Getting Started With 3D Printing
A beginner’s guide to using this exciting design tool
By François Hurtaud
Many believe 3D printing is extremely technical, but this is not necessarily the case. After the initial setup, the software can be left alone to do the job. It just needs a little instruction on the right process, materials, and printer settings.
Step one is straightforward. Whether you are an industrial designer who needs to print a small prototype, or a hobbyist printing the latest Dragon Ball Z action figure, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to print before you can get started. Once that’s established, then it’s time to dive into designing.
There are two ways to go about design. One option for novice designers is to use open-source 3D template libraries like Thingiverse, MyMiniFactory, and CGTrader, which have pre-designed models for anyone’s use.
Alternatively, you can create a design from scratch using software like Solidworks, Pro/Engineer (now Creo), and Cinema 4D. Any software that has 3D Computer-Aided Design (CAD) capabilities and can export stereolithography (STL) files can be used.
STL is the most common file type. However, note that STL files only tell the printer the shape of the model. There is no color, material, or texture information included in this file.
There are two materials that suit most 3D printing purposes. The first is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), which is a hard, durable, and heat-resistant plastic. It’s industrial-grade and so strong that it can be used to replace machine parts.
The other is Polylactic Acid (PLA), which is essentially a plastic made from potatoes. It’s recyclable and can be reused over and over for different projects, making it an excellent choice for prototyping.
Machine and software
Every printer has a unique corresponding software which usually comes with the purchase. Some good 3D printer brands include Makerbot, Ultimaker, and XYZprinting da Vinci Mini.
Generally, it is best to stick with the printer defaults, but knowing what the settings mean can come in handy. The two most important ones are ‘Ink Fill Density’ and ‘Layer Height.’
- Ink Fill Density: This determines how solid or hollow your print will be. Setting it at 100% makes it completely solid, which is a waste of filament. For any percentage above zero, the printer will automatically generate a pattern to provide structural support for the object.
- Layer Height: This determines how thick the layers of your print are. The lower the number, the finer the print. However, note that this also increases the print time.
After importing your STL design file into the printer software, you need to convert it into a series of step-by-step instructions for your printer to follow. These instructions depend on the print quality you want. If the dimensions of your design are larger than the printer plate, the software will ask you if you want to rescale the model, and automatically adjust the design to fit.
Once that process is complete, export your file, save it onto an SD card, and plug the card into the printer. Select ‘Build from SD’ to initiate printing.
Make sure you have followed these steps before printing:
- Prepare your print bed by making sure it is level and, if needed, add a bed adhesive to ensure you get a good first layer.
- Load the ink of your preference into the printer and follow the printer’s instructions for this step.
- Insert the SD card with your exported design.
- Watch the first few layers of printing. If all seems well, walk away and come back later to see the finished version. Welcome to 3D printing.
François is an international award-winning industrial designer.
About the Author
François began his design career in 2008 as a studio designer. He graduated from Shanghai University with a Master’s Degree in Cross-cultural Design after receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Design from L’Ecole de Design de Nantes. His designs have received multiple international design awards and accolades, such as the Good Design Award, Red Dot Design Award, German Design Award, and A’Design Award.