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How to Start 3D Printing – General Overview

Hi, this guide is meant to give you a general overview on what you should consider before getting yourself a 3D printer, and how to get yourself into 3D printing. If you want to invent, innovate, design, and do product development quickly and easily, 3D printing is one of the best options for you.

Pick a Printer

There are many printers available these days, probably too many, and you have to do a bit of research to find one that suits your exact needs, or the needs you may have in the future.

Firstly – what type of 3D printer do you need? There are many methods of 3D printing, with the most common (among amateurs) being the ‘extruded filament’ style (FDM or FFF) printer, which extrudes layers of ABS, PLA, and other similar plastics from filament, to create a full sized object. For the intents and purposes of this guide, we will assume an FDM printer since this is what I have, so I have experience with using it. Also, FDM printing has a generally lower cost to get into it, making it easily accessible for most people.

Secondly – Do you need dual extruders or will single do? Dual can be used for times when you need to print support structures in a lower melting point material so that you can create ‘impossible objects’, or when you need to print two colours amongst each other. I have also found that when doing a single nozzle print only, the second nozzle can be used as a constant backup nozzle, and if something happens to the first nozzle to stop it from working as effectively, you can quickly switch to the second nozzle and get back to printing much faster

Thirdly – Do you need a heat bed? If your aim is to print in ABS (which is one of the most common materials to print in), you may need a heat bed to print more effectively. This being said, there are so many other materials to print in that don’t require a heated bed, and not having a heated bed can reduce the initial costs of the printer significantly.

I have the Flashforge Creator Pro, since it has all the features of more expensive options, but was much more cost efficient. This has dual extruders, and a heated bed. I have the options of printing nearly anything that comes in filament form through my printer, which made it almost ‘future proof’ for myself, and when I am spending over AUD$1000 on a device, I want it to last!

Buy your Printer

Once you have selected your printer you need, you should shop around to try and find a good deal on it. Sometimes there are good deals through Amazon, or eBay, or direct from the supplier. Be wary though – you don’t want to get scammed when buying an expensive product like a 3D Printer!

I purchased mine through Amazon, which meant that I had a greater assurance that the purchase would go through easily.

Here are a couple of models you can have a look at.

Buy Filament

There are so many filament types and colours these days, it is so hard to choose! The first deciding factor will be based on your printer – what can it print? Some printers are stuck to proprietary filament reels, and some can only go ABS and/or PLA. Then again, some can print nearly anything including nylon / Ninjeflex / metal infused filament etc. Once you have decided on a filament type, pick your colour, and you are good to go.

A note though: Buy decent quality filament. I have purchased chap filament in the past, and it has resulted in broken filament (which meant my design printed blank for several hours), and clogged nozzles. I thoroughly recommend spending the extra $10+ to get a better quality filament, since this will make your 3D printer run smoother and print much better quality, and your printer will last much longer.

I always go with Verbatim filaments now for my standard ABS prints, since Verbatim filament is excellent quality, and can be delivered quickly. If I am trying something more exotic I will make sure to check out reviews of brands, and get a good quality filament. No more clogged nozzles!

Find or Make Designs

If you are versed in CAD software, you may be able to create your own designs – and these are limited only to your imagination and CAD abilities. Remember though, that thin walls and small sections may be lost in a 3D print due to the minimum layer size and wall thicknesses – so make sure your parts are large enough to actually be printed.

If you can’t use CAD or don’t have CAD, or just want to find something quickly rather than take the time to design it yourself, there are many places online where 3D CAD files are sold or given out for free. These include Thingiverse, and Cuboyo amongst many others – have a Google and you will find out. These parts are usually already tested by others, so you have the safety of knowing that your print won’t be wasted, and you can see how others printed out their versions or how to orient it best in your printer. Be careful about the copyright permissions for these items though – if it says you can’t sell it, you can’t sell it!

I am lucky to have access to Autodesk Inventor, so I have been creating my prototypes through this, but for most other items that I want to print, I just use Thingiverse since there is a massive range of items, and the quality is generally pretty great.

Pick a Slicing Program

Slicing programs are also quite plentiful, and there is a significant range based on what features you need. Some have more features and control, with better Graphical User Interface, and better printer connectivity and control, while others are basic and require a bit more fiddling about.

I am using Simplify3D, since I wanted a full featured slicing program that had enough options and updates to take me well into the future with my printer! I have found it to be very easy to use and set up, though the default printing speeds were a bit too fast and kept not printing well – this was easily fixed by slowing my printing speeds down in the options menus.

Set Up your Printer

Now you have your 3D printer, in its box, you must assemble it! This depends entirely on the printer you purchased; some printers come pre-made, while others require assembling the entire thing. Make sure you follow the instructions to the letter on this, since if you plug a cable into the wrong place and something breaks, you won’t be able to print. Take your time, and make sure it is done correctly and safely.

Next you will need to associate your slicing program with your printer, to make sure that the 3D objects are made into the correct set of ‘instructions’ for the printer you have. This also depends entirely on the slicing program you have chosen. Some programs are easily connected to the printer, and have pre-defined setup options. Some printers require a bit more fiddling or downloading extra files. This being said, most programs will work with most printers, so you will be printing soon.

The slicing program accepts design files (usually .stl). Once you have imported your part, you must set up your print within the slicing program to get it to come out the way you want it (more on the in another post soon). Once you have set up your print, send it to the printer (either by SD card, WiFi, or Cable connection), and you’re good to go.

Print your Design

This is the fun part! Send your design to your printer, sit back, and watch the magic happen…

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