In primitive forms, 3D printing has actually been around since the early 1980s, but has only recently been a viable option for the average consumer. 3D printing works by extruding a small amount of melted plastic material from a printing head, effectively “drawing” a layer of material in the shape of a part. The printing head will sketch out multiple thin layers of plastic, moving up one vertical step after each layer is printed. This can be used to create complex geometry that is not possible to make using milling, casting, and other traditional manufacturing processes.
Here’s what you’ll need to start printing your own parts:
1. A 3D Printer: These vary greatly in size, complexity, and in price. Some models can be purchased for under $300, others cost thousands.
- Size: In this case, size refers to the total printing area that can be used. Most lower-end printers have a total print area of 6” L by 6” H by 6” W, meaning that the model you intend to print must fit within a 6x6x6 cube. If you will ever need to print larger objects, it may be worth spending a little more initially to get a larger print area, as this can’t be upgraded by changing out parts.
- Resolution: The resolution of a 3D printer is the smallest level of detail it can print. For example, a printer with a resolution of 100 micrometers (250 dots per inch) will print a layer of material every 0.1 millimeters. If your model requires finer geometry than 0.1 mm to be printed in any layer, or uses measurements with a tolerance of 0.05mm, it may be worthwhile to upgrade to a printer with a higher resolution.
- Materials: Some printers can print ABS plastic, some can print PLA, some can do both. Other printers use adhesives and powder to make layers. It is important to consider what type of material you would like to print before selecting a printer.
2. Software to make 3D models: Most printers require the use of .STL files. This is a generic 3D file format that can be exported from a variety of different modeling software.
- Autodesk Inventor is free for student use at select universities. This software package can be used to create 3D models as well as 2-dimensional detail drawings.
- Solidworks is a competitor of Autodesk and offers a similar user experience, as well as a similar set of features for creating parts. There is a student version, but it is a limited-time license.
3. Time, Patience, Trials, and Errors
- 3D printing can be difficult to get right the first couple tries. It requires careful calibration of the printing head to that what is being printed in real life is exactly what you are seeing on screen. This often requires printing a part, measuring it to see if the scale is correct, adjusting parameters in the printer’s software, and then repeating the procedure for each adjustment.
- Making models in 3D may not come intuitively to the average user. It takes a lot of practice to get used to the software, and proficient knowledge of 3D software is a valuable skill.
3D printing can be a fun and rewarding process that allows you to make innovative products in your office, garage, or even your dorm room! Here are some links to check out if you’re interested in making your own parts in 3D: