Getting started with 3D printers
Meta: Thinking about getting into 3D design, or buying a 3D printer? We advise what to consider before you buy your first 3D printer & where to download designs.
Getting started with 3D printing
We’re massive fans of 3D printing (and all kinds of manufacturing) at Hobarts, and we’ve had a few questions lately about buying 3D printers for use at home by hobbyists. We thought we’d put together a little post pointing you at some of the best resources we know of before you rush to add a printer to your cart and check out.
How do 3D printers work?
3D printers are pretty easy to describe, because they are almost exactly what their name suggests – they are simply a type of printer that creates 3D objects.
Most of us are aware of how a regular inkjet printer works – it channels ink through a jet onto the paper which then dries pretty quickly. 3D printers behave in much the same way – they build 3D models using material (usually some form of plastic) that is built up a layer at a time, from the ground up. The printer will work over the same area using a method called fused depositional modelling (FDM). The printer works automatically over a number of hours, building up layers so that they sit on top of each other. Rather than using ink as a traditional inkjet printer does, 3D printers work by layering molten plastic, or powders that get fused together within the structure, using adhesive or UV light. Plastic isn’t the only material you can work with though; almost anything that can be layered can be used. A 3D printer that was able to print with chocolate was created by University of Exeter researchers way back in 2011!
How big are 3D printers?
This is a really difficult question to answer – since a domestic 3D printer is going to be a vastly different beast to a commercial one. The largest 3D printed object was created by the University of Maine, where the world’s largest 3D printer printed a boat in just three days. You can see a time-lapse video here, where it looks really easy to do! It can print objects up to 30m long by 3m high, and over 6.5 m wide – which is pretty staggering. Find out more in this video.
When it comes to the smallest possible prints – well, it is now possible to print nano sculptures, which are so small they are able to fit on a human hair, the head of an ant and easily in the eye of a needle. What’s the point, you might wonder, considering you’ll only be able to see it through a microscope? Well, the same reason humans like to climb Mount Everest – to prove they can, of course! You can see the incredible creations from artist Jonty Hurwitz.
Of course, your average at-home 3D printer isn’t anywhere as near as big – or able to print as small as these examples. But machines with different specifications will have very different space requirements, so if you’re planning to buy one, be sure that you measure the space that your printer will take up carefully to avoid disappointment.
What can you make with a 3D printer?
Let us turn that around on you, because asking you what you want to make is probably a better question! 3D printers can print almost anything, and they have been known to create incredibly intricate medical items – from creating hip joints for hip replacement surgery, to full-sized prosthetic limbs. 3D printing has allowed the medical profession to dramatically reduce the cost of providing these types of treatment, which in turn allows healthcare providers worldwide to treat more people.
The medical industry isn’t the only technical industry that are turning to 3D printers to provide parts though. Formula One teams have been making the most of 3D printing technology for several years, and McLaren have been taking a 3D printer to race weekends since 2017. This enables their engineers to continue working on design and development right up until the last second, and are able to print parts in the garage rather than having to have parts manufactured elsewhere and couriered in. Having the 3D printer there also makes it much easier for the pitlane team to rebuild the car where the car has been damaged in a collision during Friday practice, or during qualifying on Saturday.
It gets even more technical than that too – NASA has a 3D printer on board the International Space Station, which, just as with Formula 1 teams, has discovered that 3D printing allows astronauts to create the parts that they need right where they need them since 2014. Incredibly, 3D printing is not impacted by microgravity in terms of the usefulness of the created parts, which has allowed for significant progress to be made in terms of long range, and long duration space exploration missions. They have also begun work on using recycled material for 3D printing, which is much more efficient than carrying supplies of new materials for the 3D printer, especially on long range missions where every gram counts.
3D printing isn’t just about highly technical printing though. The price of 3D printers has reduced significantly as all technology tends to over time, and there are all kinds of models, toys, art and even musical instruments that can be created with a 3D printer. Even jewellery can be created with a 3D printer – if you’re working with a 3D printer that can print with resin.
Creating your own 3D printer design
Your 3D printer may come with a design package that allows you to create your 3D designs. But that software might not be quite right for your needs. When you’re getting started as a beginner, you can rely on websites that have free designs that you can print, but that will only get you so far, and eventually, you’ll probably want to create your own designs. That means you’re likely to need to master 3D modelling – which isn’t easy.
There are a number of 3D modelling packages available, but some of them cost hundreds of pounds for a license or you need to pay a subscription to use the service. Luckily though, like most software now, there are open source or freeware options that can be downloaded and used at no cost – and then you can pay for the expensive options if you find you need more advanced features in the future.
Many people choose to play with 3D design modelling packages before they invest in their 3D printer – which is a great idea, since it means you can minimise potential waste when you’re ready to print.
Tinkercad is a free and simple app for 3D design, as well as electronics and coding. It’s great for kids who want to get started modelling, and can be used to inspire kids, through the use of Lego and Minecraft as well. Since the tool has been designed with educational purposes in mind, you’re likely to be able to create your first 3D model within a few days. It is linked with several 3D printing services, so is good for those first simple ‘have a go’ projects.
MatterControl is an open source package from MatterHackers, which means it is free to download and use. Like most open source software, there is a lot of in-depth functionality to learn, so the learning curve may feel steep to start with, but there are a lot of tutorial videos on the website (and so many more on YouTube!) that you’ll soon get the hang of it.
SketchUp is a versatile tool that can help you to get to grips with 3D modelling. It is free to use online for personal use with up to 10GB of storage, and up to 1000 downloads per month, with additional functions in the paid subscription options. The tool itself is simple to get the hang of, and there is plenty of learning materials on their blog and their self-guided tutorials.
FreeCAD is another open source 3D modelling software that is completely free to use – and it has been around since 2002, which means there are extensive amounts of places you can get support from, including eBook versions of the manual that can be downloaded.
Can you get designs to print online?
If you’re interested in printing your own 3D models but you’re not quite ready to create your own designs, then one of our favourite resources is actually NASA! They have some incredible 3D printable models that include the Hubble Space Telescope, a multi-purpose precision maintenance tool (if you’re going to be printing, you might as well print something useful!) and a model of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, that were launched in 1977.
3D printing communities
Online communities were a thing almost as soon as the internet was developed, and the 3D printing community is no different. There are a number of websites that allow users to share their completed designs and actively encourage discussions – and you can find some incredible support and advice on these communities. If you’re just starting to learn about 3D printing, it is well worth spending some time reading the support threads, and considering becoming a member of whichever forum(s) suit your interest.
Thingiverse has a catalogue of over a million items that you can download the design files for and print yourself, from useful items like clips, and toothpaste tube squeezers to the not quite so essential (although it depends on your point of view…!) models of Baby Groot and Minions. The designs you can find on Thingiverse are free to download, but is run by Makerbot.
MyMiniFactory has a great community of passionate fans of 3D printing, and the platform has been gradually building since 2013. They’re aiming to build a decentralised ecosystem, allowing both amateur and professional 3D designers to provide feedback for one another, to customise designs, and to learn from one another. Not only that, they’re helping users to earn from their designs, by allowing designers to sell their models and print files, but also to access opportunities for designing official content. There is also a blog that features posts from members of the MyMiniFactory community, allowing for further sharing of knowledge.
PinShape is a website that is independent from any of the 3D printer brands. You can find both free and paid designs on PinShape, and models are generally very high quality, with all the technical details, and settings that printer owners need to print their items without a glitch. You can even choose your design and send it straight to your 3D printer, negating the need for using another software platform.
If you’re looking to buy a 3D printer for your home, PinShape can be a good place to start comparing your options. The PinShape website isn’t run by a 3D printer brand, so there is a lot more impartiality on there. However, the community feature might not be as useful as on other websites – there are plenty of discussions, but there isn’t yet a way to create smaller interest groups.
GrabCAD is a 3D design platform that started out as a community that shared 3D designs. Today, it is one of the most popular platforms for professionals and businesses that are collaborating on 3D design projects. The issue with GrabCAD for 3D printing is that it is first and foremost a CAD site, and that means you might find designs that aren’t possible to build with desktop 3D printers. There are enough models that can be made using simpler 3D printers though, and that are free to download, so the site is well worth a visit.
Since GrabCAD started as a community, it is no surprise that there is still a strong community of manufacturers, students, and engineers, and members are really helpful. If you’re stuck with something, this is a great place to get advice. And if you happen to be working on a project that you want to collaborate on with friends, the GrabCAD Workbench is a great place to work together – many people regard it as one of the best 3D design tools for collaborative work.
YouMagine is run by Ultimaker, and feels pretty familiar – because it is really similar to Thingiverse. The main reason that we think people visit YouMagine is because all the designs that are available are free. That means you’re not wasting time looking at designs, only to find you can’t download it without getting your credit card out – which you might not want to spend on your designs if you’re saving your cash for materials!
The downside to YouMagine is that there isn’t a forum, and this is a shame – there’s a lot to be learnt within the 3D printing field, and so not encouraging interaction between users is a missed opportunity, we feel. Not only that, there is no incentive to leave comments on the designs, and so people don’t, which is another way that there could be interactions.
GCTrader was set up with the intention of helping designers to sell their work – and so due to the detail in these designs, many of these models cost more than $50 to download. If you’re looking for free designs, this might not be the right place – although there are a small number that you can download and use at no cost, there are far fewer than on other websites.
Should you decide to download a paid design for 3D printing, before you make a firm decision you should be careful that the model is compatible with 3D printing. GCTrader hosts 3D models for other applications such as gaming and advertising, so models suitable for these type of use may need a lot more work to make them ready for your 3D printer.
Repables is a free community that is all about 3D design, but isn’t associated with any particular 3D printer brand. Absolutely all the designs on the Repables website are free, which is a major draw – but there isn’t any quality control to speak of. Anyone can upload their 3D model to the site, and that means you may run into errors. There’s also few details that are provided when it comes to printer settings – which could mean you end up needing to change things to get the best results. Although it isn’t high up our list of recommended sites, if you can’t find what you’re looking for on other websites then it is worth checking Repables to see if you can find it there. You just need to use it with caution, and consider whether you’ll need to make any changes before you send files to your printer.
Which 3D printer is right for home use?
This is such a complex question and there are so many variables that we can’t possibly recommend just one – even just making a recommendation of a particular brand would be tricky. As you’re probably aware, we’re fans of the UP 3D printers, but they’re not the right solution for everyone. You’ll need to consider cost, as well as how much space you have for your 3D printer, what type of materials you want to work with, amongst many other issues.
How much do 3D printers cost?
Currently, we’re seeing costs anywhere from around £100 through to thousands of pounds. You won’t get anywhere close to the same results with a cheap model as you would a more expensive one – but if you’re taking your first steps into learning how to get the best results from a 3D printer, then you may be able to get started without breaking the bank too much.
We won’t make a particular recommendation, because you will need to establish what is the best one for your budget. If you’re an at-home hobbyist who is just looking to have a play, then you’ll have very different needs to professionals that are prototyping items or creating items for commercial use. Rather than creating yet another ‘best of’ list, we’ll recommend that you take a look at Tech Radar and PC Mag – these lists contain some of the most popular 3D printers on the market right now, and they’re regularly updated. These are great places to start finding your 3D printer, depending on your budget, and what you want to achieve.
What about running costs?
You’ll have the upfront cost of buying your printer, but once you have your printer at home, you’ll need to bear in mind other costs. Your filament and other materials is one thing to keep in mind – which is around £40 per kilo, depending on the brand, where you purchase it and if you need to pay for postage. You’ll need to pay for the electricity to power your 3D printer – although many printers are actually pretty inexpensive to power, it is still something to bear in mind.
Don’t forget, some printers may need servicing regularly – especially if you’re working with it on a regular basis. Cleaning and replacing parts, tightening of belts and firmware updates – they’re all possible to do yourself, if you know what you’re doing. But much like car maintenance, sometimes it is just easier to let someone who really knows what they are doing take care of it. These maintenance costs are variable, especially if there are parts that need replacing, and so it is wise to consider if you should set a budget for repair bills each year.
Depreciation is something else you’ll need to keep in mind, although for the most part, at-home hobbyists who are buying at a lower price point probably won’t need to worry about this too much, since you’ll be likely to look to upgrade before your 3D printer becomes obsolete.
How do you choose the right 3D printer?
As we’ve already suggested, there are a lot of different things think about when you’re looking to buy a 3D printer, but there are a few things that you can consider that will enable you to start narrowing down your search. From the type of material you want to be able to work with, to how much you’re planning on printing (and the quality of the prints that you want to create), as well as the speed that your machine will print at.
In the mainstream, there are two main types of 3D printers: Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) printers, and Stereo Lithography (SLA) printers.
FFF printers also include FFM (Fused Filament Manufacturing) and FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling). They melt plastic filaments in the printhead that moves around to form the model. They’re usually cheaper than SLA printers, because they are simpler and easier to use.
SLA printers work by using ultraviolent lasers to mould and solidify resins, using the focus of the laser to create the solid model.
If you’re looking to get into 3D printing on a smaller scale, you can find 3D pens that can create models from plastic filament. These handheld devices are usually pretty inexpensive, so can be a smaller financial commitment when you’re unsure if your new hobby is going to be one that sticks, then as your enthusiasm grows (as we’re sure it will) you can decide what sort of printer you want to work with.
When you’re choosing your 3D printer, you’ll need to consider the type of material you want to work with. As a rule, these are the types of material that the different types of printer can use. If you want to be able to use generic filament, watch out for the printers that are only compatible with own brand consumables.
FFF printers can use several different types of materials:
PLA (Polylactic Acid) is biodegradable (when subjected to the right conditions) so is better for the environment, and is made from renewable crops such as corn starch or sugarcane.
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is a type of thermoplastic that is widely used in the injection moulding industry. It is frequently used in Lego, in the housing for electronics and car parts.
Nylon (Polyamide) is often used when flexibility and durability is key. It can be good for when you have got to grips with the basics, but might not be quite right for you as a beginner.
TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomers) are rubber-like plastics that can be used for anything that requires impact, or vibration resistance. It is a bit more work to print with, but items made with TPE are usually pretty durable.
HDPE is often used as an alternative to ABS, as similar prints are often found to be lighter and stronger than ABS.
SLA printers generally have fewer material options to work with, but some can work with resins that can be very rigid, or they can be flexible and rubbery.
You’ll need to bear in mind the size of the 3D prints you’re going to want to produce. Printers are limited by the size of the print bed and the distance the printer can move the printhead. Pay attention to the individual dimensions, because that will allow you to understand the maximum size of anything you want to print.
Print speed and quality
We’re all pretty used to having things almost instantly, but unfortunately with 3D printing, that is just not possible. A model that is between 7.5cm and 10cm (3 to 4 inches) will usually take between 6 and 12 hours to print, depending on what you set as the print quality. All good things take time, and the higher the quality of the print, the longer the print is likely to take.
After you’ve bought your printer
When you’ve bought your printer, and you’ve learnt how to use the modelling software (or even more than one package!) that you’re planning to use, that’s when the fun begins! As long as you have a good stock of material, you are good to play for as long as you like.
You’ll need to keep your supply of filament topped up, depending on how much you’re using your printer. We spoke earlier about costs like electricity, but these are relatively low – although whether you think the costs are low or not probably depends on whether you’re paying the electricity bill!
A quick side note – you might set out with the intention to make money from your 3D printer – and it is absolutely a possibility, but you’ll need to calculate your costs carefully to make sure you’re not ending up out of pocket. You might be able to make sales by printing the designs that your customers send you, and you charge them a fee to print. If you want more control, you might create your own designs that you make available for sale through a website or marketplace, and you print the items on demand as your orders come in. Bear in mind though, if you’re selling through a marketplace like Amazon, you’ll need to ship your items the same, or the next day – so if you find demand for your items outstrips your machine’s capacity, you might not be able to work quickly enough.
Our final thoughts
3D printers are incredible – and they can provide you with hours of fun, and once you’ve mastered 3D modelling on your PC, it can even lead you into a whole new career. Whatever the reason you decided to start looking into 3D modelling and the sort of models you want to create with your 3D printer, start with getting to grips with whichever software you’re going to work with, and saving some simple projects that already exist within the 3D printing communities.
Once you’ve got that far, set your budget and start narrowing down your search, then when you’ve made your decision and you’ve got your printer at home, connected to your PC and ready to go – well, then the only limits you have are the size of your printer and the amount of material you have to work with!