Frequently Asked Questions
• What is 3D printing?
Put simply, 3D printing or Additive manufacturing is a method for creating a 3D object from a raw material and a computer design file. The most common process used in desktop 3D printers is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), where a plastic filament is melted and passed through a nozzle that is moved through 3D space by a robotic gantry of some type, not too dissimilar to how a hot glue gun is used in craft projects.
For a more exhaustive summary and usage examples, see Wikipedia on 3D printing
• What programs are needed to run a 3D printer?
The software tools for running a 3D printer are fairly standard and consist of two basic parts, the computer modeling software used to design the object to be printed, and the slicer program used to convert the design file into something the 3D printer can understand, generally a G-code file. Some examples of computer design programs are Autodesk 123D (www.123dapp.com), Tinkercad (www.tinkercad.com), and Sketchup (www.sketchup.com). Some of the more popular slicer programs are Cura (https://ultimaker.com/en/products/cura-software), Slic3r (http://slic3r.org/), and KISSlicer (http://kisslicer.com/index.html).
• How much does it cost to buy or build a 3D printer?
For ready out of the box printers, a few start at $500 with most costing around $1,000 and up. In contrast, most kits start at $300 -$500 for the popular Prusa I3 (http://reprap.org/wiki/Prusa_i3) and Kossel (http://reprap.org/wiki/Kossel) designs.
• Where can you buy 3D printed objects?
Websites like Shapeways (http://www.shapeways.com) and i.Materialize (https://i.materialise.com/) both have online marketplaces where you can chose a design and buy a 3D printed version in a wide variety of materials.
• What types of plastic do 3D printers use? Is it toxic or biodegradable?
Most desktop 3D printers use a kind of plastic called PLA or Polylactic acid, which is derived from cornstarch or similar plant material so it’s nontoxic, biodegradable, and recyclable (depending on your local municipal policies). Other common plastics that are used in desktop 3D printers are ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) which is mildly toxic and needs proper ventilation for safe use, PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) which is a variant of the plastic used in water bottles, Nylon a classic plastic with countless applications and high temperature requirements, and sometimes Polycarbonate which is a true engineering grade material. See the links page for Canadian distributors.
• What are the basic skills needed to get started with 3D printing?
The most basic skill needed to start using a 3D printer is basic computer-aided design (CAD) for telling the computer & printer what you want to make, and owning or having access to a 3D printer. Some local libraries have a program that provides access to a 3D printer, or you can lookup maker spaces in your area. For example: if you have a Richmond Library card, the Launchpad program allows you to book time on one of RPL’s Makerbot Replicator 2 printers after attending a short orientation session. If you are looking to acquire a printer for yourself, 3D Hub’s Printer guide and Make: magazine’s 3D printer buying guide are both good places to start when choosing a printer. See the links page for dealers and websites in Canada.
• What skills does one need to build a 3D printer?
Some experience with basic Arduino electronics for programing the printer’s firmware, some familiarity with a screwdriver, and experience with building some of the 500+ piece Lego Technic or any of the Mindstorms systems are a good place to start. As for tools, the most useful are a decent set of ball-end metric hex keys (example) since most printer kits use metric bolts for assembling the frame and a basic digital caliper (example) for measuring dimensions and checking the printer's calibration are a good place to start.
• What skills are needed to run a 3D printer?
For running a 3D printer, generally it helps to have some idea of how underlying mechanics work, especially the hot-end and extruder assemblies since the most common problems with FDM printers are a clogged nozzle or jammed filament in the extruder. See this article on the makerbot wiki for instructions on how to clean a clogged nozzle.