Getting Started with a 3D Printer at Home —A Beginner’s Guide
Have you ever seen a 3D printing time-lapse and thought, “I want to 3D print something!”? Lucky for you, this is a quick and convenient guide for you to go through the steps and planning required to procure a 3D printer and start a hobby or venture in 3D printing.
In 2019, I launched Dimiour Design after graduating from college, where I learnt about product design, engineering and rapid prototyping. The venture started with purchasing a 3D printer from Amazon that I assembled in 2 hours, and began the journey of making things. Seeing the interest from friends and acquaintances, I created an Instagram page to market services. Then I built a website to reach out to potential customers. I am writing this blog to share my experience with fellow engineers, designers, innovators and entrepreneurs; who want to use 3D printing to bring their ideas to life.
What do I need to know about 3D printing before I start?
Managing a 3D printer can be fun, but it’s slow. Sometimes, prints fail midway and settings need to be tweaked for re-printing. If you want to 3D print parts for a specific project, consider getting it outsourced. Why? Running a 3D printer from home can have limitations including space, noise, time and investment. For short duration projects, high-fidelity prototypes, or a small batch of manufactured products, it would be more efficient to make use of the huge range of 3D printing businesses you can reach out to across the world.
On the other hand, it’s easy to fall in love with a 3D printer that you own. If you are a tinkerer, innovator, artist or designer, having a printer at home is fabulous. It allows you to think in 3D, evolve prototypes and build infinite creations, exploring new materials and processes.
Are there types of 3D printers?
Yes, there are several types of 3D printers which use different part generation methods. They can produce parts that vary in surface finish, mechanical strength, material, cost, size and capacity. Some of the types are:
- Stereolithography (SLA)
- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
- Digital Light Processing (DLP)
- Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)
- Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
- Electron Beam Melting (EBM)
SLA 3D printers use a liquid resin as raw material that gets solidified under a laser system with a chemical bond between consecutive layers of the resin. SLA 3D printers can produce high strength parts with manufacturing grade surface quality.
In a FDM printer, a nozzle deposits material in layers on a flat bed. The nozzle builds the designed part by moving in the X, Y, Z coordinates and extruding layers of hot molten material, generally plastics, that solidify in seconds. FDM printing is better suited for prototyping, although you can process and paint your products to get a better finish.
Which 3D printer do I buy for personal use?
For novices that want to start 3D printing at home, an FDM 3D printer has the following advantages:
- Low machine cost
- Compact and portable
- Low power consumption
- Non-toxic material options
- Low operational and maintenance cost
A good choice would be Creality Ender 3 V2 which when compared to its predecessor Creality Ender 3 (the most sold 3D printer in 2020), features a better display, thicker print bed and sturdier frame. Both these printers have a maximum volume of 220x220x250mm. If you are planning to 3D print larger objects, then you could also opt for Creality CR-10 V3 which has a volume of 300x300x400mm. In my experience, Creality printers have been reliable, easy to maintain and inexpensive.
You can check out other popular consumer 3D printers such as Ultimaker S3, MakerBot Replicator, FlashForge Finder and Prusa MK3S+.
What are the steps in 3D printing? What skills do I require?
3D printing mainly consists of three steps — CAD, slicing and actual 3D printing.
Computer-aided Design (CAD) also referred to as 3D design or 3D modelling, is the use of computers for drawing, modelling, modifying and optimizing 2D drawings and 3D shapes. The best CAD tools for 3D printing are listed in a later section of this blog.
Slicing is performed next, on a different PC application to convert the 3D CAD model into a code that defines the orientation of the part, internal structure, print speed, nozzle pathway and various temperatures. Slicers allow us to control hundreds of settings that are used to optimize the 3D print. I would recommend installing Ultimaker Cura for this step. It’s free, has a user-friendly interface and lets you choose modes of settings from basic to expert. Other slicers include Prusa Slicer, OctoPrint and Slic3r. Slicing is relatively easier to learn than CAD but takes some practice to correctly choose the optimum settings for making parts on your specific printer.
Actual 3D printing is automatic. The machine is plugged in, switched on and the sliced file is selected. After that, it’s a delight to watch your design get built. FDM printers need occasional maintenance operations such as changing filament spools for material, levelling the bed, cleaning the nozzle and oiling the motors.
Which CAD software do I use for 3D printing?
There are many CAD software available and it can be difficult to choose the best one. Industry standards are SolidWorks, AutoCAD and CATIA, but these put a hole in your pocket. So here is a list of FREE 3D design or CAD modelling software that you can use.
Fusion 360 maintains a good balance between features and usability. It has a great interface and lots of learning resources online. You can also render and simulate your models on it. Only downside is that it expires after a year of personal use. You may need to use different email IDs to create new accounts.
Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Design Control: High
Blender is an extremely powerful engine for all kinds of 3D work including surface modelling, UV mapping, rendering and animation. The interface has a steep learning curve and can be confusing as a first 3D design software. As open-source, Blender too has a ton of online tutorials and cheat-sheets that speed up the learning process.
Design Control: Extreme
OnShape is described as the Google Doc of CAD. It’s browser-based and makes it easy to save, collaborate and visit design histories. It covers most of the 3D design tools you will require for 3D printing. As compared to installed programs, OnShape can be slow and laggy if your internet speed is low.
Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Design Control: Medium to High
TinkerCAD is best suited for K-12 students, as an introductory CAD workspace. It runs on the browser and allows you to do basic operations on parts from a library of 3D shapes and objects.
Design Control: Low
If you want to learn CAD and 3D modelling to design your own products, here is a curated YouTube playlist which covers tips, tricks and process steps used in CAD, along with useful product design principles.
What can I 3D print?
There are endless possibilities for 3D printing. Applications include healthcare, architecture, electronics, automobiles, aerospace and consumer products. 3D printing has disrupted conventional prototyping and manufacturing businesses with rapid development of custom products using compact machines at a low cost. Advanced machines can also 3D print materials like organics, metals and composites.
Platforms like Thingiverse and MyMiniFactory have made it easier for people to start 3D printing without any CAD or industrial design experience. You can find millions of free design files that can be downloaded, sliced and 3D printed.
Here are some more external resources from the 3D community:
- Product Design Crash-course
- STL Manipulation Tool — Meshmixer
- Assembling a 3D printer — Creality Ender 3
- CAD for Newbies
- Blender Tutorials
- 3D Printing 101 Tutorials
- 3D Printing Troubleshooting Videos
- 3D Printing Troubleshooting Guide
Hope this helps. Happy printing!