.
There is help for you. Hang in there, baby.
When you get started with 3D printing, the hobby is a bit overwhelming. You have to assemble the printer (FDM), learn how to level your bed, may have to calibrate the e-stops for extraction, and so on. But, there is help to get you through it! There are Facebook groups with other makers who have gone through the same things and are happy to help. There are also YouTube videos on how to level your bed, fix your nozzles, and more. Finally, if you have not found your fix from videos or other makers, there is always Google. I have not had an issue I could not fix using the support from these three sources.
OctoPrint is an easy add on for your 3D printer, and technically not a printer upgrade. I mentioned it before, but essentially you turn a Raspberry Pi into a print server that you can use to control your printer fully. You can set the temp on your bed and nozzle, store your GCODE files and print directly from the Pi. OctoPrint will create a local web server so you can control your printer from any device in your network with a browser. If you wish, you can setup a VPN to your network to control your printer from outside the home.
3D printing is an exciting hobby. It may sound silly, but I get a feeling of accomplishment every time a print completes. And though some issues happen from time to time, if you keep at it and keep trying, you can build a physical object that was just a thought or consideration in the ether of your mind. And that is awesome.