A Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing: What You Should Know
2023 Feb 6th
In business and industry, it’s known as additive manufacturing, but artists, hobbyists, and makers just call it 3D printing. This beginner’s guide to 3D printing tells you what you should know to get started in making decorative objects like vases, useful things like key fobs or change purses, costume pieces, and more.
What Is 3D Printing?
While you may have friends and family showing off objects they say were 3D printed, understanding exactly what that means is a different matter. The word “printing” can throw you off a little; the other terms for the process, additive manufacturing and fused deposition modeling, evoke a more accurate idea of what the kind of 3D printing used by makers and hobbyists is all about.
Fused deposition modeling, or FDM, is a process and term invented and patented by 3D printing manufacturer Stratasys in 1989. Because Stratasys trademarked the term, the process is sometimes called “fused filament fabrication,” or FFF.
The 3D printing process starts with a creative idea for a functional part, toy, tool, piece of jewelry, or work of art. To turn the idea into physical reality, you first need a design, which must then be translated into computerized instructions for a 3D printing machine.
Computer-assisted design, or “CAD,” has long been used in manufacturing. Now, hobbyists and makers can use software at home to help turn their ideas into instructions for 3D printers. These instructions are called “models” in the 3D printing community. If you don’t feel confident about creating your own, there are many 3D maker sites that allow you to download the right kind of files for a great variety of models for free.
The code for a 3D model must be translated to instructions for the printer using “slicer” software. The software defines each layer of the process and allows for adjustments for printing temperature, layer thickness, and whether the design needs supports for overhanging or extending parts during the printing.
It’s also possible to sculpt a model and use 3D scanning to create printing instructions, but scanning can result in less accurate prints.
In the most common types of 3D printing, computer instructions direct the printing machine to extrude heated plastic filament in layers to create an object. The machine follows the instructions to add layer upon layer until the object is finished.
Other types of more advanced 3D printers work by sintering powdered plastic or metal using a laser to fuse it together into a defined shape. Manufacturers may use stereolithography or digital light processing, where light fuses or cures liquid resin into a defined shape.
These more sophisticated methods aren’t necessary to print most of the objects you’d want to make at home and would be much more expensive than conventional 3D printing.
Choosing a Printer
You can’t print without a printer! Choosing a printer can be a little overwhelming for 3D-printing beginners. What you need to know is that most 3D printers will have similar parts, including parts that move the printing arm on a kind of gantry through three axes: forward and back, left and right, and vertically (commonly referred to as the X, Y, and Z axes).
The printer will also have a “print bed” or “build platform,” where it deposits the hot filament. The print bed may be heated to make the printed part stick, as well as to minimize warping during the printing process.
The extruder is where the melted filament comes out. Direct printing systems have an extruder mounted on the printhead, and they push filament right into the hot end of the extruder. Bowden systems separate the “cold” end of the extruder from the “hot” end that houses the heater and the nozzle where the filament emerges. The filament travels to the hot end through a tube called a Bowden tube, after its inventor.
Beginners can get a desktop 3D printer for under $500. These usually come ready to print right out of the box, with a sample spool of filament.
Best Filament for Beginners
Your starter spool of filament won’t last long; in fact, it may only be enough for a handful of prints. As a beginner 3D printer, you should familiarize yourself with the different types of filaments and their various characteristics. Some turn out solid, rigid parts, while others can make flexible and bendable objects.
Most beginners start with flexible PLA filament (polylactic acid). This type of filament is easy to work with, melts at a relatively low temperature, and doesn’t require a heated print bed.
Any kind of flexible filament can get stuck or tangled within a Bowden tube during printing. It’s essential to ensure that the temperature controls are set according to specifications for the type of filament used. You should also ensure that the print bed is set up properly—either heated, or with an adhesive that will hold the print in place until it cools.
Tangles and jams can happen because the tension in the extruder or on the spool is too great or too little. Each type of filament may react differently, and different printers have different quirks. Finding the best setup, from spool and extruder tension to temperature, may be a matter of trial and error for a while.
Fortunately, there are robust online communities of 3D printing enthusiasts who can suggest fixes for common problems like tangling, jamming, or warping in 3D printing.
Most filaments are made of thermoplastics derived from petroleum products. PLA, on the other hand, is a plant-based product that doesn’t exude harmful fumes and is biodegradable and industrially compostable. You can’t throw it into your household compost as it doesn’t add much in the way of nutrients to the soil when it decomposes, but it does decompose in a way that doesn’t harm the environment. It's inexpensive compared to many other types of filaments, and it can be mixed with other materials. For instance, it can be mixed with wood fibers to create a natural look, or metallic colors for an iridescent effect. Some PLA is also approved for food contact, making it an appropriate material to print utensils, cups, plates, or food storage boxes.
This is a quick beginner’s guide to 3D printing. You should know that there is no such thing as instant expertise in 3D printing. You’ll need time to get to know your printer and your filament and gauge what size printer you need for your projects. At Fortis3D, we can help you select the right kind of filaments for the applications that interest you. Contact us with any questions and get printing soon!