In this 3D Printing beginner’s guide we cover everything from how 3D printing works to the types of materials used. You’ll also learn about the 3D printing process, how to find designs and what software you need! Continue reading below…
While 3D printing is yet to completely take over the world, it’s certainly having a moment. 3D printing is not only useful in a range of industries, it’s also great for hobbyists who want to take on a new challenge and tackle something that, let’s face it, has a reputation for being complex!
3D printing is extremely rewarding, and our beginner’s guide will transform you from a total novice to a printing pro in no time – and you’ll love every second of the journey.
What is 3D Printing and How does it Work?
3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing, where objects are built using layer upon layer of materials. While standard manufacturing begins with a solid block of material, with pieces taken away to make the desired shape, 3D printing involves working from the bottom upwards – adding layers until you have the object you want.
A 3D printer works in a similar way to regular inkjet printers, creating a 3D model one layer at a time by printing over the same area repeatedly.
This process is fully automatic and can take hours. Layer upon layer of 2D prints on top of each other leads to a 3D print, made from layers of molten plastic, powder or a range of other materials. The layers are fused together using ultraviolet light and, there you have it, a 3D print!
The Best Real Life Examples of 3D Printing
3D printing is being used with amazing results in a range of industries around the world. Let’s check out some of the most exciting.
3D printing was first explored by people in the medical industry, and 3D body parts like ears, arms and legs are now being built. 3D printing can create artificial tissue, cells and skin, and even 3D printed ovaries! While 3D organs haven’t yet hit the mainstream, it’s unlikely to be long until they do.
Creating shelters, homes and other buildings in hours instead of weeks is possible with 3D printing. While the thought of thousands of new houses springing up in just days seems more annoying than useful, 3D printing may soon be invaluable in emergency situations when shelter is needed quickly like after flooding or earthquakes.
Although not particularly necessary, the idea of creating food from 3D printing is certainly an interesting one. We currently ice a cake in layers and 3D printing is no different. Using chocolate 3D printers, we should soon be able to create intricate chocolate sculptures that will look far too good to eat!
3D Printing as a Hobby
3D printing isn’t just for advanced industries, it’s actually a great hobby with a range of advantages. Not only can 3D printing be used to create anything from smartphone cases to toilet paper holders, it can also create spare parts for toys, furniture and appliances. There’s a huge range of information online to help hobbyists make awesome products using 3D printing.
3D printing is also fun and educational for kids, and parents will love helping their kids learn to 3D print (although we recommend mastering the basics yourself first!). Create atoms, planets, puzzles and other 3D objects that will inspire learning.
The options are virtually unlimited when it comes to 3D print design. Either use existing designs, modify them, or create your own from scratch. The internet is awash with tutorials so whether you’re creating the perfect gift or just having a go at something new, the sky is your limit!
The 3D Printing Processes
There’s a few different ways to create objects using 3D printing, but the most commonly used is Stereolithography (SLA). This technique uses ultraviolet curable photopolymer resin and a laser to build the layers. The ultraviolet light hardens each layer, joining it to the one underneath.
This method is great for pieces that need to interlock – such as buckles for backpacks. SLA has good accuracy and strength, and is the best method for beginners.
The Types of 3D Printing Materials
If we were to go through every 3D printing material, we might be here for a while! But knowing the most common materials to use will put you in good stead when it comes to starting 3D printing yourself, so let’s take a quick look.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene is a plastic (the same that’s used to make LEGO and many children’s toys) and one of the first to be used with 3D printers. It’s low cost, very durable and has great heat resistance. However, the material does have an odor which can be unpleasant, so ensure your room is well ventilated.
ABS is great for parts that will be under very little stress. For example; games, your own LEGO pieces, and spare parts for toys.
If you’re building something that will be under more pressure, metal or high grade plastic is a better option. These have much higher strength, although you might need to use a 3D printing service as they can be tricky to find for your own 3D printer.
Finally there’s wood filaments. These are a combination of a base material and cork or wood dust – usually made from around 30% wood particles. Products printed from wood filaments are aesthetically pleasing and have a pleasant aroma. This material is great for decorative objects.
How to Find 3D Designs
Using a 3D printing software, hobbyists can design their own parts for printing. While beginners should use existing designs, modifying them as they get more confident, designs can be made from scratch for an added challenge.
The internet will have a huge range of existing designs, specifically if you’re looking to make spare parts or children’s toys. Many hobbyists find designs on social media or Reddit groups, and some companies will have 3D designers who can create designs for you. This is ideal if you are looking to make something specific and don’t have the confidence or experience to do it alone.
What Software do I need?
Most 3D printers come with their own 3D slicing software. Slicing is a computer software that converts a 3D object model into specific instructions – basically so the printer knows exactly what it should be doing! Two examples of slicer software are Cura and Simplify3D.
To design models yourself or modify existing designs, you’ll need your own 3D modelling software. There’s a huge range of options but best for beginners is 3D Slash (free), Clara.io (free) or Moment of Inspiration. These 3 softwares are perfect for hobbyists who want to try their hand at creating their own designs.
How to Start 3D Printing
Once you’ve got your 3D printer and software, it’s time to start printing!
First, you need a model to print. We recommend starting with a test cube to check everything is running smoothly. You then use the slicer (the software that should come with your printer) to convert the STL file into instructions for the printer (also known as G-code).
The settings for G-code will include layer height (how thick each layer is), shell thickness (the thickness of the walls), retraction (will keep prints neat by not allowing drips) and fill density (how solid the inside of the object will be). There is a huge amount more to input, so fiddle around with the settings and see what works best.
You will also be able to select the print speed. If you print too fast, it will be lower quality, while printing slower will improve the quality. We recommend sticking with the default speed on the printer.
Once the slicer has generated the G-code, the final step is the printing. Upload the G-code to the printer using either USB or an SD card, and watch the machine work its magic!
The biggest issue for beginners is warping. This occurs when the material shrinks while 3D printing, with the bottom corners lifting away from the bed. This can completely ruin your 3D print, and make the entire object look messy.
To prevent warping, reduce the height of the first layer, and ensure the bed is heated as warping often occurs from the bottom layer cooling too quickly. You may find large and flat parts warp even with the perfect adhesion. There is a huge 3D printing community online who can help you with any issues – check out 3D Printing Forum or 3D Print Board.
3D Printing Top Tips
Check your Printer before Starting
Your printer should be properly tuned, with all pulleys and belts tight, as well as a level bed. Keep the printer as clean as you can.
Printing lots of 20mm cubes will get you into a rhythm and ensure that you understand the printer before you start printing proper objects. There’s a range of things that could go wrong, and printing cubes will let you make small adjustments. Test out all the different settings and get to know your printer before you begin.
Choose a 3D Printer with Good Support
We all need a little help every now and again, and the best 3D printer will have great post-purchase support from the manufacturer. You should be able to contact them with any issues you are having.
Check out Online Forums
You can almost guarantee that whatever problem you are having, someone else has already had it! So check out online forums for help and advice. The 3D printing community is a friendly place and you should find hobbyists with experience are more than happy to help you.
Stick to the Manufacturer’s Recommendations
Before fiddling around with the settings and software, use the manufacturer’s default. This includes the slicer software and settings for printing. When you do decide to change things, make notes about the settings and how these affected the prints.
Ensure the room containing your 3D printer is well ventilated and that you have a smoke detector nearby. While safe, 3D printing involves a lot of potentially toxic materials, and some will have an unpleasant odor.
Enjoy the Ride
3D printing is a huge learning curve, and it can certainly be frustrating at times. Be patient and don’t get demotivated just because your first few prints have gone wrong. Use past failings as motivation to improve!
3D printing is complicated enough, without a whole lot of jargon! Check out these frequently used terms so you don’t get stuck.
Filament – The material manufactured into long strands to create object
Extruder – Where the material is melted in the machine. Here is my guide to the best dual extruder 3D printers.
Nozzle – The hole the material comes out of – similar to the nozzle when you ice a cake!
Bed – The surface the object is printed onto. The surface you choose will depend on what material your object is made from
Slicer – The software used to tell the printer exactly what to do in the printing process
3D printing is one of the most rewarding and visually impressive hobbies you can master, but mastering it is no easy feat! While many people think 3D printing involves pushing just a few buttons, anyone with experience will know that printing the perfect 3D object requires hard work, dedication and precision from both human and machine.
When starting with 3D printing, be patient and accept that you will make mistakes along the way – often ones you didn’t realise you’d made until the object is revealed. Remember that every print provides an opportunity to learn something new and once you have a grasp of the basics, 3D printing will bring you hour after hour of joy.