Getting Started with 3D Printing

Discovery Place

A little while back, a colleague at the Museum overheard me talking about how excited I was that my new 3D printer kit had been delivered the night before. 

She asked, "Why would you need a 3D printer at home? We have so many here." 

She's not wrong on that second part. 

Discovery Place staff have been exploring 3D printing at some level for the last seven years. We have since built over 200 printers from kits with educators throughout the region, and used desktop 3D printers to design and build scientific models, functional devices, organization fixtures and a slew of "just because" objects.

A teacher builds a 3D printer from a kit at Discovery Place Education Studio

But back to her question. What was going through my head when I clicked Buy on my new (actually second) personal 3D printer?

We're on the edge of a revolution in the fabrication and design of products that will have a big impact on how products get in to the hands of the average person. 

For some, this is a little scary. But to me, it presents a huge opportunity. 

3D printing and other forms of digital fabrication allow users to design complex objects that otherwise would be too difficult or expensive to carve, mold or make by hand. This opens up the potential for many, many more people to innovate and modify the world around them.

As futuristic and complicated as all this might sound, there's good news. Today, small and reliable 3D printers are fairly easy to get your hands on. 

Due to the efforts of thousands of engineers, researchers and makers around the world, there are literally hundreds of different makes and models of printer on the market. 

Of course, this only makes it more confusing for newcomers trying to dissect long lists of features and specs. If you're looking for some advice or even a recommendation or two, read on.

3D Printer Features That Matter

A lot of people I talk to about 3D printing immediately start asking me about things that either don't matter or don't matter enough to be important for a beginner. If you're just getting started, the focus should be on finding a machine that produces reliable results on projects that you care about. 

Here's what you should be looking for:

Reliability

Most 3D printer companies will claim that their machines are easy to use. But there are some key features that contribute to the relative ease of the basic user experience. 

"Automatic Bed Leveling" is a fairly common feature but not universally adopted yet. Some sort of probe is used to detect the surface of the print bed and make sure the first layer of the print is optimally applied. Without this, the user must periodically align a set of screws. This is tedious and easy to mess up, resulting in a failed print and a complete do-over.

I wouldn’t recommend any printer that isn't dependable, but in this category it's hard to beat the Prusa i3 MK3. It's not the cheapest at $749 - $999. But the team at Prusa Research has rolled out a suite of sensors, software algorithms and fail-safes that take a lot of the anxiety out of getting successful prints. The slightly older model MK2 is also great (and cheaper), though it doesn't have a few of the new fail-safe features.

A Reasonable Size

While it might sound cool to print objects the size of a backpack, keep in mind that large prints take a very long time. 

For example, this castle print is cool, but even if I scale it down to 75 percent of its original size, it will take an estimated 4 DAYS of print time to complete. 

If something bumps the printer, or if the power is interrupted, or if I have even a minor mechanical failure during that time, the entire print will fail. Realistically, a build volume of something around 6" (150mm) cubed provides a lot of freedom. Plus, many large projects can be broken down into smaller parts for later assembly.

I haven't used one myself, but the community that has sprung up around the Monoprice Mini speaks for itself. At $200-220, you can buy this one from Amazon and get it running in a few days. You're sacrificing some features at that price point, but by all accounts it's a surprisingly capable little machine. 

Monoprice also announced a very enticing Mini Delta with auto bed leveling and wireless connections. But the demand has been so high for pre-sales that it's not available for immediate sale yet.

Filament Freedom

Filament is the raw, spooled plastic that is melted and layered into a 3D printed object. 

There are a lot of different polymers available for printing these days. Each one has benefits and weaknesses related to printability, strength, flexibility and heat resistance. 

There are also lots of vendors who produce filament. Many have developed reputations for excellence in color, finish, durability and overall precision. 

Much like an artist who chooses their brushes and paints with care, you should have the ability to make your own choices of material for your projects. Avoid printers that require you to use a specific brand of plastic. It often means you'll end up paying much more for less selection.

I wouldn't recommend a printer that tries to pin you in to a specific source of plastic. I'm also not going to list companies that have chosen this business model. Just avoid them.

Building a kit is an investment in yourself.

If you are able, I highly recommend assembling your first 3D printer from a kit. I'm not saying it will be easy, but it probably won't be as hard as you think. 

3D printing hasn't reached the simplicity of using a computer or tablet yet. It still requires thought and some troubleshooting from time to time. 

This can be learned quickly with experience, and the best way to get a lot of experience is by building your printer a part at a time. Once you’ve built one printer, you can apply what you know to most of the other printers on the market. All those specifications and jargon will make sense.

The Prusa machine mentioned above is available as a kit, though it's not the easiest task for the uninitiated. 

If you want to learn how the motors, belts, rods and plates come together, the folks at IMADE3D have an excellent option. The JellyBOX 3D printer kit ($850-950) was designed from the ground up to teach people about 3D printing and design. On top of that, it's also very reliable and produces high quality prints. The assembly instructions are clear and intended for those with no experience. Support is readily available in their forum.

Educators assemble a JellyBOX 3D printer kit at Discovery Place Education Studio

IMADE3D also hosts periodic Quick Builds in cities around the country where you can construct your printer with help from their experts. Information on those events is available on their website.

What You Can Do Right Now

If you're interested in 3D printing but aren't sure if you have the cash or the time to jump right in, there are a few things you can do to start your journey.

Start learning 3D modeling and design. 

Fifteen years ago, getting into 3D modeling meant spending thousands of dollars on software and computers. Today, you can do it for free without even leaving your web browser. 

TinkerCAD is a great starting place for those with zero experience in drafting. They have tutorials and guides on how to create objects by combining geometric building blocks. It also runs in your Chrome Browser, so you don't have to install software on school or work computers. 

If you're looking for something a little more complex, OnShape is a similar service that incorporates 2D to 3D constructions. If you don't know what that means, start with TinkerCAD.

Tap into the community. 

3D printing has spawned one of the most creative and supportive communities of makers I have ever experienced. 

Almost every social media network has a healthy amount of 3D printing within. Most 3D printer companies host their own forums for users to ask for help, swap configuration values or share their awesome projects. 

If you're not sure what printer to get, try to find a forum or Facebook group dedicated to its use.