3D printing is a complex process in which a physical object is created from a three dimensional model. There are several steps involving the use of a 3D printer controlled by a computer. This is how printers get the name “Computer Numerical Machines”.
It is this combination of machine and computer-aided design that makes 3D printers hard to use.
There are two phases in creating a 3D print. These are the design phase and the printing phase.
The Two Phases Of Creating A 3D Print
The Design Phase
Designs made for screens or paper are two dimensional. 3D printers create physical objects which are three dimensional. The starting point of creating a 3D object is to design it in three dimensions. There are two ways to get a 3D design of an object.
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3D scans. The first is to take a 3D scan exactly like how you scan a document into a printer. The advantage of this method is it is simple. The downside of this is that you can only scan objects that already exist. In other words, you can only copy. But what if you want to create something?
Computer Aided Design (CAD). If you want to create something new you have to design it from scratch using CAD software. You can also get an existing design to print from. The upside of a new design is you can create almost anything you want. The downside is that it is far more difficult.
The Printing Phase
Once you have a working design the next step is to translate it into a machine readable format your print preparation software can read and use to create a 3D model. The most popular formats are STL and OBJ.
The print preparation software or slicing software then encodes your design into specific instructions your printer will use to print your 3D model.
3D printers create a model by stacking layers that are horizontal cross sections of your 3D model. Slicing software determines the height of the layers, print speed, temperature and several other settings through which this happens.
There are 7 main categories of 3D printing technologies. These include:
- Material extrusion
- VAT polymerization
- Powder Bed Fusion
- Direct Jetting
- Material Jetting
- Direct Energy Deposition
- Sheet Lamination
- Fused Deposition Modeling
Fused Depostion Modeling (FDM) or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) is a type of material extrusion printing technology. It’s also the most popular printing technology. 48 percent of 3D printers are FDM printers. Source
FDM is popular with both beginners and professionals because it is the lowest cost printing method and has the widest variety of materials to work with.
Does 3D Printing Take Skill?
3D printing requires skill. While simple 3D models can be created using templates downloaded from marketplaces and maker communities, custom 3D models require literacy in mathematics, computer assisted design and in some cases, a degree of engineering knowledge.
The most complex aspect of 3D printing is designing the 3D model that will be rendered into an object. Fortunately, you can skip this stage by scanning objects. The other alternative is to simply download a 3D model. This is particularly useful for beginners and hobbyists.
There are many marketplaces or repositories where you can find 3D models either for free or to buy. Some of the most popular repositories include:
Existing models do not require any modeling skills. Printing is as simple as running it through your slicer. Custom builds on the other hand require a varying degree of skill depending on how complex the build is.
How Long Does It Take To Learn To Use A 3D Printer?
Learning how to use a 3D printer depends on the scope of the projects undertaken. A beginner can learn how to create simple projects using existing 3D models in 4 to 8 weeks. It can take anywhere from 1 to 3 years to develop proficiency in creating more complex projects using custom 3D models.
If all you want to do is create a few figurines or vases or simple things to use around your home, the learning curve will be less steep. Assuming you will work strictly with scanned objects or existing 3D models, all you will need to master is the slicing software and materials.
The most popular slicing software includes:
The most popular materials for printing include:
If you want to take your 3D printing a step further with builds of your own you’re going to have to learn and master computer aided design (CAD) software. This is in addition to knowing your slicers and materials. The most popular CAD software includes:
Also, check out our post “Do 3D Printers Come With Software? Can You Get Them For Free!“
Is 3D Printing Worth Learning?
One of the biggest strengths of 3D printing is cost. Both prototypes and end-use products can be made at a fraction of the cost of using traditional subtractive manufacturing.
The primary benefit of learning 3D printing is the ability to go from a concept to a real object cheaper and quicker than it would take using traditional methods. This is why 3D printing started off as a tool for rapid testing and prototyping.
3D printing has grown from just prototyping, however. Today, end use products ranging from footwear to aviation are being developed. Source
One particular area of promise for 3D printing is medicine. 3D printing prosthetics, instruments and even organs themselves is expected to drastically reduce supply chain costs and improve life expectancy, especially in poorer countries.
With that being said 3D printing has a few drawbacks that need to be overcome if it is to have a larger impact.
What Are The Disadvantages Of A 3D Printer?
3D printers are grossly inefficient. They cannot be used to produce or manufacture at scale since a 3D printed part can take up to 15 hours to produce. Another major drawback is they produce parts that are weaker than those created using injection molding or other traditional methods.
These two factors drastically limit what can be done with 3D printers. You cannot create large volumes of items with a 3D printer because the process is much too slow.
The process of layer by layer deposition of material also creates parts or models that are weaker along their layer lines. 3D printed parts consistently come apart especially when force is applied along the build line.