3D Printing: Should I buy a 3D printer?

What’s all the fuss about 3D printing, and should I invest in a 3D printer?  If you’re asking these questions, you’ve come to the right place.  If all you want is the short answer, then, yes (if the idea of printing your own objects appeals) you should definitely take the plunge and purchase a 3D printer.  Read on to find out more, as in this feature we’ll be covering the following areas (click on one if you’d like to skip ahead).

I’ve taken an interest in this marvellous (relatively) new technology for a while now, even paid a company to produce 3D prints for me, but until recently I was yet to print my own 3D print.  Then, just before Christmas, I finally took the plunge and bought my first 3D printer.

The aim of this feature is to try and impart the things I’ve learned this far on my 3D printing journey, partly in the hope I can help you avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made and save you some time, but also simply to share this fascinating subject with anyone who cares to listen (read).  Hopefully, by the end you’ll have learned enough to know if 3D printing is for you.

What is 3D printing?

Let’s start with the basics.  The Oxford dictionary tells us that 3D printing is “The action or process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many thin layers of material in succession”.

That’s actually a relatively straight forward description, but I’ll try and simplify it further.  Essentially it’s using software on a computer to design a three-dimensional object on the screen.  This virtual design can then be printed as a real object, usually by the 3D printer applying the material one layer at a time and building it from the ground up.

The technology is becoming ever more widespread in an increasing number of industries.  More and more companies are investing in it, and achieving some truly incredible results.

What materials can I print with?

The range of materials available for 3D printing is constantly growing.  Everything from (numerous) plastics right through to alloys and metals.  However, for the average home consumer (that’s you and me), you’ll usually be printing with a type of material known as thermoplastics; so called because the plastic polymer material melts at a certain raised temperature and then hardens again as it cools.

The main two thermoplastics are PLA (PolyLactic Acid) and ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene – no wonder they call it ABS!)  PLA is derived from renewable resources like corn starch.  ABS is a more traditional plastic, derived from oil.

I’ll quickly list the main advantages and disadvantages of each of these two plastics, and then tell you why I recommend one over the other (Spoiler Alert. If you don’t want to read any further, my preference, without question, is PLA).

PLA

Pros

Ease of use
Not as sensitive to temperature changes when printing
Great surface quality
Decent strength
Safer for printing indoors
Biodegradable
Considered food-safe (more on this later)

Cons

Not suitable for lots of wear & tear
Not ideal when exposed to the elements
More brittle

ABS

Pros

Better at sustaining pressure & stress
Withstands more heat
More suitable for wear & tear

Cons

Can be tricky to print with
Sensitive to temperature changes when printing
Susceptible to curling & warping when printing
Needs to cool slowly or can crack
Significantly more toxic fumes during printing
Non-biodegradable
Not suitable for use with food

Additional notes. Neither type of plastic is flexible, but ABS will bend before breaking.  However, PLA can handle more weight before it breaks.

Which material do you recommend?

As mentioned earlier, personally (for printing at home), I’d go with PLA for the following reasons.

* I wouldn’t advise anyone prints with ABS in an enclosed space due to the toxic fumes produced while printing.  Even with PLA, I always open the window to be on the safe side (and I certainly wouldn’t 3D print with any plastic in your bedroom).

* PLA produces more reliable prints and is less prone to problems and failures at print time.

* PLA will work perfectly well for majority of the types of objects you’re likely to want to print at home.

What temperature does PLA filament print at?

I typically set mine to print at 195 degrees Centigrade.

Can I print kitchen utensils using PLA?

While PLA plastic is considered “food-safe” – indeed, you may well find food and beverage packaging that’s produced with it – I wouldn’t recommend it when it comes to 3D printing.  For starters, several manufacturers use extra chemicals in the production of their filament.  While these can aid in such things as creating an impressive range of colours, they don’t always go hand-in-hand with food safety.

Also, due to the way most home 3D printers print (in layers), there will be numerous nooks and crannies in your finished model, even if it appears quite smooth – this is a breeding ground for bacteria.  On top of this, your 3D printer’s hot end (the metal bit that the plastic filament comes out of) may certainly not be food safe.

Hopefully I’ve done enough to dissuade you from venturing into the kitchen drawer with your 3D offerings. Nevertheless, if you are dead set on printing objects that can be used safely with food, consider the following.

* Purchasing a suitable print nozzle (most likely stainless steel).

* Ensuring your PLA filament is guaranteed as being safe to use with food.

* Finish your model with some sort of coating/sealant (there are epoxy resins on the market that are said to be of food grade).

Do bear in mind, even after all this, you still won’t be able to just shove your handiwork in the dishwasher. The heat will most likely deform and warp it.

An interesting material

I noticed recently that a wood filament is now available!  It seems to be a mixture of recycled wood particles and PLA plastic.  A strange mix, but from what I’ve read it seems to create a wood-like finish, in so far as its workable like wood.  You can sand and plane it, and its even said to have a visible grain like appearance.  Also, apparently it has a lovely wood smell when its printing (though I wouldn’t advise anyone deliberately smell print fumes, no matter how nice the smell).

The best part is that it works with several existing 3D printer models (to be on the safe side, check with your manufacturer first).  It’s more expensive than standard PLA, but if the idea of printing a wood-like material appeals it could be worth investigating.  Like most other filaments, its usually supplied on a plastic spool.  I’ve yet to try this material, so you may want to do some of your own research first.

See some of the different reels of filament here.

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=wood+pla&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

For the home environment, its a range known as FDM printers.  This stands for “Fused Deposition Modeling”.  This type of printing is “additive manufacturing” because of the way it builds up the 3D print by adding to the material.  While most FDM printers can handle both PLA and ABS plastic, majority of home users tend to print using PLA (for the reasons I mentioned earlier).

How does an FDM printer print?

Typically, they draw filament off a spool and feed it down into the print head.  It is extruded out of the print nozzle (otherwise known as the “hot end”) where it is melted and deposited onto the print bed.  A small fan attached to the print head usually aids in the cooling, allowing the material to quickly solidify and fuse to the layer underneath as it builds (layer by layer) from the ground up; hence the term Fused Deposition Modeling.

What’s a print bed?

The print bed is the place where your virtual models take physical form.  It’s the area of your 3D printer that the object is printed on to.  There are two types of print bed.  Manual and auto-levelling.  This is exactly how it sounds, an auto-levelling print bed does its own (automatic) calibration – usually before each print – which means you shouldn’t have to fiddle with any adjustments.  Compare this to a manual print bed, where you can be in for some tedious, time-consuming adjusting by hand.  If, like me, you don’t think the latter approach sounds like much fun, you should opt for a 3D printer with an auto-levelling print bed like I did.

What’s with a heated print bed?

As with auto-levelling, you can get print beds that are heated and print beds that aren’t.  Again I chose one that is heated.  Heated print beds have two main advantages.  First, they aid print quality as the plastic is less likely to warp during printing.  Second, they assist with adhesion, helping your print to stick to the bed while printing.

Note. A heated print bed is a requirement when printing with ABS filament due to the fact that ABS plastic shrinks when cooling.

What temperature should I set the heated bed to?

I use 50 degrees Centigrade for this (printing with PLA).

What size 3D printer do you require?

Even in the consumer space the size of 3D printers is increasing, and, as the prices continue to drop, you can now go larger for your money.  When choosing your printer, consider the size of the print bed as this will determine what size of model you can print up to.

I was happy to start with a mini 3D printer, which is only suitable for smaller projects.  If, like me, you don’t mind starting small, it’s a good way to dip your toe in the water and save some cash in the process – smaller printers are generally less expensive than bigger ones.  You’ll still learn all the same techniques and can always progress to a larger model later if you find that 3D printing is definitely right for you.

Note. At the risk of stating the obvious, as an added bonus you’ll also save money on filament (you won’t need as much of it) and you’re models will print more quickly (there’s less to print).

What software should I use?

There are two main types of software you will need.  The first is for designing your 3D model.  This is generally referred to as CAD (Computer Aided Design) software.  CAD has been around since long before 3D printers, but it’s a perfect fit for this area.  This type of software enables you to create a a model of your object on screen.

For this, I started using the program Sketchup.  Unfortunately, I soon discovered that, unless you’re very careful, you can quickly end up with errors in your model.  While not a problem on screen, it quickly becomes one as you try to print it; either not being able to print your model at all, or with the print failing part way through.  If you’d like to see how you get on, you can find the software here (its free for personal use).

https://www.sketchup.com/

I have since moved on to Tinkercad.  This is completely free for anyone to use (businesses included, though it may be a bit basic for their requirements).  I’ve found this software to be far more reliable.  Possibly due to its remarkably easy interface, I do find creating more complex models harder than in Sketchup, but (so far) I’ve yet to have the program generate a single bad file, and they usually print without a hitch.  Check it out here.

https://www.tinkercad.com/

What file types does 3D printing use?

There are two main file types.  Generally you will need to generate an STL (StereoLithography) file from your CAD software.

Tone’s Tip. Even though you’ll need to export an STL file to use for printing, you should always save your project in whatever the default file type is for the software you are using.  STL files are made up of lots of little triangles, this makes re-opening and editing an STL file much more difficult.

When exporting an STL file, you can normally choose between the binary and ASCII format.  Without going into too much detail, binary is recommended for 3D printing since it results in smaller file sizes (some printers struggle with large files).

There may come a time in the not too distant future where STL files can no longer cut it (pardon the pun, for as you’ll see in a moment STL files need to be sliced up before printing).  The trouble is, they cannot store colour information.  For most hobbyist-type 3D printers, this isn’t an issue right now as the majority of them can only print a single (colour) filament at a time anyway – to change colours you have to swap the filament over.

One slice or two?

So, you now have an STL file.  Unfortunately your 3D printer won’t understand this file type.  This is where the second type of software comes in, as you need a program to slice it.  Slicing software takes your 3D model and chops it into small pieces (layers) that your printer can understand.

For this part I use Cura.  This is made by Ultimaker (who also happen to make a range of their own 3D printers), but it works with many other models of printer too.  As with the CAD-type software, this is also available for free.  You can grab it here.

https://ultimaker.com/en/products/ultimaker-cura-software

The software converts your STL file into G-code.  This is the language your 3D printer understands.  Cura allows you to adjust many of the settings for your printer.  Everything from layer height to print speed can be set.  It does this through the use of profiles.  There are profiles for a wide range of popular 3D printers.  If yours is in the list, you simply select it so that Cura automatically has the correct information to generate a G-code file suitable for your printer.

If your printer isn’t listed (mine wasn’t, unfortunately), don’t worry, you can still use the software, it just means you need to create a custom profile suitable for the make and model of your printer.  If anyone already has, or decides to purchase the same printer as me, the following link contains the settings I used in Cura for the Monoprice Mini Delta 3D printer (also see my Cura G-code Settings in the Troubleshooting section).

Cura Monoprice Mini Delta Settings

Once you load your STL file into Cura it will even estimate the time it will take to print.  This isn’t completely accurate as it is based on the print speed setting.  Think of it like a race car going around the track.  The print speed you’ve set is the maximum, the same as the car racing down the straights.  Once it comes to a corner, it has to slow down.  The same is true of your printer.  The print head moves faster when travelling in a straight line.  For this reason, the estimated time is always faster than the actual print.  I’ve found, on average, it takes about a third longer to print than is stated.

What’s with the infill setting?

By default, Cura won’t make your prints completely solid.  Instead, to save you money, it will use infill.  This is simply a range of patterns that are employed to make up the inside space of your object.  Think of it like a mesh rather than solid material.  You can adjust the percentage of infill in your print, depending on how solid you want to make it versus how much material you want to use.

Note. The more infill you use, the longer it will take to print.

What’s a support structure, and do I need one?

You’re slicing software will have the option to use support material (it’s called “Generate Support” in the settings for Cura).  It may even be selected automatically if the program calculates that your model requires it.  Basically, the problem is gravity.  If your 3D model contains any overhangs with an angle greater than 45 degrees, it’s in danger of not printing correctly (as any material will struggle to print in fresh air).

To combat this, your printer can build up supports underneath any areas that may otherwise defy gravity.  If you don’t use support material when its needed, you’ll either end up with a failed print, or have lots of messy stringing hanging down underneath your model where the plastic has drooped before it had a chance to set.

Note. Support material will need removing after the print has finished, but it’s usually relatively easy to peel off.

Do you have to design your own models?

Not at all.  A great many others are constantly creating just about anything you can think of.  In the spirit of Blue Peter’s “Here’s one I made earlier”, the magic of the internet means you could simply go and grab something that’s already been designed and shared for anyone to use.  Naturally you won’t get the same personal touch as from your own creations, but there’s still some excellent models out there, just a download away.  Then, all that’s left to do is convert the STL file into g-code and you’re good to go.

A website that’s most definitely worth a look (and is full of 3D models, all of which are free) is Thingiverse.  Check it out now.

https://www.thingiverse.com/

How can I improve the final finish of my model?

There are a few products available to help give your 3D print a better finish.  Possibly the simplest option is sandpaper.  The nature of FDM printing means your models will have a small, but visible, layer lines on the outer surface.  These can be sanded down using a (super) fine sandpaper, somewhere in the region of 300 to 600 grit – go for the black and dry stuff, not the regular beige colour.  Another option is acrylic paint, which can be applied to both PLA and ABS prints.

Troubleshooting

Like most things, unfortunately it isn’t always plain sailing.  One of the most common problems people run into is with the model not wanting to stay put during the printing process.  So let’s look at what we can do about that now.

Why is my print not sticking to the print bed?

There can be several reasons for this.  Indeed, this was the area I ran into the most problems when I first got started.  So I’ll take you through what I did.  First, you need to make sure the print bed is level (properly calibrated).  The print bed on my printer (as mentioned earlier) is auto-levelling.  Despite this, I still had several issues.  I ended up with the print either not sticking to the bed at all, or (to the other extreme) absolutely welding itself to it.

Part of this was due to the software settings.  As discussed before, I use Cura to splice my models.  I discovered that this allows you to enter G-code to control the auto-calibration process.  The following file includes the settings I ended up with on my printer, which may help someone with the same model as me.

Cura G-code Settings

Sadly, this wasn’t the entire fix.  The last part of the solution, for me at least, was to purchase a sheet of glass that I attach using small clips to the print bed.  This has been a God-send, and by far the best additional purchase for my 3D printer so far.  I got mine from Amazon (is there anything they don’t sell these days!).  If you intend to do this, measure the size of your build plate and make sure you get the right one to fit your own printer.  View a selection of what’s available here.

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=glass+print+bed&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

Tone’s Tip. If you go down this route, let me share an invaluable piece of advice with you.  How to clean the glass.  You should do this before each and every print.  It’s easily done as you just unclip the glass from the print bed.  Use warm water (on its own) and a soft clean cloth.  I dry it using a couple of tissues and then give it a wipe with a lint free cloth (like that you used to use to clean your CDs).

VERY IMPORTANT. Avoid touching the surface of the glass at any point with your bare fingers (the oil on your skin will prevent the 3D print from adhering to the glass).  If you touch the glass surface after cleaning it you’ll have to start all over again.

Don’t forget build plate adhesion

Here’s a final suggestion for getting your print to stick to the print bed.  In the settings, be sure to select “Build Plate Adhesion”.  This will lay extra filament on the first layer of the print to help it adhere to the build plate.  There are three different options to choose from, which I’ll cover briefly here.

Raft
This adds a thick grid between your model and the build plate, which is useful for models that aren’t completely flat.

Skirt
This prints a line around the base of your model but isn’t joined to it, and is good for checking the print bed is level before printing starts.

Brim
This adds a flat area around the base of your model and is joined to it, which helps with adhesion to the build plate and prevents warping, especially at the corners.

It may be a good idea to try each type and see what works best for you.  When using build plate adhesion, I usually go with a brim.

What does the future of 3D printing hold?

Of course no one can predict the future, but, from the way things are progressing, 3D printing looks set to expand in a number of key fields.

Medical

Right now prosthetics are being produced using 3D printers.  This allows for artificial limbs to be tailored to individual patients, customising the appendage for a perfect fit.  Yet this is only the beginning in the medical arena.  Imagine a world where donors are no longer needed.  Where a sample of your DNA can be combined with 3D biological tissue to print a human organ.  It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, yet scientists are already researching this very topic.

Check out the following article to discover more exciting medical developments happening right now.

https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/12-things-we-can-3d-print-in-medicine-right-now-42867/

The aero and automotive industries

The car industry is using 3D printers to quickly prototype parts, and as the range of materials that can be 3D printed continues to increase, this will surely only grow.

Aeroplane manufacturers are looking to 3D printing technology due to its ability to reduce weight – something essential when dealing with aircraft.  Companies such as Boeing are already utilising the technology, and as 3D printers continue to grow in size, the proposition of printing ever more parts becomes even more appealing.  We could soon be flying around in planes whose entire wings have been 3D printed!

Boeing have already made the record books.  Have a look here.

https://www.boeing.com/features/2016/08/record-books-08-16.page

Confectionery

There are already confectioners out there printing 3D objects in chocolate, and I’m sure as time marches on this will only get more popular.  Consider the possibilities of being able to create just about anything you like in everyone’s favourite treat.  Imagine printing and eating your own head!  As an added bonus, if things go wrong, you get to eat the waste material – admittedly that last line sounded better in my head than when I typed it out, but hey it’s chocolate!  A good website to read more about this subject can be found here.

http://chocedge.com/

It’s a (chocolate) wrap

With a bit of luck this taster (quite literally in the last paragraph) into the world of 3D printing has enthused you to take things further – sorry, I think my mind’s still stuck on confectionery.  Let’s get back to the subject at hand by returning to the original question.

Should I buy a 3D printer?

Well I did, but only you know if it would be a good fit for your requirements.  I hope you now feel more able to make the decision.  Now is the perfect time to invest in a 3D printer.  The cost has come down dramatically since I first gained an interest and some excellent deals can be had.  There are some fantastic printers available to suit just about every budget.  I can strongly recommend mine as a good place to start, so long as you’re happy printing smaller objects to begin with (it is a mini printer, after all).

Here’s a link to the manufacturer’s website to learn more about it.

https://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=21666

Or you can view the full range of Monoprice printers here.

https://www.monoprice.com/category/3d-printing-&-hobbies/3d-printers-&-accessories/3d-printers

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s finish by looking at a few of the questions people often ask about 3D printing.

How much do 3D printers cost?

Not as much as you may think.  Entry into this market can be surprisingly low.  For example, I purchased my printer for half price in an Amazon sale (which was an absolute bargain).  A quick look on said retailer suggests they start from as little as £100 ($150).  Take a gander (that’s have a look for anyone outside the UK) here.

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=3d+printer&ref=nb_sb_noss

What’s a RepRap? (Sounds like a bad rapper from the 90s!)

RepRap is a free desktop 3D printer.  Here the word “free” means the designs can be procured at no cost.  According to their website, “RepRap is about making self-replicating machines, and making them freely available for the benefit of everyone”.  It’s basically a 3D printer that is capable of printing most of the parts required to make itself.  So, once you have a RepRap, you can effectively print another one.  RepRap.org is a community project.  You can find out more here.

https://reprap.org/wiki/RepRap

Can you make money with a 3D printer?

It’s certainly possible to make money, but you need to be careful.  You might think, why not just sign up to an online 3D printing company and offer your services?  At first this seems a reasonable idea, but when you delve a little deeper, things aren’t so rosy after all.  Usually with this business model, potential customers will send you their 3D modelling files.  There is no guarantee that these will print, so you may end up wasting both time and money (on filament), and depending what the problem is with the 3D model, it may not even be fixable.  As I mentioned earlier, what looks fine on a computer screen doesn’t always translate into a successful print.

A better option would be to design and print your own 3D items and then potentially sell them online.  At least this way you know precisely where you stand, you can work out what costs are involved, how much time it will take, and whether or not it’s a viable business proposition before you even offer the finished product.

How do you store filament?

You’ll notice that the filament you buy usually comes in a vacuum-sealed pack.  Don’t open it until you’re ready to start printing as, over time, the filament absorbs moisture from the air which can cause it to swell.  Additionally, if you’re not going to be printing for a little while, always unload the unused filament from your printer and seal it in a plastic bag or container.  You can buy filament storage containers, but these can be a pricey for what they are.

Is there anyone out there that will print my 3D models for me?

Definitely.  I’ve previously used 3D Hubs, which provide a very good service.  In the past, it was at a keen price, too.  The last time I tried them, though, I noticed their prices had shot up.  Still, it’s free to get a quote.

https://www.3dhubs.com/