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How to Use a 3D Printer: A Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that uses thin layers of filament (in most cases, plastic) to create a physical object from a three-dimensional model. A digital file creates the model which eventually transfers to the printer. The 3D printer creates thin layers, one on top of another, until a 3D printed object is formed. 3D printing also allows the production of models of more complex shapes with less material than traditional manufacturing techniques.

Research shows that 3D printing history starts in the ’70s. It was not until 1980 that early additive manufacturing equipment and materials were developed. Hideo Kodama initiated a patent for this technology but, unfortunately, never commercialized it. In the ’90s 3D printing began to attract attention from technologies around the world. These years also saw the invention of fully functional human organs for transplants in young patients using 3D printed methods covered with particles and cells from their very own body. It was a major success for the medical industry.

Despite these advancements, 3D printing had limited functional productions until the 2000s, when additive manufacturing gained popularity. Additive Manufacturing is the process of adding materials together to produce an item. The procedure of additive manufacturing is in stark contrast to the concept of subtractive manufacturing. Subtractive manufacturing is the process of removing material by carving out a surface to create an object. This process also produces a great deal of material waste. In this regard, the term 3D printing still refers more to technologies that use polymer materials and, additive manufacturing refers more to metalworking. But by the early 2010s, the terms of these two processes were used in popular language across the market, media, companies, and manufacturers.

Around 2008 the first self-replicating 3d printer model was created. That means a 3D printer was able to recreate itself by printing its parts and components. This enabled users to produce more printers for others. Studies show that later the same year, a person successfully walked with a 3D printed prosthetic leg fully printed in one piece. Then in the 2010’s the additive processes matured, and 3D printing work began to create objects layer by layer. In 2012, with the addition of plastic and other various materials for 3D printing, several authors began to think that 3D printing could be important for a developing world.

During the following years, more applications for 3D printing have emerged, including the world’s first aircraft. Makers using 3D printers agree that this method is faster and cheaper compared to traditional methods and are ideal for those who need rapid prototyping (RP). Terms such as desktop manufacturing, rapid manufacturing, and rapid prototyping have since become synonymous with 3D printing.

The market offers a wide variety of 3D printers. Sophisticated machines are expensive, but there are also more affordable models available with high-quality printing and features. 3D printing also offers easy-to-use desktop printers, which are increasingly popular among schools and engineers.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

In a shell, 3D printing works by blending layers of material to build an object. In this process, the 3D printer machine works with the direction of a computer 3D modeling software that regulates the process with high precision and exactness.

The 3D printing manufacturing includes several types of manufacturing technologies, all these work in the same way by creating models’ layer by layer essentially. Each one of these types of 3D printing manufacturing processes may utilize a different type of material, finish, and cost.

Some of the most common and utilized types of technologies are FDM, SLS, SLM, SLA, and DLP. Below read on a summary of each one of these technologies.

Let us start with the most common of these, the FDM or Fused Deposition Modelling, this is a trading name given by Stratasys. Even though this concept has been around since the ’90s, a lot of 3D printers since 2009 starting to utilize this process. This technology is also known as FFF (Fuse Filament Fabrication). In this type of process, several layers are aligned together until a shape is formed, by melting plastic that is deposited via a heated extruder. The most common materials used or filaments of this type of process are ABS and PLA.

Another SLS or Selective Laser Sintering uses a laser to sinter powdered plastic material and turn this into a solid model. Normally, this type of technology is a popular choice due to the rapid ability to create prototypes and small-batch manufacturing.

SLM or Selective Laser Melting uses a high-power density laser to melt and fuse metallic types of powder. With his type of technology, the metal material can be fully melted into a solid 3D model. This process also allows for the shape to be created layer by layer and create parts that cannot be easily cast with other conventional methods. The file is sliced into layers on a CAD computer software, normally and .STL file, and then it is loaded onto a file preparation software, then the material is melted using a high- power laser beam until a part is complete.

Continuing SLA or Stereolithography creates parts with high levels of detail, smooth surfaces, flawless finishes, and quality. This type of technology is widely used for applications on the mechanical industry and models.

Finally, DLP or Digital Light Processing is a technique similar to SLA that cures the resin materials by using light through a light projector screen. Because of the light usage, an entire layer can be built at once making this process relatively faster but recommendable for low-volume production runs of mostly plastic parts.

1. Create a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) file

The first step to creating a 3D printed object is creating a virtual design with computer software or a 3D scanner. On this, the exact dimensions of the object to build are simulated to see how this will look like when finishing the 3D printing. When designing a 3D object utilizing CAD, fewer errors may result while printing, and fortunately, these can be corrected before the process. There is also another way of creating an object manually, like sculpting where a 3D scanner is needed to collect the data, shape, and appearance of the desired object.

2. Convert the CAD file

Once the design is being created, the next thing is to convert the file into a format that can be read by the 3D printer. One of the most common files used is STL (standard tessellation language). STL files may sometimes create a larger file due to the number of surfaces. There is also another option of a file format used named AMF, Additive Manufacturing File format that stores information more conveniently.

3. Manipulate the STL file

Once the STL file is created, and ready to be sent to the 3D printer, the orientation and size for the object to be printed must be set. STL files also allow us to repair any inconsistencies in the original.

4. Prepare the 3D printer 

Once the digital file is ready to be printed, all materials need to be ready as well to start the printing process. Once the STL file is ready, then it must be processed by a slicing software that aids in the 3D printing process by converting the object into layers and provides the instructions that later will be received by the 3D printer.

5. Build the object 

Once all the mentioned parameters are ready, the printing process can begin. Some printers may take some time to create the final product as this depends on how complex is the object to print. Many printers have high-end capabilities and print faster. When the process begins, the layers start to build the object with an incomparable resolution using a special measure of micrometers. For instance, the thickness of a typical layer is about 100 micrometers.

6. Process the final piece 

Once the object is ready, this must be handled very cautiously. For instance, putting gloves to handle the printed item is recommendable, finally, brush off any residual powder to clean up the piece. One of the advantages of 3D printing is that a piece can be made within hours, compared to traditional processes of manufacturing, this is very convenient and shows faster results.

How does an FFF 3D Printer Work? 

Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) 3D Printing, is also known under the trademarked term Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). This technology was invented after SLA (Stereolithography) and SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) techniques were present. The term FFF was initially used as an unconstrained alternative given the fact that FDM is a trademarked term.

To begin with, an extrusion heated nozzle moves over a built platform, at the same time releases molten plastic, then this begins to deposit the thermoplastic material in thin layers, one on top of another onto a print bed, which is where eventually the 3D printed object is formed. The nozzle and the printed bed move while at the same time the plastic is being extruded. In this process, the slicing software is crucial due to this being the one that separates the design into different layers for 3D printing optimization.

3D printing uses a wide range of different variations of materials such as pastes, raw materials, and thermoplastics or filaments, being these the most used and come in different colors, thickness, and sizes to fit the purpose of the 3D printing model. Filament materials used for extrusion include thermoplastics, ABS, PLA, HIPS, TPU, ASA, PETG, PLA, etc.

What can be 3D Printed?

3D printing has revolutionized the way models and prototypes are being created for the industry. The idea of rapid prototyping (RP) allows the creation of products usually within hours of days rather than weeks when traditional methods are used. With 3D printing, almost every object you can think of can be printed.

According to Statista, the worldwide market for 3D printing products and services is anticipated to exceed 40 billion U.S. dollars by 2024. This source states that this industry is expected to expand to an annual growth rate of 26.4 percent between 2020 and 2024.

3D printing can create a wide range of applications. Every day, new materials and applications are being discovered and therefore, more companies are relying on this method for quicker prototyping and production of items, including the fact that they already have their printers.

3D printing is actively involved across many important industrial organizations with a significant impact on product development, research, education, and more, and is promising to transform almost every industry as we currently know it.

3D Printing in the Consumer Goods Industry

Many companies and retailers are recurring to the usage of 3D printing due to its significant value on the commercial chain. They can customize and design their products in a quicker manner and keep up with the ever-changing consumer market. By producing pieces faster, they are also able to put their products rapidly in the market.

Some companies have used 3D printing to produce eyewear, footwear, lighting design, furniture, and more. Among the brands that have already produced athletic shoes are Nike and Adidas. In an article published by Nike at news.nike.com, they mention how Nike Flyprint is the first 3D printed textile upper-performance footwear. Nike Flyprint uppers are produced through SDM (solid deposit modeling).

Another application is 3D printing in jewelry. According to SmarTech the industry value of precious metals for additive manufacturing is expected to reach $1.8 billion worldwide by 2028. A famous Australian company Boltenstern, has launched a 3D printed jewelry line recently.

3D Printing in the Medical Industry

In the medical field, 3D printing has a lot to contribute. While donors are difficult to find, in this video published by Marketwatch, the Rochester Institute of Technology’s engineering department is researching new 3D printing techniques for health-care applications such as the capability to generate organs that can be acceptable to the recipient. Allied Market Research shows that the 3D printing market for healthcare is expected to grow at $2.3 billion by 2020.

With the rapid advancement of flexible manufacturing and innovations, 3D printing is now widely implemented for medical purposes, such as implant designs, surgical planning and training, and prosthetics. See here some articles of 3D printing for medical applications, including a most recent case study of how people are using 3D printing to produce masks to fight COVID-19.

With the rapid advancement of flexible manufacturing and innovations in Biomedical fields, 3D printing is now widely implemented for medical purposes, such as implant designs, surgical planning and training, and prosthetics. You can 3D print with thermoplastics like Polycarbonate, semi-flexible plastics, ABS, which is strong and weather resistant or PLA (Polylactic Acid), which will biodegrade over time, even inside a human body. In this case, 3D printing is used in the field of radiotherapy is used to create custom devices for beam range modulation, 3D Conformal Radiation Therapy (3D CRT), or Brachytherapy application.

In this case, spinal surgeries see Increased success rate with 3D printed guides. The Bengbu Hospital is the top-grade hospital in the Anhui Province. Since the end of 2013, Director Niu launched 3D printing application research for vertebrae in the clinical field.

Here is another case, where 3D printing has reduced costs and help the creation of prosthetic hands. Founder Mike Li worked in the IT industry up until 3 years ago when he was inspired by a video that highlighted a unique use of 3D printing for children’s prosthetics. Motivated to apply medical 3D printing for prosthetics to help others, he and other local makers volunteered their time to create and customize prosthetics for patients.

3D Printing in the Automotive Industry 

3D printing is also transforming the automotive industry, evolving from printing relatively simple prototypes of low production parts to 3D printing entire cars. In-car auto designs, auto parts can also be created using 3D printing. Sometimes, a scale small model is printed to gauge scale before the assembly process. This technique also helps the industry by producing rapid prototypes and reducing money and time for production. Some other automotive companies are dedicated to creating customized auto parts for special model cars. Read here more case studies about 3D printing in the automotive industry.

3D Printing in Aerospace

In the aerospace industry, 3D printing has remarkable uses as well. To name a few, Airbus is utilizing 3D printing technology to create plastic parts on commercial A310 and A350 XWB test aircraft. In this video, metal parts for wing slats, a section of the tail wing and door hinges are claimed to be produced by this company. The development and manufacturing of potential parts using 3D printing can be conceived as lighter, stronger, and with 70% less time to make it and 80% less expensive compared to others. Aside from this, Airbus also mentions how 3D printing contributes to the environment as it has reduced up to 95% of its metal waste.

3D Printing in Dental Applications

Research shows that the market for 3D printing dental applications is expected to grow significantly. Dental 3D printing applications include the creation of crowns, aligners, bridge models, retainers, and even orthodontic models. Read here about Dental 3D printing in Orthodontic models.

3D Printing for Prosthetics

The impact of 3D printing on the medical field has made positive advancements such as fast processing times, low costs, and the ability to create efficient prototypes and parts that require customization, such as 3D printed implants and prosthetics. 3D printing is producing hands, feet, legs, and more.

Albert Fung, a talented biology illustrator from Canada, first designed a CAD template for the initial prosthetic. Using this as a base, he and his team were able to optimize the model for each patient’s situation.

An organization named e-NABLE is currently doing work in this area. Albert Fung and Dr. Choi created five versions of the initial prosthetic design and optimized the design to accommodate individuals in Sierra Leone within one year.

3D Printing in Architecture

In this field, 3D printing allows us to quickly create an architectural model, and this is ideal because a physical model is much favored than a computer presented a model on the screen. Any architectural application can rapidly create scale models in a faster and cheaper way now. There are also other astonishing applications of 3D printing in the architectural industry, to name a few it is possible to create entire buildings and urban structures. In Madrid, Spain the first 3D pedestrian bridge was printed. This structure crosses a stream in Castilla-La Mancha Park in Alcobendas, Madrid. The structure is printed using micro-reinforced concrete and measures 12 meters in length and 1.75 wide.

3D Printing in Archeology

3D printing for museums and archeology is helping with the reproduction of exact copies of artifacts that can travel the world to help researches in their developments. Archeological pieces can also be scanned and created for students to do research. This technology is widely used by museums because ancient pieces are at a high risk of being broken or damaged when transported and by the usage of scanning and 3D printing, restoration is possible. This including fossil reconstruction.

3D Printing in Art Restoration

Although restoration is a field dedicated to preserving the past, some sculptors are turning to 3D printing to help facilitate their restoration work. A great example of this is the Scuola di Alta Formazione (SAF) of the Instituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (ISCR). This institute is the leader of the restoration of masterpieces of the Italian heritage. Teachers at the institute decided to use 3D scanning and 3D printing with excellent results for their restoration projects. Read here 3D printing in the restoration of Italian classical art.

Another example of this great use is a project called “Elastic Minds” by the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the artists were using 3D printing in a project to create art and furniture such as chairs at a complete scale. In this video about the exhibition, pieces of furniture were created by sketches in the air with laser technology and then a camera scans this to capture the movement and captures this as a drawing that then is sent into a 3D printer machine.

3D Printing in Forensics

In forensics, the usage of 3D printing is creating a breakthrough in solving cold case files, by printing skulls, shoe prints instantly, and more. Daryl Ricketts is a forensic anthropologist and a professor of anthropology at Indiana University that uses 3D printing for education and research purposes. He uses the resources of 3D printing to create forensic pieces for his students. By using CT scans, fetal specimens, fetal skeletons to do virtual autopsies. He also uses facial 3D printing for facial reconstruction from different hominids.

Furthermore, at the University of South Florida, forensic artists have sculpted 3D printed skulls with clay to reconstruct the faces of more than 900 missing and unidentified homicide victims. In this video published by CNN, artists from around the world work along with the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory to reconstruct faces to identify these victims.

3D Printing in the Film Industry

In the film industry, movie labs and companies now are using more widely the technology of 3D printing for makeup preps and special effects to create characters. As an example, artists Steve Yang and Eddie Wang from Alliance Studio are using 3D printing for a new era of special effects and sculpture creation. In this video, they shared their story of how they started to work with 3D printing when everything was using traditional methods and how this technology changed their way of creating things in a way that was not seen before.

Also in this article, Rick Baker the Star Wars famous makeup artist uses 3D printers for the creation of monsters and props. Rick Baker has been able to create parts and scaled copies of his movie characters by using the technology of 3D printing. This technology along with the digital design has helped to decrease the overall time spent for the creation of the movie models.

Many companies around the world are using 3D printing to create exceptional high-precision models for prototyping and industrial manufacturing. 3D offers a less expensive and a very affordable process due to most models being produced using plastic and other variety of materials. Moreover, this innovative method utilizes less material for manufacturing and prototyping compared to traditional techniques.

3D Printing in Education

In the fields of education, there are countless applications of 3D printing technology with such interesting applications. The past decade has seen explosive growth in STEM education in progressive schools, as theoretical textbook knowledge is being replaced by experiential, project-based learning. When students shaped by this innovative learning ecosystem join the workforce, they are scaling new heights to help transform our manufacturing processes as well. Where appropriate, additive manufacturing technologies like 3D printing are now replacing traditional methods to bring more flexibility, design innovation, and cost savings to production processes.

For instance, Lift 3.0 is using 3D printers in Russia to teach kids the value of additive manufacturing with remarkable results.

Traveling to California, here is the case of John Gardner is a student at Foothill High School in Tustin, CA, who has a great passion for engineering and technology. Once introduced to 3D printers he began to develop his prototypes for an electric skateboard, custom-fit prosthetic limbs, and more. If you are interested in more cases of 3D printing in education, visit here.

Many companies around the world are using 3D printing to create exceptional high-precision models for prototyping and industrial manufacturing. 3D offers a less expensive and a very affordable process due to most models being produced using plastic and other variety of materials. Moreover, this innovative method utilizes less material for manufacturing and prototyping compared to traditional techniques.

To learn more about, why companies are using 3D printing, click here

How to Print with a 3D Printer?

3D printing is changing the way that objects are being produced. To start in the process of 3D printing, you will need to take some steps and considerations. Read on a few below to have an idea of what you need to set up your creation!

Step 1: Choosing the Right 3D Printer

The first step is to contemplate your 3D printer options and choose the one that better fits the purpose of your needs. There are a lot of alternatives and manufacturers, you can always compare models, but make sure to choose a printer that has the right features for your projects and plans.

For instance, there are 3D printers that are affordable and rightly designed for education, engineering, and small-batch manufacturing. Make sure your printer has dual extruders that can print simultaneously for a better production capability. This way you can reduce printing time for rapid prototyping. There are particularly good printers that also come with high-resolution cameras, video-assisted calibration systems, and important safety features.

Some other 3D printers are made to build larger industrial originals. These printers are more advanced and have fully enclosed capabilities. Industrial grade 3D printers permit the printing of complex parts and support a variety of filaments and improve even more printing speed. If you need to choose a printer like this, make sure it offers characteristics such as motion controllers, remote user interface, and interchangeable nozzles. If you are looking for a more comprehensive guide on how to choose a 3D printer, visit our 2020 printer buying guide.

Step 2: Choosing a 3D Slicing Software

To create a 3D printed object modeling software is needed. There are a lot of websites and providers that offer free downloadable software programs to design and model, and others that offer a variety of 3D models or mockups that other people have used to create their replicas. Research and look for a slicing software that is intuitive, user-friendly, and has customized advanced features. One important point too is to make sure that the software that you prefer also supports a multi-lingual interface in case you need it.

Step 3: Set the Design for Printing

The next step is to set the design ready for the printer. When the printer receives the data from the software it sends the signal to the printer to start building the item using a filament that is like a cord that passes to the plates of the printer. The most commonly used file format for 3D printing designs is STL, (Standard Triangle Language). The original design when being printed is translated into several triangles in a 3D printing space, which sets up for the printers and related hardware to construct the resulting object. The resolution of a file is recommended to be in an optimal size so the machines and software can work smoothly to create your final product.

Step 4: Building the Object

In this last process, the object is created through layering. One layer by another is added until the shape and final object is formed. The process of repeatedly printing over the same area is called Fused Depositional Model (FDM). The most common material for 3D printing is plastic, but there are a lot of other materials that can be used and adopted by 3D printers such as PLA, ABS, HIPS, carbon fiber enforced, flexibles, and much more.

Where to Find 3D Printing Files?

If you are looking to obtaining files for 3D printing, there are a lot of websites that offer these files, some of them for free. A variety of STL files, 3D printed models, 3D printed files and 3D printing designs in other file formats can be found if you surface the website. Shown below, here is a brief list of some sites that provide files and resources for 3D printing.

As time progresses, there are more and more uses for 3D printing that shows light of phenomenal events thanks to the usage of 3D printers. Many people believe 3D printing will announce a revolution in the manufacturing industry and the world economy. Although 3D printing has certain limitations, this advanced technology is now universally adopted by big corporations as a crucial mainstay of the manufacturing industry.


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