Think before you print: Getting started with 3D printing
Getting ready to jump into the world of 3D printing? Before you start working with filament and producing prints, there are some basic considerations every print maker and hobbyist contends with. This guide covers the essential information you need before you start printing.
What is 3D printing?
It is likely that you have heard or read the term “3D printing” a lot. As a hobby as well as a promising technological avenue of future large- and small-scale development across the globe, 3D printing has garnered significant attention over the past several decades and experienced a particular boom in interest for possible consumer applications within the past fifteen years—starting around when the first printer was available for less than $10,000. Its formal title, additive manufacturing, is less well-known. Additive manufacturing is the industrial production term for this popular process and refers to the broad scope of computer-assisted layer-building manufacturing to produce 3D objects.
Intuitively, you might guess that this process is called “additive” because each object is produced by laying down successive layers of material to form the object’s structure. This method allows makers to produce highly detailed or specialized objects that cannot be created easily or inexpensively using traditional manufacturing methods, such as carving or cutting objects from metal or wood. From specialty tools to figurines to picture-perfect costuming accessories, there are endless possible projects for a new 3D printing hobbyist. So, where do you begin?
Picking your prints
The world of 3D printing is vast and seemingly endless. New content by expert makers and industrial leaders is being produced daily, and it can be difficult to figure out where to start. You probably should not dive in to the largest or most complex projects just yet. Before splurging on the nicest looking printer or downloading a bunch of files that you think look great—it is best to start out with a simple question:
Why do I want a 3D printer?
At least try to narrow down this answer from “Because it would be really, really cool.”
Do you already have a crafting hobby or side business that you want to supplement with specialty 3D-printed fittings and accessories? Are you a cosplayer dedicated to creating the most realistic and intricate armor adornments or weapon details? Maybe you want to grow your model collection or have the desire to easily print custom items for your house or workshop. For most people, there isn’t only a single specific niche that draws them to 3D printing, but getting an idea of what you are most likely to use your printer for can help guide you in the right direction when picking a printer and slicing software or when downloading files.
Picking a 3D printer
Deciding which 3D printer to buy is the next step in delving into the world of 3D printing. Having an idea of how you are going to use your printer can help narrow down your printer options. Our other beginner’s guide covers beginner-friendly 3D printers.
Fused deposition modeling (FDM)
FMD printers produce objects by heating filament that is fed through a tube and precisely extruded along X, Y, and Z-axes paths defined by a computer-assisted design file. Chances are that you have seen FDM prints as this printer style is among the most common for consumer and hobbyist 3D printing—they are known for their faint horizontal lines that “stack” to form the final object.
SLA is commonly known as resin printing owing to its use of a focused UV light source to cure the resin into a hardened final product. This process is known as photo-solidification. SLA printers are known to be extremely precise, yielding smooth, high-quality, and intricately detailed prints.
Digital light processing (DLP)
DLP printers are similar to SLA printers in that both types utilize vat polymerization to lay and harden each layer of the object as it is built. The primary difference between DLP and SLA printers is that the former uses a projected light, rather than a laser, to harden the photopolymer resin.
Selective laser sintering (SLS)
SLS utilizes a laser to sinter powdered nylon, polyamide, or a similar material in a vat. The powder solidifies as the laser along the build surface. This process and the materials used in SLS are ideal for printing complex industrial components that require high detail and physical durability.
How do I pick a printer type?
Beyond reading reviews for printers, new makers are strongly recommended to review forums and channels dedicated to their specific niche. This can direct you to specific models that are best suited for your desired use within your price range as well as give some insight as to which filament or resin you should try out first. Once you have picked a printer, you are going to need to find some 3D models and get comfortable with a slicer to transform digital designs into physical objects.
Finding 3D model files
Beginners are typically not comfortable enough with digital 3D design to jump right into using professional modeling software such as Autodesk Fusion or ZBrush. Instead, Tinkercad is recommended because it is a free, in-browser tool that does not require a lot of prerequisite knowledge. It offers lessons and has a built-in feature to export the final model as a printable file, such as a .STL or .OBJ file. If you already have an idea of what you want to print and aren’t comfortable designing your own quite yet, you are likely to find great existing designs hosted by other makers on a variety of online 3D model repositories.
Getting free files
Thingiverse is among the most popular and well-loved repositories by 3D print makers due to its huge variety of prints, totaling over 1.9 million hosted files. It is operated by MakerBot Industries, giving it a polished feel. It is free to use and is considered the base of all 3D print file hosting. It features curated collections and several filters for finding the perfect file.
Unlike Thingiverse, which is an established standalone model repository, Yeggi is a specialized search engine that scours major online model repositories according to your search terms to aggregate all relevant models. This tool is immensely helpful for finding specialized models that may be hidden in a repository you have not searched. Many makers recommend using Thingiverse as the primary repository and searching Yeggi if the first search was not fruitful.
The vast majority of 3D printing content on the internet is community hosted, shared by hobbyists for hobbyists. While this is one of the things that we love about the realm of 3D printing, we can also value an expert’s work. MyMiniFactory provides free, professionally designed, and pre-tested models to users. The site is available in seven languages, so this may be your first pick if English is not your native language. If you have a design in mind but cannot find it anywhere, you can submit a request for specific designs to the MyMiniFactory designers. This site has far fewer entries than Thingiverse, but any model is guaranteed to be high-quality.
Getting premium files
1. Nikko Industries
Nikko Industries hosts STL files for cosplay and game-related decorative pieces. 3D printing is our entire world, and each of our models is carefully designed for precision, stylistic accuracy, and quality.
CGTrader is a community marketplace for buying and selling 3D designs. The site hosts a selection of free 3D models in addition to scripts and plugins that facilitate modeling. The marketplace also allows users to commission designers to create models if they cannot find their desired files. The site boasts over 1 million designs, allowing users to peruse a wide variety of models if they’re willing to pay a bit for the final product.
Gambody also facilitates sale among independent creators and users. The site hosts game and comic book–related STL files that are known for their extremely fine-detailed and high-quality designs. Users can buy prints from the site by purchasing the file and getting it printed by another party or access the file themselves, which will be optimized for all types of 3D printers.
What is slicing software?
Slicing software, often called a slicer, is used to translate the digital object model into a set of commands that direct the printer to produce discrete layers. The slicer commands also ensure that the printer matches all details across layers. There are several slicers available—some are suited for beginners, while others require a solid knowledge of command scripting and design to master. A few of beginner-friendly slicers are discussed below.
Cura was initially developed and hosted by Ultimaker, a 3D printer manufacturer. Despite the big name attached to the program, Cura remains open-source and free for all users. This slicer is also compatible with printers other than Ultimaker printers, making it a common first-choice for beginners.
STL, 3MF, and OBJ file formats are all compatible with Cura, and in the case that any design files are damaged or will not produce a print, this slicer can repair the files. It shows the toolpath, printing time, and material estimates for each file. Cura is consistently maintained and updated with a robust user community; these users develop third-party plug-ins to ensure that Cura is always capable of working with new printers. This community is very supportive of beginners as well, and a wealth of resources on interesting and beginner-friendly prints can be found on community forums and file hosting aggregates.
This slicer has a substantial number of advanced features and settings for any print maker, and it is suitable for both FDM and SLA/DLP printers. Like Cura, it is completely open-source, which allows advanced programmers to create what they need from scratch and implement novel features.
PrusaSlicer has three user modes to simplify its vast array of settings; the beginner mode only shows the most basic settings to allow for moderate customization with a small margin of error. The user interface is simple, easy to navigate, and provides users extra options such as the ability to repair models using an online service, custom support design, or extremely precise estimated print times.
Meshmixer is a free to use Autodesk program that is specifically designed for working with 3D meshes. CAD models are typically solid, while polygon mesh 3D models are represented by multiple faces, edges, and vertices that define the spatial boundary and details of an object.
These particular object representations are not easy to work with using traditional CAD software, so Meshmixer is essential. It has all the features necessary to facilitate the same scope of editing as CAD programs while being suited for 3D printing applications.
If you have never worked with meshes before but are intrigued by this approach, there is a mild learning curve; after that, Meshmixer is easy to use and streamlines basic edits.
Whereas Cura and PrusaSlicer have beginner-specific offerings, Simplify3D is geared toward pro 3D print makers. However, it can still be used by beginners wth some familiarizing and care. It supports most available 3D printers, allowing users to download and import over 100 printer profiles. If your model is not available, it is not difficult to add a profile on your own.
Simplify3D allows users to import, scale, rotate, and repair the 3D model, which is perfect to fine-tuning adjustments and making highly detailed pieces. In addition to basic design editing capabilities, this slicer also simulates the print to facilitate problem identification before material is wasted on a poor design. Simplify3D also automatically suggests additional supports for post-print removal, which can be helpful for newer print makers working with complex designs. STL, OBJ, or 3MF files are supported and load in very quickly. Among the slicers mentioned, this is the only one that is not free. Currently, this program can be licensed for up to two computers for $150—quite steep for a beginning hobbyist but may be well worth it if you are planning to use your new printer often or for complicated prints.
Moving on to the basics
After reflecting on your intended use of a 3D printer, selecting the perfect machine, obtaining high-quality model files, and downloading the appropriate slicer, you are ready to start printing!
Well…almost, 3D printing is not difficult, but as a continuously evolving technology, it has not been perfectly streamlined for beginners yet either. Because of this, there are still considerations that need to be taken when working with your printer to ensure clean, stable, and clear prints. After all, you purchased a several hundred- or even thousand-dollar machine that can turn a simple filament or resin into an entirely new product. Your printer deserves care and attention to ensure a long life and to avoid print problems right off the bat. This guide was intended to orient you to the very basics of entering the world of 3D printing. Now, you can begin to familiarize yourself with the mechanics of the printing process, different filaments, and all your printer’s components and settings. You should always read through all the manufacturer’s information before working with a new printer and calibrate it properly to avoid damage to the machine and low-quality prints. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing as well as our troubleshooting and calibration guides to fully acquaint yourself with the rest of the basics so you can start printing.