For people wanting to get started with 3D printing, I’ve put together some awesome tips that will help you in your future journey. You don’t want to be going in blind before buying a 3D printer so read on and get some important information before you get to printing.
3D printing is simple, yet complicated at the same time depending on if you know the foundation of what makes a 3D printer work. Once you get to that stage, things get easier and your horizons for what you can produce only expands. It’s a really exciting time so without further delay lets get into it!
1. Buying expensive doesn’t always mean better
People usually think cheaper things don’t get the job done as good as expensive things. This is true in many cases, but with 3D printers it’s quite different. As time goes on 3D printer manufacturers have seen massive competition, and so there’s a race to make 3D printers not only cheaper, but better quality overall.
Similar to if you had 2 restaurants in your town compared to 10 restaurants, each one will have to lower their prices while improving on quality as best as they can.
Now there are different things that make a 3D printer more expensive, such as whether it’s an FDM or SLA printer, the brand, the functions of the 3D printer and so on.
When you’re a beginner however, the cheaper 3D printers will give you the quality you desire, plus some. Some expensive printers don’t always do much for quality, so it’s always important to check out a few reviews and find out whether it’s worth digging deeper into your pockets for a pricier 3D printer. I’d recommend starting out with a cheaper printer, then with more experience and research, you can look into the more premium printers.
2. PLA is the easiest material to handle
By far the most common 3D printing material is your good old PLA. It’s cheap, easy to handle and has great versatility as many printers will be PLA compatible. At this moment in time, PLA is the second highest consumed bio-plastic in the world.
The cool thing about PLA is it’s made out of a renewable resource that’s biodegradable and easily produced through fermentation of starch from crops, mostly corn, wheat or sugar cane. PLA is one of the safest 3D printing materials out there, and does not emit nearly as many particles as other materials.
It can be designed to last for weeks or years by varying composition and quality in production.
It’s a non-toxic, odorless material which is already widely used in many manufactured products. You would have to live in an odd place to not have something around you that’s made of PLA. It’s range of applications include computers and mobile phone casings, foil, tins, cups, bottles and even medical implants.
PLA melts at a relatively low temperature which makes it easier for printing, but less useful if you want to store hot items. As PLA manufacturing develops, I can only see it becoming cheaper and better quality in the future.
3. You’re better off getting an auto-levelling printer
Now to get an accurate print, you need your print bed to be levelled.
You have the choice between getting a manual levelling printer or an auto-levelling printer, which one do you choose? If you really like the DIY aspect of things and learning the ins and outs, then manual levelling is a cool challenge to get things right. If you’d rather focus on the main 3D printing process, then getting yourself an auto-levelling printer is the better choice.
An auto-levelling printer will generally have a switch or proximity sensor near the tip of the print head and will move around the print bed to measure distance away.
If you did decide to get a manual 3D printer because of certain functions or designs, you can still get an auto-levelling sensor attachment to give you the same results. These can be quite pricey so keep this in mind before getting a manual levelling printer. Many problems with prints do come from print beds not being level resulting in clogging, scratch marks on prints and first layers being uneven leading to poor adhesion.
4. Don’t cheap out on your filament
3D printer filament is a very important staple to the final product that you will create. Some filament comes better than others, and these can make a massive difference. The great thing here is that filament is relatively cheap, especially PLA filament which is easily made in factories. 1KG of decent PLA filament will cost you around $20-$25. Depending on how often you’re printing, the size of items you print and how successful your prints are, 1KG of PLA can last you over a month.
As you search far and wide for PLA filament, you’ll find some that have extra features. You have PLA filament out there that has a silky look to it, glow in the dark, extra strength, a very wide range of colours and so on. These will have different price tags but, all in all you probably won’t be spending more than $35 on 1KG of it.
Cheaper filaments aren’t always bad quality, so I’d recommend to have a good read of the reviews and try out what you can. Once you have the perfect filament for your printer, printing will become a lot less problem-solving and a lot more creativity.
Moving on to other printing materials such as ABS and resin, these have the same kind of idea with resin being one of the pricier materials. This lovely ELEGOO LCD UV ABS-like resin will set you back around $45 so choose wisely on whether you want a PLA compatible 3D printer or an SLA, resin compatible one.
5. Learn how your 3D printer comes together
A good rule of thumb when it comes to 3D printing is knowing its basic structure and foundation. In the long run, with the replacements and possible future upgrades to your printer, this will make a world of a difference in how you progress. There are many videos you can watch to inform you of the structure of your specific 3D printer, so I would recommend taking out a bit of time just to get familiar with it.
3D printers do require a basic level of maintenance and upkeep, such as keeping rods lubricated and replacing worn-out nozzles. With heavy use, a nozzle can last you 3-6 months and with casual use up to 3 years so it’s not too often you’ll have to do this in most cases. As time goes on, the better you maintain and update your printer, the longer it will operate in an efficient fashion.
Learning these things is great in an educational aspect. Being able to put a machine of this complexity together does take some smarts and practical knowledge of engineering. This is one of the reasons why 3D printers have made their ways into classrooms and universities, with more and more being spent on them each year.
The understanding of your 3D printer can even lead you to new passions and hobbies not just within 3D printing. The mechanical process of 3D printing does branch into many other fields such as automotive, aviation, healthcare, architecture and many more.
6. A good print bed makes the world of difference
In the 3D printing world, things aren’t always so straight forward and hobbyists often run into issues when printing. There are many issues that can produce these problems and your printing bed could be one of them. Having a good print bed makes a difference by giving your first print layer a solid foundation to be able to build on throughout the process. If your print moves in the middle of the print, it will definitely affect the rest of the print.
Print beds can be made out of plastic, aluminum or glass.
A low-quality print bed can cause issues such as layer adhesion, not retaining temperature, prints sticking down too hard and uneven bed levelling. Having a high quality print bed will alleviate many of these problems in one so this is something I’d recommend you get right before you start printing.
Glass is a popular option among 3D printer hobbyists because it tends to be easier to remove your prints after you’re done and it leaves a smooth finish on the bottom of your print. It only needs a modest amount of heat (60°C), but do keep in mind, prints with thinner sections could be pulled off easily due to the lower adhesion. A fix for this would be to use either masking tape, or glue to help prints stick down better.
You don’t want print bed materials that stick too well, because some people have reported their print beds and prints being damaged as they remove the finished product, especially when printing in ABS as it requires higher temperatures. I’d recommend the ERYONE Flexible and Magnetic Printing Surface for your printing needs.
7. You’ll need a set of tools
If only you could just buy your 3D printer, materials and get to printing without anything else! Although ideal, this won’t be the case but you won’t need anything too fancy.
The general sort of accessories you will need is:
- A spatula/palette knife – to remove prints off the bed
- Filament storage containers
- Adhesive material – masking tape, glue etc.
- Tweezers – for cleaning out nozzles and prints
These are the basic sort of tools that will definitely come in handy, but there are more advanced tools you might want to grab as you get more familiar with 3D printing.
8. Don’t forget about safety!
I can’t stress this enough, as fun a 3D printer can be you always want to keep safety a top priority. I’ve written about 3D printer safety in this article, it’s my first article so it isn’t the greatest but definitely has useful information about safety.
It’s easy to focus on the great prints you’re going to make, and forget about safety tips when 3D printing. Luckily, there are some tips that will really improve your safety with ease.
- Get a 3D printer enclosure if you don’t already
- Make sure your printing room is ventilated/filtered
- Be aware of fire hazards around your printer
- Your printer can get very hot, so keep out of reach of animals and children!
As long as you have safety in mind, you should be okay. 3D printer manufacturers have realised that safety is a growing concern with consumers so they have developed very good systems over time, and 3D printers are considered as safe as one of your household appliances.
Problems can arise when you play around with your settings, so use default settings unless you know what you are doing and be familiar with what each setting does.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask the community for help
The 3D printing community is one of the most helpful that I’ve seen. It’s just a great collective of people who have similar goals, and love it when people succeed in their goals. There’s a massive number of 3D printing forums out there, from Reddit to brand-specific forums that you can get help from.
A common consensus I see is several people answering questions that someone asks, whether simple or quite in-depth. 3D printing, being quite an engineer focused type of field, brings about very talented people who are ready to share their skills and knowledge in the craft. Not only do you have forums but you have many YouTube videos with people answering common questions and solving problems.
It can be a bit of a learning curve to figure certain things out, but getting the information shouldn’t be difficult at all.
Websites like Thingiverse is a staple in the 3D printing community, and has endless open source designs for people to download and even recreate if they are up to it.
10. You won’t get it perfect straight away
Some people get their 3D printer started and print out the most beautiful, flawless designs they could imagine. Others start up their printer and things don’t exactly go to plan. This can be worrying as a beginner, but it is more common than you think.
Just like many other activities out there, once you figure a few important things out you will be able to do operate without issues. Once you identify the issues, the fixes are usually something quite simple, such as re-levelling your print bed, or using the right temperature settings for your material.
It can take a few mistakes and low quality prints before you start getting that picture perfect quality you are after. It’s always easier to use the designs that other people have made and tested so you know it works. When you have a decent number of prints coming in nicely, you can start to create your own designs but this can take some time to get right. Once you’ve got your digital designs down, it opens up a world of possibilities with 3D printing.
11. You can print a lot but not everything
3D printing really does have a huge range of applications in several fields, but it can’t do everything. On the other hand, it can do a lot of things that normal manufacturing methods cannot achieve. Check out my article on it’s applications in the medical field.
3D printers don’t print “things”, they simply print shapes but very detailed shapes that come to together to form an object. They will take the material you’re printing with, then form it into a specific shape. The downside here being that you are limited to this single material. In more advanced cases of 3D printing, people can print with multiple materials within one printer.
3D printing has definitely seen advancements in what kind of material that can be printed, ranging from carbon fibre, to gemstones. American Pearl is a company that has 3D printing at it’s forefront. They produce a 3D printed model of jewellery, in a personalised fashion then pour metal into this design. After it hardens, gemstones can be added by an expert jeweller based on exact specifications and some of these personalised jewellery pieces can go for $250,000. On top of this, American Pearl can deliver such a piece in only 3 days, and at a cheaper price than competitors.
The 3D printing gun is a big advancement in showing what 3D printing is capable of. The great thing is, it’s a very open-source type industry where people can work together and improve on things that have been developed by others. This allows for a more, in-depth scope of development in the field.
The RepRap is a well-known printer which aims to be able to 3D print a 3D printer, but at this stage it can only print out the frame or body of the printer. Maybe, one day we will get to this stage but at this moment it isn’t on the table.
12. Stick with FDM printers, for now
When doing your research on 3D printers, you may have come across the fact that there are “types” of printing. The main two are Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) and Stereo-lithography (SLA) and they are quite different.
My recommendation for what printer to go with first is definitely FDM. There is a broader choice with FDM printers and the filament printing materials are usually cheaper.
SLA uses a liquid resin material and is done layer by layer rather than a strand of material like with FDM. It uses a curable photopolymer which hardens when a strong light is focused on it. These can be faster to print but they are quite pricey, and higher objects do take longer to print. SLA printers are definitely getting cheaper over time, so this could be a first option in the future for hobbyists, but for now I would stick with FDM.
FDM printer have much more versatility when it comes to printing materials, as they can be compatible with PLA, ABS, PETG, TPU, PVA, nylon and more. The availability and range of FDM printers does outclass SLA printers.
SLA does have its advantages, quality-wise it does take the cake. The ability of SLA to produce high resolution, smooth quality finish prints really does outclass your usual FDM printers. There are more costs included with SLA printing such as part replacements for the resin tank, build platform and just the high cost of resin can really set you back over time.
Unless you are really familiar with 3D printing and have a few bucks to spend, I would avoid SLA printing. If you are really interested in getting something printed in PLA, it could be worthwhile using a 3D printing service.
13. If you want to get good, learn how to design and slice
There are a few steps in the process of designing what you want to print, from design in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) software to “slicing” the design, which simply means to translate your drawing to something a 3D printing can understand and print.
If you want to propel your 3D printing journey far, I’d start off using other people’s designs but learning how to design and slice at the same time. This will be an invaluable skill in the future, and if you want to personalise 3D prints, it’s necessary to be able to do that.
You’ll need a dedicated slicing software to achieve this, as 3D printers cannot print without a G-code instruction, created by slicing. What slicing does it create routes for a 3D printer to act on while printing. It tells the printer what speed, layer thickness to lay down at different points in each print.
Regardless of what you think about slicing, it really is necessary to get the job done. There are several hundred different slicing programs out there, some professional ones costing over $1,000 but at early stages, the free ones will do just fine. Some 3D printers (Cura & Makerbot Desktop) actually have designated slicing software that comes with it, and unless stated by the company, you are free to choose another slicing software to your liking.
CAD and slicing software can get complicated, but developers have kept this in mind, and created beginner-friendly programs for people to get started on. Slic3r is a good beginner software to start with. I’d advise to just start with basic shapes, putting these shapes together, then getting more detailed as you understand the process better. There are many YouTube guides that you can follow for getting started, the earlier the better!
14. The slower the better
This ties in with the last point with the slicer, because this is where you input the settings for your printer to process. I’ve written a more in-depth article about how long it takes to 3D print.
When it comes to your final prints, you will have to balance out how long you are willing to wait, with how high you want the quality to be.
The three main factors here are:
- print speed – average is usually 50mm/s
- layer height – basically the resolution of the print (from 0.06mm to 0.3mm)
- infill density – measured in %, 100% means solid
Generally, the longer settings on a 3D printer will get you a more detailed finish on prints. This is done if you want a strong, functional and smooth print. Something that requires less detail or is just a prototype won’t need those features so it can be printed a lot faster.
Print speed needs to be balanced because having a speed to fast can cause print imperfections and weak layer adhesion. Too slow of a speed can cause the deformation of prints due to the nozzle sitting on the plastic for too long.
The size of your nozzle really does make a difference in how long your print will take. For example, a print job that takes 11 hours using a 0.4mm nozzle at 150mm/s will only take under 8 hours using a 0.8mm nozzle at 65mm/s.
It takes a print twice as long to finish if you change the layer height setting from 0.2mm to 0.1mm because the nozzle will move over the same areas twice over.
3D printing is an awesome field to get into, as it has applications which can stretch far and wide into most other fields in some ways. It’s much more reasonably priced than in the past to get involved, so I would recommend it to anyone who wants to produce rather than always consuming.
There is somewhat of a learning curve with 3D printing but nothing the average person can’t get the hand of. Even younger children in schools are making use of 3D printing.
Once you get to a stage where you are confident with 3D printing, it will be a very fun activity for years to come.