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3D Printing Guide

9th September 2019
3D Printers have exploded onto the market in recent years as the sizes of machines available shrunk, making them perfect for the consumer market. Not even ten years ago, huge 3Drinters were reserved for factories and corporations who could afford such an investment. Previously, these printers were known by the professionals who built and used them daily. However, now devices have become viable and affordable, 3D printers have many uses and will interest hobbyists, designers, engineers, professionals, schools and the general consumer.

If you're interested in a 3D printer, it's important to know the basics as there various models to choose some, with various printing materials. Thanks to a wide array of styles, you will find that manufacturers have designed some models with a specific audience in mind. This is the 3D Printing Guide you need!

What is 3D Printing? 

3D Printing is the process where a physical object is made from a 3D design blueprint - it's also known as additive manufacturing or desktop fabrication. 3D printing was invented by Charles Hall in 1984 but it wasn't until the 1990s when the technology world took notice. The ability to create 3D objects is incredible for many, as it was something thought only possible in science fiction.

How 3D Printing Works 

Traditional subtractive manufacturing processes rely on methods of cutting and drilling to carve objects, however in 3D printing the additive manufacturing process fuses layers together, using the powdered or melted material to build objects.

The 3D printer performs the action under the control of a computer with incredible precision and accuracy.

A typical 3D printer that creates items based on the SLS process works in the following way:
  1. Laser Source - a laser is directed from the source to fuse and solidify molecules of the raw material.
  2. Elevator - this platform can be raised or lowered to place layers of an object being manufactured. Because a 3D printer creates a layer-by-layer object, it can be moved accordingly.
  3. Vat - the raw material is stored here.
  4. Materials - You'll find that most 3D printers can now use multiple materials when creating objects. Materials can include metals, plastic, polymers and resin.

 Uses of 3D Printing 

3D printing can create various concepts and prototypes that can really benefit a business. For hobbyists, it presents an opportunity to let their imagination run wild with plenty of possibilities.

Here is a selection of general 3D Printing applications:
  • Product development - test possible products by testing the product with a cost-effective 3D print of the item. You can adjust the design and fine tune a product in a matter of hours.
  • Manufacturing aids - Produce fixtures, jigs and other tools for a smoother production process.
  • End-use parts - 3D printing allows for creating customised end-use parts without the risks of creating a larger batch. You can also print on the spot for customers while they wait.
  • Architecture - create 3D models so designs can be evaluated before a final design is created.
  • Medical - Patient scans can be brought to life to improve better communication between physicians and patients. This could be used for training purposes, allowing students to have a better understanding of medical procedures.
The above will benefit businesses, individuals curious about 3D printing could print models of fictional characters they like, decorative items and even a 3D model of yourself - if you wanted! There are lots of fun things you can do with a 3D printer in your spare time.

What are the different types of 3D printers? 

There are nine major printing technologies, they aren't all affordable options that can be used in the home. There are three that you are likely to come across when deciding which one to buy: Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).

Fused Deposition Modelling 

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) is the most common 3D desktop printing process which uses additive manufacturing technology for modelling, production and prototyping applications.

FDM printers create objects layer by layer by heating thermoplastic materials to a state that is semi-liquid. This process uses two materials to complete a print: a modelling material and a support material. The modelling material acts as the final product, while the support material is a scaffolding.

Raw materials are supplied from the bays of the printer while the head moves based on X and Y coordinates, controlled by the computer. It will only move vertically on a Z-axis when a layer is completed.

FDM is perfect for an office because it's a clean and easy-to-use 3D printing method.

Stereoligraphy 

Stereoligraphy (SLA) is the original 3D printing process which Charles Hull patented in 1988. This process uses a vat of liquid photopolymer resin which is cured by a UV laser. The laser works layer by layer to solidify the resin to create the whole object.

An SLA 3D printer begins the process with an excess of liquid plastic, some of which is hardened to form the object. A laser draws the pattern of the object over the platform based on the design files loaded. Once the laser touches the material, it hardens. This process continues until the object is finished.

SLA objects are smooth and the quality of the object depends on the complexity of the SLA machine.

Selective Laser Sintering 

Another commonly used 3D printing technology is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). The SLS printing process involves tiny particles of ceramic, glass or plastic which are fused together by a high-power laser. The heat generated during the fusing process forms 3D objects.

A 3D model is created using CAD software which is converted into an STL format for 3D printers to understand. The laser is controlled by a computer which instructs the laser to print the object by tracing a cross-section of the object onto raw material. Layer by layer the object is made and must be allowed to cool before being removed from the printer, due to the intense heat involved in the process.

What makes a good 3D printer? 

The majority of 3D printers on the market are good, however it all depends on what you want to use the 3D printer for and the budget you have. These are things you must consider:

Size of the Print Bed 

  • If you have a bigger bed, you can create bigger prints.
  • A bigger bed allows for smaller jobs to be completed at once.

Calibration & Auto-Level

  • You'll find that some printers require the user to calibrate the bed - this includes putting a piece of paper on the print bed and using software to move the print bed towards the nozzle until touches. It can take up to 10 minutes.
  • Auto calibration is available on many machines and would be worth the upgrade, especially if you're a beginner to 3D printing.

Types of 3D Printer Filaments and Costs

  • Most consumer 3D printers use ABS and PLA plastic.
  • ABS is made from oil and is more toxic than PLA which originates from corn starch. Use PLA if you have no fan or extraction.
  • Research the prices of filaments so you know what you can afford when creating 3D printing projects.

Software 

  • Consider how easy your software is to create objects? Is it configurable? Is it powerful?
  • Beginners should consider easy-to-use software but if you're experienced with technical software, you can choose something more complicated.

What 3D Printing Software Should Be Used? 

Each printer has software included with it including the likes of Cura, Flashprint and Robox Automaker. There is also a wide range of 3D modelling software that are perfect for beginners:
  1. Morphi - designed for use on tablets, you can create 3D models in a simple way from a large library of decorative and functional models.
  2. Leopoly - a cloud based software that offers various options for customising objects from a gallery of user-generated items.
  3. 3D Slash - inspired by Minecraft, this software uses little blocks to shape designs with options to transfer an item from reality to 3D from a picture. Simply upload and trace the item out.
  4. TinkerCAD - Autodesk's free software uses block building so you can develop models from a selection of basic shapes.
  5. Fusion 360 - This CAD program has been praised for its professional capabilities in a user-friendly interface. The software also stores all versions of any model created, giving you the chance to revert to previous versions.

We've compiled our list of the Best 3D Printers available, to make choosing easier for you.

3D Printing Terminology 

To get started with 3D printing, you must understand basic terminology you'll see used.

Print Bed (Print Table or Build Plate) 

This is where the 3D printer forms the 3D object.

Build Platform 

The build platform supports the print bed during printing.

Extruder 

The thermoplastic material is melted and layered in the extruder.

Filament 

Filament is the plastic material a 3D printer melts and extrudes into the 3D printer nozzle.

Filament Diameter 

Plastic filaments have two diameters: 1.75mm and 2.85mm. Some printers are capable of using both while most use just one.

Layer Height 

The thickness of a single layer of a 3D printer part.

Nozzle 

The nozzle decides how much extruded material there is.

Overhang 

This is a part of the 3D object that lacks any support underneath.

Resolution

Thickness detail and layer measured in dots per inch (dpi).

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