A Consumer’s Guide To The World Of 3D Printing

While some parts of the 21st century are proving woefully un-futuristic, (still no flying cars!) in other areas technology is producing some amazing advances. 3D printing is certainly one of these cutting edge fields. Today it’s possible to convert digital shapes into real ones with a speed and economy that would be practically unthinkable just a few years ago.

MakerBot_ThingOMatic_Bre_Pettis
By Bre Pettis [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Technology Basics

While there are many different technologies that can be used to translate a digital 3D model into a physical object, we’ll focus on the one that’s most common at the consumer level of the 3D printer marketplace: fused deposition modeling. This is a fancy name for a simple process. Ordinary plastic is heated up until it is molten and then deposited through a precise nozzle. Depending on the model of 3D printer being used, either the nozzle or the model table (or both) are moved according to the digital shape being created. This allows complex shapes to be formed. Most FDM printers require frequent cooling of their plastic material during printing in order to retain the desired shape.

Software Support

As mentioned earlier, all 3D printing projects start with a digital model that’s going to be created in real space. Digital models can be created in a variety of different CAD programs, many of which are available free of charge. A finished digital model is converted into a standardized file format. (usually .STL or .OBJ) This file is processed into a G-code file (this step can also be performed by free software) that consists of specific printer instructions detailing how the model should be constructed. The instructions can be modified manually to change the printing process in order to minimize waste and speed up printing time.

Powered By The Open Source Community

It’s not accidental that we’ve talked about free software multiple times already. Consumer 3D printing is a field that’s attracted a lot of attention from open source advocates. These are designers and programmers who believe in the free exchange of information, and their involvement has been vital in pushing forward 3D printing technology. Thanks to this information-sharing spirit, a great deal of the necessary software and technical know-how for 3D printing is available free of cost. The RepRap project, an ongoing effort to develop 3D printing into an affordable consumer tool, has helped to push prices down and make printers easier to build and operate. Users also share their digital models online, making it easy to find sources for 3D printing projects.

The Do-It-Yourself Angle

Thanks to the 3D printing community’s attitude towards sharing, getting into the field can be surprisingly affordable. While assembling or purchasing a 3D printer would have cost several thousand dollars just a few years ago, today the components needed to assemble a basic RepRap machine can be purchased for just $500. Of course, creating a working 3D printer with minimal financial investment requires a lot of skill and time. There are also commercial options available that deliver working printers faster. These are of course more expensive; the MakerBot Replicator, for example, is a fully-assembled ready-to-use 3D printer that costs a little over two thousand dollars.

The field of 3D printing is evolving rapidly. More than most, it relies on curious amateurs jumping in feet-first. While the learning curve can be steep, the rewards more than justify the costs for 3D printing enthusiasts. They love being able to create something wonderful out of nothing, and their continued exploration just pushes the technology forward faster and faster.

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