Printing in the Third Dimension: Basics

10 · 31 · 17

By Alex Roberts

That ubiquitous twirling object that has been all the rage this year, the fidget spinner, actually gained its initial popularity in the 3D printing community. Because of its simplicity and compact design, a 3D printer operator could manufacture many spinners in a very short amount of time.

That’s cool, you say, but 3D printers look very difficult to operate and take care of.

That simply isn’t so! In this month’s blog, I’ll show you all the cool things a 3D printer can do, and I’ll even let you in on some tips and tricks about printer care!

1. Research your purchasing options thoroughly

Considering the average price of a printer hovers around $1,000, it would surprise me if you didn’t feel some sticker shock. Finding a durable, reliable, and interactive printer can be hard – unless you know where to look! has a wide array of printer choices, from well-known brands such as LulzBot, to newer companies such as M3D. M3D offers a great beginner model called the Micro 3D – an all-in-one printer with a printing surface large enough to print approximately 2 fidget spinners! Starting at $299.00, on M3D’s website, it is one of the best value-for-money printers out there. It also comes with free filament (the “ink” of 3D printing) and a 1 year warranty. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to the magic of 3D printing.

2. Know your printer’s capabilities

Just like you and me, 3D printers have their strengths and weaknesses. Cheaper printers will let you make incredible designs out of plastic – but only plastic, typically either PLA or ABS plastic. They’re great for the first-time printer who hasn’t had much experience with 3D printing because they’re really easy to use. Insert your ABS or PLA filament and print away!

The more expensive your printer, the cooler the materials you get to print. Printers like the Lulzbot Taz 6 have extruders (the metal bit that prints material) suited to print things like metal, wood, ceramic, and glass. Yes, I did say glass! Before you venture into hardcore 3D printing, make sure you have a good grasp on operating the cheaper printer. Once you’re an expert there, it won’t take long for you to start printing a new (and real) woodgrain finish for the back of your phone case.

3. Read up on your machine and learn how to operate it

Knowledge is power when it comes to 3D printing, so be sure to read up on how to use the tools. If you don’t like designing prints in the pre-packaged software, use an online computer-aided design (CAD) tool to make your prints and import them into the pre-

packaged software. The printer itself isn’t too hard to use – simply insert your filament according to the instructions and follow your cleaning instructions.

4. Printers require regular maintenance

3D printers are made of various parts that require maintenance. At their most basic, 3D printers utilize plastic filament and transform that filament through heat into a pre-programmed design. Cleaning your machine is a must because your filament cools after use and can get stuck in the printer. I’ve broken this part into subsections to help you understand how to properly care for a 3D printer.

A. Clean out the extruder after each print and when you change filaments.

The extruder, a small metal tube through which a printer lays out melted plastic to make a design, must be cleaned regularly to ensure no buildup of plastic. Many owners will completely disassemble their extruders and use solvents to clean out plastic residue – I, however, recommend only doing this every 3-6 months. I suggest performing a “cold pull” after each print. To do this, simply heat up your printer until the plastic is melted. Then cool the printer to 100 degrees Celsius. Finally, pull the plastic out of the extruder, and your printer extruder should be clean!

B. Always put up your filament when you’re done printing.

In general, you should aim to always separate your filament from your printer after use. If you don’t, the filament becomes brittle and will “flake” – you’ll get a crusty texture that won’t do your awesome prints justice!

C. Regularly clean around the printer.

3-D printers are messy. As you can imagine, hot plastic protruding from the extruder does harden quickly, and fragments of the plastic do scatter around your workspace. Keeping your workspace clean ensures that your printer won’t encounter “jams” – that is, plastic getting stuck in the gears.

And voila! Those are the basics of 3D printing. Now you should be able to create awesome prints and maximize the efficiency of your machine. Enjoy designing!

Center for Digital Expression

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