3D Printing – a layman’s guide

The latest thing to grab the keen tinkerer’s attention is 3D printing.

This has taken off in a huge way in the USA, and is gaining fans in the UK too.

The concept is surprisingly simple, a thin filament of plastic is heated to melting point and is then deposited onto a flat surface under computer control. By doing this and building up the layers a surprising number of objects can be made, indeed, it is limited only by the size of the machine and your imagination.

Grimy Miner, Going Postal

That type of printing is called FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling), there are other types which involve lasers and either powdered or liquid resin. The machines and the process are more industrial than home hobbyist and is outside the scope of this article.

So, if you decide, or have already decided, to give 3D printing a go what do you need?

I will try and give some guidelines based on my, albeit limited, experience of 3D printing.

First you will need a printer! (Duh!) – these can range from around £100 to over £3,000. The £100 printers will have a small print volume,

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most likely come as a kit of (many) parts, have to be assembled with minimal instructions (usually in Chinglish), not have a heated bed (more on that later) and be limited in scope.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the all singing, all dancing, almost professional model. It will have an enclosure probably, will deal with many different types of plastic filament, will have a dedicated control system built in and will have telephone and online support.

In between these two extremes there will be a printer which suits your needs and ability. I did a lot of online research before I took the plunge and I bought a Creality CR-10.

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This printer comes almost assembled and can be printing almost straight out of the box – it only needs 4 Cap Head bolts to fasten two parts together and some clearly labelled cables plugging in. It comes with a toolkit to assemble an maintain it, a brief “Instruction Manual” and a small roll of filament to get you started. It has a massive (by 3D printer standards) build area of 300mm x 300mm x 400mm high – impressive!

It also has a heated bed, the surface can be heated to a maximum of around 80 degrees C, this allows some filaments to stick properly to the build plate. Needed if you want to print ABS but not strictly necessary for PLA.

Other printers are available in varying states of construction – some are ready to run, some need the assembly skills of a Meccano wizard.

However, as I said, there will be one to suit you. Do your research and watch YouTube videos to get an idea.

Next you will need a computer – any PC running Windows 7 or later will do and any Mac (I believe). This is needed to run the design and processing software needed to create your models (a model can be anything that you print).

You will need some software – first a design package. You will be delving into the intricacies of CAD (Computer Aided Design) and need to get to grips with designing for a 3 dimensional environment in 2 dimensions.

Design Software – this is usually free to download.

I use Autodesk Fusion360 free to download here:- https://www.autodesk.co.uk/products/fusion-360/students-teachers-educators

It’s free for Students, Teachers and Educators. I consider myself a Student as I am still learning stuff.

Google Sketchup Pro 8 :- http://googlesketchupdownload.com/

FreeCAD https://www.freecadweb.org/

SolidWorks http://www.solidworks.com/

All of these have free to download programs and there are numerous YouTube videos giving tuition on their use.

As I say, I use Fusion360 – it’s a fairly steep learning curve at first but it’s relatively easy with the online tutorials from Autodesk and YT.

Next, you will need software to turn your models ( .STL files) into something that the printer can recognise, this is Gcode – the language of CADCAM.

This is called “Slicing”

In my opinion, unless you want to pay $149 for Simplify3D the only program to do your slicing – cutting up your model into individual layers, each with its own Gcode – is Cura – available here for free:- https://ultimaker.com/en/products/ultimaker-cura-software

OK, so, you have designed a model, or you have downloaded a model from Thingiverse, https://www.thingiverse.com/ you have sliced it into Gcode and sent it to your printer, thet’s it, then?

No – you need filament, the plastic that is melted and extruded onto the “build plate”. Most people start printing with PLA, and many use nothing other than PLA. It stands for Poly Lactose Acid and is made from natural ingredients – PLA is biodegradable thermoplastic that is derived from renewable resources like cornstarch, sugar cane, tapioca roots and potato starch. This 3D printing filament is more environment friendly compared to other plastic materials. Due to this and its low-toxicity features, more and more prefer PLA over ABS and it is now the most popular 3D printing filament in the 3D printing community.

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Unlike ABS, PLA filament doesn’t produce toxic fumes during printing, so it is safer to use within the homes and classrooms. Moreover, the plastic doesn’t contract when cooling down, so there is no need for a heated bed for your 3D printer.

So, once you have threaded the filament into the printer and set the process in motion the printer will heat up the nozzle (diameter 0.4mm), and begin printing your model. After a time, ranging from many minutes to many hours (3D printing is a slow process) you will have your creation ready to release from the build plate.

There is a lot of satisfaction to be had by holding in your hands something that you created on a computer screen.

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I have used my printer to make plastic trim parts for my sports car that just aren’t available any more, to make parts to modify the printer itself and to make this:-

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The WOTY trophy. (not quite finished!)

This has been a brief foray into the world of 3D printing, if anyone wants to know more about it, or for me to delve deeper into it for a future article, just ask.


© Grimy Miner 2018

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