My first week in the world of 3D printing

I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so passionate about a brand new hobby!

Perfect timing. I needed some form of manual activity to escape the virtual maze where I spend most of my days, Tim Berners-Lee’s WWW.

I’ve been playing with the idea of acquiring 3D printing gear for a few years, closely following the evolution of the so-called additive manufacturing industry since the mid-2000s. So far I had resisted the temptation to buy one of the early desktop 3D printers.

But four weeks ago, motivated by a strong desire to explore potential new ventures, I went down Youtube’s rabbit hole and started researching this thriving scene, with the objective to pick the best low cost 3D printer.

It’s amazing to see how active the 3D printing community is. You can find long unboxing sessions, unbiased reviews and detailed tutorials for almost any device or software.

3D printing enthusiasts are part of the broader Maker Movement, pioneered by the launch of Make Magazine in 2005. Some are also RC geeks, piecing together 3D printed parts to craft their own drone or RC boat.

See for instance this video published by RCLifeOn, one of the most popular RC / 3D printing advocates on Youtube.

Here are a few Youtubers I strongly advise you to follow:

My first printer

I followed the advice of Simon (RCLifeOn) to purchase my first 3D Printer, the Creality CR-10.

What makes the CR-10 such a great device, besides the affordable price (under £350) and the print quality, is that it boasts a huge build plate. The maximum size of the objects you can print with the CR-10 is 300 X 300 X 400mm. Impressive! Enough for a tall figurine or a big vase.

If this is not enough to meet your 3D printing ambitions, you can even find a bigger beast in the Creality range, the CR10-S5. See how huge your prints could be with this monster (be patient though, such prints can take days…).

Since I purchased my printer on Gearbest (it was then a bit cheaper than on Amazon, prices tend to vary depending on the stock), I received it two weeks later. Tip: no custom tax to pay for a delivery to the UK when selecting a EU warehouse (we’re still pre-Brexit as I’m writing these lines).

It was quite easy to assemble even if the manual, mostly in Chinese, was crap. Fortunately a few Youtubers did a full unboxing / first print video. I simply followed this one, step by step.

Adhesion issues

The main issue I had to struggle with for my first prints was the adhesion on the build plate, early in the process (first layer) or after a few hours (very annoying), which gives you situations like this one, when the nozzle basically goes crazy after a detachment of the object, spitting out filament all over the plate, creating a disgusting spaghetti mess. Call it unexpected 3D art.

You really have to invest proper time in calibrating the build plate. The print nozzle has to be very close to the surface (you test it by moving a piece of paper under the nozzle: there should be just a gentle friction) and it’s advised to use some glue to improve the adhesion (clean the plate between prints, water is enough if you pick the right glue).

Following the advice of other Youtubers, I bought a pack of Elmer’s Purple Glue, super easy to apply and to clean (and much cheaper than the purpose made Magigoo (smart product though).

Tip: apply a few glue strips just before the print, not too early. You want the first layer to stick to the plate.

Slicing

It’s also important to choose the right parameters in the slicing phase, when you prepare the file uploaded to the SD card / USB stick you’ll insert into the 3D printer (you don’t have to connect your computer to the printer).

I’m using Cura for the CR-10 (and the proprietary software from Snapmaker for my second printer, more about it at the end of this post).

Cura is a slicing software originally developed by Ultimaker, another 3D printer brand (much more expensive than the CR10). You can also configure the software for a wide range of third-party printers, including the Creality CR10.

Basically what you do is import a STL file into Cura (drag & drop). Move it on the plate, scale it up or down if needed. Then choose the material you’ll be printing with (so far I’ve been using PLA, which is said to be biodegradable but is actually simply… degradable).

You will have to fine tune a series of parameters: wall thickness (don’t go under 1mm, otherwise your object will be very fragile and sometimes translucent), temperature of the extruder (nozzle) and of the heated bed (the choice depends on the material, at the moment, for my PLA creations, I usually set the temperature at 220°C for the first layer, to let it gently melt on the plate and at 195°C for further layers. I start at 75°C for the heated bed, cooling down to 60°C. In terms of fan speed, I start at 1% (to optimize the stickiness of the first hot layer), gradually increasing to 100% after a few layers.

Depending on the structure of your object, you might have to add supports to the print (the slicing software does it for you), for instance when you design a figurine with the arms / hands detached from the body.

If you don’t do it, the filament will just miserably land on the build plate, no arm, no hand (I had to restart a print half-way after noticing I had missed that critical point, too bad). You can rotate the object in different positions to minimize the amount of supports, which will help reduce the duration of your print (+ you won’t have to tear off too many supports from the object, which can damage its most fragile details).

You can also set the percentage and type of infill (the material which will be printed inside the object).

And finally decide which build plate adhesion method you’ll prefer for your print: a skirt which is just a line (or a few lines) not connected to the print, just to help prime the extruder (i.e. let the filament flow, which avoids spaghettis on the first layer), a brim which consists in a series of thin lines drawn around and attached to the object (my preferred method so far) or a raft, which is a base of multiple layers printed under the object (I experienced some warping / detachments from the build plate using a raft, so I would not advise you to select this option, except if the design of your object specifically requires a raft for stability reasons).

3D print timelapse

There’s something truly exciting in watching an object gradually take shape on the build plate of a 3D printer, a process which can take hours (if not days if you want a huge / detailed print).

Sculpting & modeling

I created a few custom models after learning how to use Blender, an amazing open source software (100% free VS hundreds of pounds for ZBrush (sculpting) or Maya (modeling)).

I’ve mainly used Blender’s sculpt mode so far. I had never experimented digital sculpting before. It’s hard (eyes and ears are particularly difficult to sculpt) but so much fun.

Sculpting in Blender will for sure become one of my hobbies. I also have the intention to learn how to rig models to animate them.

One of the coolest aspects of 3D modeling in my opinion is the variety of potential outputs for your creations: 3D printing obviously but also 3D animation and why not a 2D version, shared and displayed as a digital painting. Look at the absolutely gorgeous creations of Danny Van Ryswyk for instance, which all start with a 3D sculpt.

Marketplaces

If you need some inspiration or want to remix existing 3D creations, there are a few marketplaces where you can download STL files to import into your slicing software, for free or for a small fee: Thingiverse (by Makerbot), MyMiniFactory, 3DCults. You can also upload your own creations to these platforms and to Shapeways, where anyone can buy 3D prints on demand. There’s also 3DHubs for all your 3D print needs if you don’t have a desktop printer at home or for more advanced creations using specific materials.

3D scanning

During my first week in the amazing world of 3D printing I also tested 3D scanning with a £10 second-hand Kinect connected to my Mac (using Skanect). Very nice result (see me & my son below).

I also bought the Structure Sensor for ipad from Occipital (the package included a free Skanect Pro license).

Structure Sensor, Occipital
Me & my son, scanned with a Kinect connected to Skanect Pro.

See how easy it is to scan yourself with a Kinect.

Finishing

To clean up my prints (remove the supports, sand the figurines,…) I bought a few tools on Amazon (rasps, precision cutters,…) as well as a magnifying glass to process the tiny details.

And a USB-powered 30cm LED bar I’ll fit at the top of my CR-10 for live broadcasts of my print sessions (3D TV).

What’s next?

In the future I would be tempted to produce my own filament with recycled plastic, using either a Filabot or a 3DEvo. They both offer shredding and extruding equipment. Going full circle.

One more thing…

I was just about to complete this long post when I received a new delivery, the 3-in-1 (actually soon 4-in-1) Snapmaker, a printer which has just started shipping after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Beautiful packaging, superb manual, an unpacking experience on par with Apple products.

I bought this Snapmaker to have an extra spare 3D printer for simultaneous prints and also to experiment laser engraving, laser cutting and CNC carving (4-in-1).

I printed a 3D logo as a first print (I won’t publish it straight away since it’s a gift :-)) and I engraved a nice photo of my wife on a piece of plywood. Here’s the result (she has a pigeon from Venice on her right shoulder).

From a jpeg image to a wooden plate. Laser engraved.

It took me 2 minutes to generate a G code file from a jpeg image in the software provided by Snapmaker and to launch the engraving process. A very smooth experience.

Takeaways

Besides the technicalities of 3D printing / modeling (and a short introduction to laser engraving), I rediscovered the pure joy of manual work, the pleasure to learn brand new skills, sometimes the hard way, and the need for patience and perseverance when things don’t really turn out as expected.

It’s been an amazing very busy week, a retreat on my own in my little workshop, a place where I will probably spend a lot of time in the forthcoming months.

It’s just the beginning of a long creative journey! To be continued…

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