Getting started with Raspberry Pi: A beginner’s guide
Hobbyists and DIYers have become an increasingly important part of tech markets, with more and more companies focusing on providing tools and specialized programs for unique applications. The Raspberry Pi has opened up doors for thousands of hobbyists in the fields of gaming consoles, streaming, VPN server management, and, you guessed it, 3D printing.
This article covers the basics of working with Raspberry Pi for the absolute beginner and provides some helpful information for more advanced hobbyists trying to integrate this revolutionary little computer into their home production processes.
What is the Raspberry Pi?
The Raspberry Pi is a small, single-board computer about the size of a credit card. As a tiny, self-contained computer, it integrates the CPU and GPU in a single integrated circuit with the RAM, USB ports, and other components soldered onto the board. The Pi isn’t equipped with onboard storage but does include a SD card slot for housing a user’s preferred operating system and any files. This small-but-mighty tech seems like it could fetch a high price yet is extremely accessible at just around $35.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation released the Pi with the hope of providing an inexpensive computer to children and community groups to make programming an accessible skill, but it quickly surpassed the target audience and became popular among DIYers looking for a powerful nucleus for electronics projects.
Since it was first released, several iterations of the Pi have entered the market. Newer versions boast improved networking capabilities for a variety of projects. At the time of writing, the Raspberry Pi 4 is the newest Pi product, outfitted with a 1.5 GHz quad-core ARM CPU, 500 MHz VideoCore VI GPU, and 1 GB of RAM. For more powerful applications, users can get up to 4 GB of RAM.
One drawback of the newer, more powerful models is that they more energy. This means that if an older model is sufficient for your target application, the lower power draw, minimal heat output, and lower price (especially for used Pis) of older models are a no-brainer for getting started with this DIY tool.
What is a printer controller and why should you use one?
A 3D printer’s control board or motherboard functions as the printer’s “brain” by controlling all the hardware via instructions translated from G-code. A 3D printer control board is specifically designed for this purpose, and most hobbyists refrain from modifying their boards to ensure that basic functions are maintained in the translation-to-print process. Because of the dedicated nature of 3D printer control boards, it can be difficult to get more information out of your printer. This may not hinder projects for printers in the $1000+ range, which are often outfitted with nuanced and tightly controlled operating environments, but for hobbyists who want to use their budget printers to their fullest extent, figuring out how to get more control over the printing process can be worth it.
The Raspberry Pi is commonly used in 3D printing as an additional board to run auxiliary software like OctoPrint. OctoPrint allows for remote monitoring and control of a 3D printer. This added information can help users fine-tune the printing process and manage prints without being tied to their computer.
This guide focuses on setting up your Raspberry Pi for general use and briefly describes how to integrate a program like OctoPrint into your 3D printing arsenal.
Before installing anything, you want to ensure you have all the materials ready to go. You’ll need the following for this project:
- Raspberry Pi model of your choice
- USB power supply
- New or recently formatted microSD card (using the Raspberry Pi official card is recommended for compatibility)
Due to its popularity, the newest Pi models are typically hard to find without being stuck on backorder, but you Raspberry Pi’s official list of resellers makes it easy to see where your preferred model might be available new. Tech supply sites, Amazon, and eBay are go-tos for used older models.
The Raspberry Pi is powered using either microUSB or USB-C cables. While you likely have an old phone charger around that could work, we recommend using a dedicated and specialized power supply like the official cord to ensure that the proper current is being provided at all times. The less room for error, the better.
Most Pi models use microSD cards for storage, but much older models may use standard SD cards. Check the specs on the Pi you purchased and get the right card. We recommend sticking with 32 GB of storage or higher to run an operating system and store any files you need for your projects.
While a case is technically not necessary to make the Pi functional, it is highly recommended. A case will keep your auxiliary computer safe from damage and debris (and may add a little visual interest to your work space with a unique design or transparent cover).
Some cases are outfitted with specialized heatsinks or fans, which can be useful for makers utilizing newer models for heavy-duty projects.
Installing an operating system on an SD Card
No matter whether your Pi will live next to your printer and be dedicated to 3D printing projects or will be moved from workspace-to-workspace, every project requires an operating system. Raspbian, a Debian Linux-based OS, is the Raspberry Pi Foundation's official OS. If you are familiar with setting up your own OS or like to mess around with Linux, there’s nothing stopping you from installing something better suited to your own interests.
Installing an OS is simple. All you need is an image file and a program to write the file to your SD card. We’ll cover Raspbian and OctoPrint. Raspbian is a general-use OS, while OctoPrint is a specialized printer management OS that can level-up your 3D printing game.
Etcher is a macOS, Windows, and Linux–compatible program that can write files to SD cards. There are other programs out there with the same function, but most users stick with Etcher or the Raspberry Pi Imager owing to their ease of use.
Download the image file for your specific Pi model. For beginners, we recommend downloading the full Raspbian image with the recommended software. It'll either come in the form of an IMG file or an IMG wrapped in a ZIP file. If you're using Etcher, you don’t need to decompress the ZIP file.
Launch Etcher, press “Select Image,” and select the file you just downloaded. Choose your SD card as the target and press “Flash.” Take care when writing the file to the SD card. Because you are installing an OS, it will wipe the target drive. The Raspberry Pi Imager has a slightly different interface, but it is just as intuitive. Just select your OS, select your target storage, and press “Write” to flash the OS to your card.
After the installation is complete, safely eject the SD card. Plug the card into your Pi, plug the HDMI cable into a monitor or TV, and connect the Pi to a power source. Once you land on the Raspbian desktop, configure your Wi-Fi settings, install software, and start tinkering!
The simplest way to run OctoPrint is by booting your Raspberry Pi with the OctoPi image, which is a similar process to flashing any other OS.
Insert your SD card into your computer or connect it using an adapter. Open Etcher or your selected imager. Find OctoPi and choose the SD card as the target storage. Press “Flash” or “Write” (depending on the program you’re using) to install the OS. Once installation is complete, the software will self-verify.
Next, you’ll have to setup internet connectivity on your OctoPi-outfitted minicomputer. First, make sure the card is still inserted into your computer. Open the card’s directory and open “octopi-wpa-supplicant.txt” in a plain text editor.
If your network is WPA/WPA2 secured, remove the first ‘#’ from the four lines. Then, type in your Wi-Fi network’s name in the “ssid” line and password in the “psk” line. Do not remove the quotation marks.
If you anticipate using multiple networks, such as your home WiFi and phone’s hotspot, simply copy and paste the network block (four lines) and add the details for any additional networks.
If you’re not in the UK, you have to enter your country code. To do so, input a ‘#’ in front of the UK and remove the ‘#’ in front of the country where you are. Save the file and safely eject the SD card.
Using the Raspberry Pi
It’s easy to set up an OS for specific projects on the Pi, and its simplicity allows