8 top tips on how to get started in 3D printing

8 Aug 2016

Given the growing interest in 3D printing, it’s safe to assume more and more people want in-home machines. But where should you start?

Earlier this year, we sat down with Jamie Tully, ranked No.1 in Ireland for 3D printing on 3D Hubs, to find out how he got started in the area, and to discuss just how popular the industry has become.

“The technology isn’t actually advancing much anymore,” he told us, saying the early rush towards innovation was actually quite successful.

Future Human

3D printing

So successful that the open source community is already awash with detailed plans, blueprints, suggestions and advice on everything you need to get your first 3D printer up and running.

“It’s really only people like myself in houses doing this type of service. Things, printed quickly and cheaply, this suits people well.”

So, we thought we’d look at what it takes to become an active 3D printer and, with the help of Tully, this is what we learned:

1. To buy…

You can’t print without a printer. So buying one seems the easiest route to owning your first device.

“People could check out versions in shops, but that’s rare,” said Tully, instead suggesting the online route. By simply searching for the best printers, you should come across Ultimaker, Makerbot or Taz.

“There are Chinese printers as well,” he said, suggesting a copy for all of these brands.

“They are generally of lower quality but they ship them from China for maybe one-quarter the price, maybe less than €500. Also, an Ultimaker would be a plug-and-play, off-the-shelf product. It works straight away. But a Chinese variant would be modular. You would need to part-build it, though that means you could also improve it, too.”

At a higher price point than even Ultimakers are Form 1+ printers. They are more detailed but both the printer and materials cost more.

2. …or to build?

Okay, if buying something off the shelf seems too gawdy, or too expensive, then perhaps building your own is the way to go. This is what Tully decided to do a few years back and, thanks to detailed help online, it didn’t prove too difficult.

“It took me a week to build it,” he said. “I was a couple of months getting all the parts but that is more because I wasn’t really in any rush. Most parts came from Europe so you could have everything ordered in a few days, really.”

But how did he know how to make it, and what to look for? Simple, Reprap.org. “They have tonnes of different ways to buy and build bits, from the electronics to the frame. It’s all on there.”

3. Where can you get 3D printing advice?

“When I started up I just went looking online for forums,” said Tully. Websites like 3dprint.com or Thingiverse.com are knocking about for advice and model designs respectively, with the open source community making it as easy as possible for people to get involved.

Elsewhere, 3Dhubs.com is a nice place to start to see what people nearby are making, and who they are making it for.

4. Where should your 3D printer be?

Temperature and fumes are the two concerns in this regard. The temperature has to be regulated, to a degree. Basically, keep a good circulation of air in the room you choose. “A box, in a room, is fine,” said Tully.

“They haven’t been comprehensively tested for fumes yet. But in a box, indoors, near a window, is ideal. Keep the room ventilated, especially when printing with ABS filament.”

3D printing

5. What maintenance is required?

“Not a whole lot,” said Tully. Upon making his, calibration was important but, once you’re set up, it only needs tweaks every months or so, depending on your 3D printing workload.

“First, make sure the ‘bed’ you are printing on is perfectly level. Then, to calibrate, usually you just print out a 2cm cube from some downloaded plans.”

The logic here is that by printing something so perfectly angled you can easily establish where your machine may be off kilter, and by how much.

“Going on to Thingiverse is a good start,” said Tully. “After the 2cm cube, maybe get the plans for a small, simple bridge. Print that out and you will see how things like ‘overhangs’ come out. That should help you line everything up.”

6. How large a ‘bed’ is needed?

Tully made his own frame and, thinking ahead, made it scalable. So at the moment his bed is 200mm3, which he says is “pretty standard”.

“The whole printer is scalable, so if I wanted to print something that needed a bigger base, then I could always make the bed bigger.”

7. What materials can you print with?

PLA and ABS are the main two in 3D printing, both being basic, easy to print and on the lower price point than more exotic materials like carbon copper and brass. TPE, TPC, Nylon or PET could be more flexible materials but they are harder to get and are not ideal for certain prints.

“For the more unusual ones, 3DFilaprint.com is a good place to start.”

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8. How long should it take to print something?

If you wanted to print a replica of, say, a golf ball, it should take a little over half an hour. A phone case would not take much longer. It’s when you start printing things made from various shapes, adding depth, angles and overhang, that the time required increases.

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Main 3D printing image, cube and golf ball all via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic