I wrote a post not so long ago about the joy and magic of 3d printing, and how my younger self would have been utterly bewitched by this machine that could produce any action figure you could get plans for. But then the other day, a friend of mine mentioned they were considering getting one, and asked my advice. I wondered what I would have liked to know before I got a 3d printer. Here are the five things I came up with.
- It’s still early days. While the technology has been around for a couple of decades, the majority of the 3d printing community are quite techy folks who are happy to tinker and recalibrate and even print new parts and additions for their machines. Furthermore, a lot of printers still arrive in pieces that you have to assemble yourself. It’s not quite soldering circuit boards, but very few are “open the box and go” models.
- Perhaps because I’m not very techy or willing to tinker, my results can vary immensely when it comes to printing. In the recent spell of hot weather, a lot of my prints went sideways. Because of the hot weather? Well, maybe. Again, this is a young field, so there’s a lot of opinions and not a lot of established lore. Should I enclose my printers to try and control their climate? Maybe. That’s a good, solid maybe, you understand.
- Filament. Filament is the plastic string that you feed into your printer to be turned into your masterpieces. It comes on reels, in 0.5kg and 1kg rolls (mostly). The stuff I get tends to cost around $30 a reel, but I can’t tell you how long it lasts because each print uses a different amount, and what you’re printing doesn’t often have a real world equivalent. What would it cost me to buy the segment of Dalek that’s in the photo above? I don’t know, you can’t buy it. Well, except from someone who’d 3d print it for you.
But here’s the thing about filament: It comes on plastic reels, every time. After a little while, you have a lot of plastic reels that you really can’t use for anything else. If you ask, people will point you to projects like this:
Yet I don’t need all the storage things I already have, so I’m not keen on using MORE filament to make MORE storage I don’t need. I have used a few reels to store Christmas lights, but the rest are just stacked on a pole in the corner of the basement. And here’s the OTHER thing about filament: You won’t always use all of a reel, so you’ll be left with a few turns. The logical thing is to link all these pieces together to use them in another project, but if you are not a tinkerer, there are NO straightforward, reliable methods for joining filament. People may want to argue that point, but I will stand by it. The devices for sale on Amazon that claim to do it all (heat, connect, smooth and release) have terrible reviews – they’re described as shoddy and unreliable and overpriced. All the DIY methods I have tried have failed. It’s a shame, because I reckon I have at least a kilogram of odds and ends of filament that I would LOVE to re-use.
4. You don’t just download a file from the internet and print it. Most of the files you’ll find in places like Thingiverse.com are .STL. You take that file and import it into a slicing program, which converts it for your printer. My FlashForge Finder has a specific slicing program which is great – intuitive and easy to use, for the most part. My Tinkerine Ditto has an online-only slicing program which is less user friendly and has fewer features. For example, the Finder program can actually cut up large pieces into smaller units for printing on a small print bed. The Tinkerine can’t. So if I have something that’s too large, but I want to print it on the Tink, I have to slice it in the Finder program, export the sliced pieces as .STLs and then slice them individually in the Tinkerine program before saving them as .GX files for printing. Then I put them on a storage device – an SD card for the Tink, a USB stick for the Finder – and take them to the printer.
5. My final tip may not come as a surprise: 3d modelling is difficult. In the early days of the pandemic, I spent two weeks or more doing an online tutorial in Blender, because I have that program already. I learned a lot, then forgot most of it. I have designed and modelled a few things which I went on to print. All were very simple shapes. Some worked first time. Some were complete disasters. I need more practice to make it easier, but I don’t want to practice because it’s difficult. A bit of a circular issue there, I know.
The main point I want to make is that the best printers out there are not the simplest to use. But if you’re thinking of getting one because you want to do something awesome, like 3d printed armour, or helmets or hey, a life-size dalek? Then aim high, grit your teeth and prepare to do the work. You may find you take to it like a duck to water, but if you don’t, there are plenty of people out there in internetland who would LOVE to help you out. The 3d maker community is NOT an exclusive club – they are very keen to spread the joy and answer your questions.