#3DPrinting: An Introduction to 3D Printing

Intro to 3D Printing

May 22nd marks the one year anniversary of when I ordered my very own 3D printer. It’s been an interesting love-hate relationship to say the least; it even included its own ‘Ross-and-Rachel’ break! But through all the frustrations and headaches, it’s been an amazing and educational journey. And since this is a big milestone for me, I decided to share that journey with you through this multi-part series I call: #3DPrinting.

After a year with my 3D printer, I learned a lot about 3D printing and the 3D printing industry. I’ve read and researched different printers, they’re capabilities, and their downfalls. And because of an active 3D printing community, I’ve even been inspired to start printing more and solving real-world problems with 3D prints!

So for those of you who have heard about, interested in, or even thinking of owning a 3D printer, this series is for you!

I’ll explain what 3D printing is, my first experiences with a 3D printer, printing gifts for friends and family, and even upgrading my 3D printer with 3D printed parts!

But one thing to note before I continue…

3D Printing is NOT for everyone

Currently, there is a huge push in the industry to make 3D printers available in every household. As awesome as that sounds, consumer-level 3D printers aren’t as Plug-and-Play as some would think.

3D printers still requires an incredible amount of time, patience, and troubleshooting. Prints don’t always come out perfect and there are a lot of variables (both on a hardware AND software standpoint) that can affect a print’s success. So if you’re not comfortable spending time to diagnose and fix a failed print, this might not be something you want to invest in. At least for now.

But I’ll get into all that later in the series. For now, in Part One, let’s break down what exactly is 3D Printing.

3D Printing is so hot right now

You might have watched videos about 3D printing on YouTube or Facebook. You might have read about 3D printing on news and tech blogs. Or you might even recognize 3D printing from the Disney-animated film, Big Hero Six!

3D printing takes a computer-generated 3D model and prints it into physical real-world objects. Seems simple enough, but the 3D printing process is a little more complicated than you might think.

So here’s the short version

3D printers print real-world objects using a variety of materials such as plastic, metal, and even food. In the 3D printing industry, these materials are also known as filament. A 3D printer heats up this filament and uses it to lay down a single layer of a 3D model. The printer then lays another layer over it, merging with the one below it. This continues, layer by layer, until it completes a physical real-world object. And with any luck, this object also matches the original 3D model!

Below is an example of a 3D printer printing an object:


And now for the more ‘technical’ breakdown

It starts with a 3D model.

A 3D model can be downloaded or designed in a 3D modeling software (such as Maya, 3D Studio Max, or Blender). The model is then exported, or downloaded, as an STL file. This is the 3D printing-specific file type everyone uses.

GoPro Mount Model in Autodesk 123D
GoPro Mount designed in Autodesk 123D.

The STL file is now opened up in a slicing software, such as Cura or Slic3r. The slicing software controls the quality and speed of the print through a list of configurable settings. These settings can, and should, be based on the 3D printer’s capabilities. (Print settings include, and not limited to: Print Temperature, Print Speed, Layer Height, and Infill Percentage.)

After applying the print settings, the software slices and exports the model as a set of instructions, also known as G-CODE. The instructions inside the G-CODE is what 3D printers read and execute in order to print the 3D model as a real-world object.

G-CODE Example
Drawing a circle using GCODE. (Source: grbl’s GitHub page)

Once the G-CODE is sent to the printer, the actual printing begins.

Much like an oven, the 3D printer has to take some time to preheat and get ready for a print. The hotend, which ‘melts’ the filament, heats up to temperatures ranging from 150-300°C. If the printer has a heated print bed, this print bed will heat up as well. Different filament types require different temperatures for both the hotend AND print bed. (Finding the right temperature for each filament and printer component leads to quality prints.)

Once the hotend and print bed are at the right temperature, the next set of instructions in the G-CODE begins. This is usually when the hotend moves to the start of the print to begin printing the first layer. (The concept of a GOOD first layer becomes extremely important later on in my journey.)

Filament gets fed through the hotend where it is ‘melted’ and pushed out according to the instructions in the G-CODE. With each line of G-CODE, the hotend continues to move around the print bed laying down layers on top of each other. Each layer of filament fuses and melds together with the layer beneath it. And with the help of fans, the fused layers cool and harden.

Hotend Diagram
Diagram of how filament gets heated up and extruded out of the hotend. (Source: RepRap.org Wiki on Fused Filament Fabrication)

Once the the last line of G-CODE finishes, the print finishes and now gets a chance to cool down completely. Once cooled, the print can be removed from the print bed as a completed printed object. (The time it takes to print an object from beginning to finish depends on the print settings set in the slicing software. Some prints can take a few minutes while others can take 10+ hours.)

Depending on the nature of the print, this completed print can be ‘finished’ by sanding, painting, and detailing. Usually this is for aesthetic purposes only, but sometimes it is necessary for functionality. For example, sanding down a part of the print so it can fit together with another part.

(NOTE: This entire process of 3D printing is known as Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM for short. There are other processes of 3D printing, such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Stereolithography (SLA), and would require a different type of printer. But for the purposes of this series, we’re going to stick with FDM, the printing process of my 3D printer.)

The More Your Know…

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in the 3D printing process. It helps to understand what exactly is going on during a print so that when your prints fail, you can quickly assess the problem and fix it.

I’ve had a 4-hour print fail because of a specific setting in the slicing software wasn’t correct. Another print failed because I didn’t notice that it wasn’t designed properly for my 3D printer’s capabilities. And one time, I had a power outage during a 6-hour print. 4 hours of printing gone to waste as I had to start again from the beginning.

Sometimes prints don’t finish because of the simplest of things. But every so often, you get a print that makes it all worth it.

So to reiterate what I said before: 3D printing isn’t for everyone.

So what’s Next?

In the next part of this blog series, #3DPrinting, I’ll be going over my initial experiences with 3D printing such as:

  • How Did I Get Into 3D Printing?
  • Choosing and Buying a 3D Printer Right For Me
  • Printing My First Print

Later, I’ll go over some of the headaches and frustrations I went through during this journey. But I hope that by reading this series, you can learn from my mistakes and prepare yourself for when you purchase a 3D printer of your own.

Because that IS the dream, right? A 3D printer in every household!

Until then, let me know what you think about 3D printing in the comments below. If you have any questions tweet at me with any questions at @iamshawnlu or e-mail me at shawn@shawnlu.com. And to see pictures of my latest 3D prints and some 3D printing shenanigans, follow me on Instagram at @whattheshawn. But be warned. The posts that aren’t 3D printing-related usually revolves around epic snowboarding trips, coffee, and food. Just sayin’.

Eat well, my friends.

#3DPrinting: An Introduction to 3D Printing