All you need to know to start 3D printing

Welcome to my first blog. It has come to my attention many people are interested in getting a 3D printer but are not familiar with it or tech savvy and think it is too expensive. In this blog I want to show you how easy it is to start 3D printing and, spoiler alert, that it is not expensive. I will give you all the information you need to start your journey into 3D printing. So let’s start!

The steps from idea to print

First I want to address the process to get from idea to print. Then we will build on each part of the process in the rest of this post. If you have any questions during your read, feel free to contact me via the chat.

Step 1: A CAD design of the model. CAD stands for Computational Aided Design and what these allow you to do is making 3D models on your computer. To do so there are many programs on the market of which 2 very popular and free programs are Fusion 360 and Blender. I will elaborate a bit more on both later.

Step 2: When we have the model we have to first convert it to a so-called STL or OBJ file. More file types are supported but these 2 are the most commonly used ones. The first is the most popular and only contains the geometry of the model. The second also contains texture maps or colors. When converting to STL or OBJ files the original 3D model is simplified by approximating the geometry with triangles.

Step 3: Converting the model to a – by the 3D printer – readable file. This triangulated model can still not be read by the 3D printer. The 3D printer needs the motion type, coordinates and feed rate (the length material that needs to be extruded in mm) as inputs for every step plus some additional inputs whenever the printer needs to do something more. This is where a slicer comes in. The most extensive and widely used one is from the dutch company Ultimaker and goes by the name ‘Cura’. In programs like Cura you can set and adjust settings for your printer and place your model in a 3D environment of the printer. After this is all set and done you can finally convert it to a so-called GCODE-file. This file contains exactly those inputs I mentioned earlier and your model is now ready for your 3D printer to be read.

Step 4: Now you can print your model. For this you need a 3D printer and material (filament). We will get to this later.

Step 1: Creating a model

Creating a model can be done in basically 2 ways, parametric modeling and sculpting. As the name suggests parametric modeling makes use of parameters, set values and constraints, and is therefore mostly used by engineers. If this is you, give Fusion 360 a go. Sculpting on the other hand can be seen as claying. You pull and push the geometry, resulting in more organic shapes. This method is thus mostly used by artists, so if this is you, Blender is the program for you.

Step 2: Converting to STL

As I explained in the steps the model has to be converted. Below you see the converted model in the most popular format, STL. If you look at the model below and compare it to the one above, one can see that the converted model is not so smooth anymore and instead consists of many triangles. The original geometry has been approximated by those triangles. This approximation is needed to translate the original geometry into a set amount of coordinates, which in the original model would have been an infinite set.

Step 3: Slicing the model

Now we have the STL file we can load the model in a so-called slicer. In a slicer you can change tons of settings which determine how the printer will move, how much material will flow out during each movement, how much the material needs to be retracted when it does a move that does not require printing, where the model gets supports and even if a filament change needs to happen for multi-colored prints with a single printing head. But also how thick the walls of your part will be and what the infill is going to look like. Long story short, the settings tell the slicer how you want your model to come out and in its turn the slicer tells your printer what to do. For beginners – and assuming you print a relatively simple model – the slicer’s default profile would work just fine. Using Cura I recommend putting on support if you don’t know if you need it, or just try it without and see what happens and discover what is possible. A rule of thumb is to use support if the overhang is more than 45 degrees, but it highly depends on the printer, the printer settings, and how far the overhang goes. If you are unsure if support is required simply put it on if you want to be sure that your model comes out how you meant to; it can’t hurt, you can just pull it off and if you like grind off the imperfections if present. Below you can see an image of the model after slicing it. The image is moving through all the layers of the model.

Step 4: Printing the model

And now we can finally start printing. There are many different printers on the market for personal use. If you are searching for a good entry printer (read: good price and quality) I recommend you to get either the Creality Ender-3 Pro for around €200 or its newer brother, the Creality Ender-3 V2 for around €300,-. If you have a bit more to spend, go for the Creality CR6-SE with a little larger build volume and automatic leveling for a higher success rate.

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