The Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing
This beginner’s guide to 3D Printing will show you the basics to 3D printing and give you all the information you need to get started on your first project.
What is 3D printing?
“3D printing” is a general term encompassing several types of computer-assisted design processes that produce objects by joining or layering specific materials. Often, 3D printing is portrayed as a far-future technology capable of replicating complex objects with ease. However, that doesn’t quite capture what 3D printing actually is. Among the many types of 3D printing process, fused deposition modeling (FDM) is the most common.
FDM is a 3D printing technology that prints objects using thermoplastic filament—a cord of material capable of being melted, deposited, and cooled. Objects are produced by layering this filament on top of itself.
FDM was created to rapidly produce prototypes. Currently, rapid prototype production is one of the most frequent and beneficial uses of FDM. Beyond this, 3D printing is slowly becoming a well-known alternative manufacturing solution.
When you read about FDM, you will also come across the term “FFF,” which means fused filament fabrication. The two terms are interchangeable—FDM is simply used more commonly and was patented by Stratasys in 1989.
How it works
Anatomy of a 3D Printer
One easy way to begin understanding the basics of FDM is analyzing the actual structure and components of 3D printers.
Conventional FDM 3D printers can move along three axes—X, Y, and Z. The X- and Y-axes are responsible for left and right movement and forward and backward movement, respectively, while the Z-axis handles vertical movement.
3D printers will typically have the following parts:
- Build Platform: The build platform is the surface on which parts are printed. Build platforms are usually heated to aid with adhesion, which I will talk about more later.
Extruder(s): The extruder is responsible for melting and depositing the filament onto the platform. The extruder often comprises subcomponents: a hot end and a cold end.
- The hot end contains a heater with a nozzle that actually deposits the heated filament, while the cold end consists of a motor, drive gears, and other small components that push the filament into the hot end to be melted.
- Between both ends, there is a heatsink fan. These help the cold end stay cold, reducing the risk for jamming.
- In addition to the heatsink fan, there is usually another fan that cools the molten filament after it exits the extruder. Most manufacturers call this the part cooling fan.
- Print Head: The print head houses the extruders(s). On top of the print head, there is a tube that feeds the filament into the print head.
- Control Interface: Some modern 3D printers have a touch screen that is used to control the 3D printer. On older printers, a simple LCD display with a physical scroll and click wheel may be used instead of a touch interface. On the control interface, which will either be mounted on the machine itself or connected via a short cord, you will often find an SD card slot and USB port.
The printing process
The printing process beings when you send a 3D model file to the printer. Once the print job is initiated, the nozzle begins to heat. When the nozzle reaches the temperature required to melt the filament, the extruder then pulls filament into the hot end in preparation for deposition.
The print head lowers down to the build platform and begins depositing molten filament, which cools and hardens shortly after deposition. The filament is placed on the platform one layer at a time, and after each layer is complete, the print head moves up along the Z-axis and repeats the process until the print is complete.
3D Model Designs
3D models are created using 3D modeling software, called computer-aided design (CAD) software. Some examples of popular 3D modeling software include Autodesk Fusion 360, Blender, and ZBrush.
However, most 3D printing software requires some getting used to, and most beginners likely will not have the skills required to use such professional software right away. There are simpler CAD software options such as Tinkercad, an online program developed by Autodesk that is accessible enough for anyone, regardless of experience.
Since the accessibility and affordability of 3D printers have skyrocketed in recent years, several repositories for 3D models have been developed.
The following are some of the most popular design-hosting sites for custom 3D printing:
- Nikko Industries
- CG Trader
Once you have a 3D model design, the file needs to be prepared for 3D printing using a special software that translates the model into machine instructions. This is done using slicing software, which are often referred to as “slicers.” 3D models are imported into a slicer, which then virtually “slices” the model into layers. The resulting files consist of G-code, which functions as a list of instructions for the printer.
G-code is the “language” used by 3D printers and CNC machines. These 3d printer files outline important parameters required to produce a model, such as printing speed and temperature, wall thickness, infill percentage, and layer height.
Slicers also generate support material. Support is required for parts with intense overhangs. The slicer allows you to you choose where to put supports and how dense you want them to be. Some slicers even offer the ability to select different support structure types for easier removal or improved stability.
Preparing the Printer
Before printing, a 3D printer models requires some calibration and prep:
- Loading Filament: The extruder must be ready to extrude filament before the printing process can begin. The loading process begins by heating the hot end to the filament’s melting temperature (above 175 °C, though the exact temperature depends on the filament) and then loading the filament into the heated extruder.
- Bed Leveling: For the printer to deposit filament onto the platform, the build platform must be level. Depending on the machine, leveling can be either manual or automatic.
Materials used in 3d Printing
The filament used by FDM printers is essentially a thermoplastic specifically engineered to be melted and cooled over short periods while maintaining structural integrity.
Filaments for 3D printing usually come with two diameter options: 1.75 mm and 3 mm (or 2.85 mm). Filaments also come in different spool sizes. The most common sizes you will find on 3D printing supply sites are 500 g, 750 g, 1 kg, 2 kg, and 3 kg.
One of the best things about FDM 3D printers is that they can work with a vast selection of filaments, including the following:
- Flexible (TPU, TPE)
- Filled (woodfill, bronzefill, etc.)
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Post-processing is the final stage of 3D printing. Some common post-processing considerations are listed below, but you may find that not all of them or required or you may need something that is not listed:
- Support Removal: After printing, the support material must be removed. After removal, marks or indentations from the supports will likely be visible on the printed part.
- Sanding: To remove support marks or smooth jagged edges from mis-aligned layers, the part can be sanded with varying grades of sandpaper to produce a smooth finish.
- Painting: This one is self-explanatory; if you are printing models, it is likely that you will want them to have certain colors, patterns, or details. Painting can also be beneficial for sealing parts and models.
- Polishing/Smoothing: Epoxy coating is frequently used to smooth and seal the surface of a printed part. Specific filaments like ABS have dedicated processes like vapor smoothing for achieving a smooth surface finish.
- Welding/Gluing: If you want to assemble a large 3D model or part that your printer was not able to print as a single piece, you can print the part in two pieces and later join the two.
The following issues are some of the most common that you will face as a beginner 3D print maker. Obviously, these are not detailed troubleshooting guides, but being able to identify your issue is the first step to solving it and ensuring it does not happen again.
- Warping: Occurs due to temperature differences during the fabrication process, either in the filament or on the platform.
- Stringing: Caused by incorrect tuning, temperature, or retraction settings; may also be associated with specific types of filament.
- Nozzle Jams: Occurs when filament is stuck in the extruder nozzle and can be caused by low filament quality, poor temperature regulation, or filament type.
- Layer Shifting: Can be caused by a slight wobble in the Z-axis or overly high printing speed.
- Under-extrusion: Occurs when filament is inconsistently or poorly extruded, resulting in gaps or thin layers in the print.
- Over-extrusion: Occurs when too much filament is extruded, resulting in layer drooping and unsightly prints.
Maintaining your 3D printer
It is always a good idea to wipe the print bed with a cotton wipe after printing. If scuff marks or glue residue remains on the print bed, clean it with a damp kitchen sponge and soap.
Before printing, wipe down your nozzle with a cotton pad to remove excess dried filament from previous prints.
Stray Filament Collection
Proper filament storage is key because heat, dust, and moisture can negatively affect the filaments’ integrity. There are many containers and vacuum bags meant for storing filament on the market. You can also purchase a filament dryer that draw out moisture in your filament spools.
Best 3D printers for beginners
After attaining a solid grasp on how 3D printers work and how to care for your machine, it is time to pick one and get started. There are an increasing number of inexpensive and accessible 3D printers on the market currently, but my top three picks for beginners are the Creality CR-10, ELEGOO Mars, and Prusa i3 MK3. At low- and mid-tier price points with varying capabilities, these printers can handle the variety of projects that the beginner 3D print maker will likely tackle.
For $250, beginners can produce beautiful resin prints with the ELEGOO Mars printer. An X/Y resolution of 0.00185" (0.047 mm) guarantees a print quality leagues beyond the quality expected of the average FDM printer. It is shipped ready to use, making it inviting to those who do not have experience with doing detailed setup and calibration. This printer features only what is required of a reliable resin printer, including consistent support generation and model hollowing. However, the extras characteristic of higher priced printers will not be missed at this incredible price point. Its compact body and integrated LCD display make it a sleek desktop option for beginners.
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At around $400, the CR-10 is a great starter option for hobbyists looking for large, reliable prints. The standard build area is 300 x 300 x 400 mm, allowing for larger-than-average print sizes at a reasonable price. Despite its focus on large-scale printing, it is also suited to highly detailed prints without a notable dip in quality. This printer will require some getting used to throughout the setup process, so it is recommended primarily for hobbyists who are planning to develop a strong printing skillset, rather than those hoping for a plug-and-play printer. Out of the box, the CR-10 will function more as a brute machine than fully established printer—users can choose which slicer software they want to use rather than being saddled with settings that do not work for their project. While this may require some toying around, the freedom it offers is worth it if you are looking for a printer that you can tailor to your specific projects.
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Prusa i3 MK3
While the ready-to-use MK3 is notably pricier than other beginner-friendly printers at $999, the jump in price is accompanied by several notable features that make it well worth the price for most. The slicer software, Slic3r PE, is accessible and user-friendly, allowing novices to begin producing intricately detailed, beautifully colored prints with little hassle or setup. The MK3 is also outfitted with a variety of extra features that make this machine more robust and secure overall, including an excellent crash detection system and the ability to pause and resume larger printing projects. A DIY kit is available for $749, which may appeal to beginners who are hoping to develop a more robust DIY 3D printing skillset.