3D Printing: Now What?

So you’re taking the plunge into the strange new world of 3D Printing. You got a new Ender series, or a Prusa, or an Ultimaker, or maybe Makerbot.

Now what? Maybe you got an Ender 3 Pro like me and it’s a bunch of parts that look like they were stolen from a NASA lab, with terrible assembly instructions somewhere between IKEA and a Chinese scam email in clarity.
What do you need to get your first dream pulled down from the ether?

I’m going to try and give you a cheat sheet here for when you get stuck. I can’t cover everything but I can get you the basics I wish I knew going in blind.
It’s all a matter of practice and experience, so seek people on YouTube for answers like Maker’s Muse or whatever comes up in search. Once you’ve watched a few videos the magic of Google will kick in and the recommended videos will have the other things you’re looking for.

Getting Started Then Into It

  1. Assemble it. If your 3D printer requires assembly, do that. Figure it out, be careful, and don’t give up. I did mine for a few minutes late at night over a few days. Being able to sleep on a problem you’re stuck on is a useful tactic in tech, and because prints take hours, you’ll have time. There is no rush in science. If you have an Ender series, you can bug me on social media like Reddit or Twitter. But I think you can figure it out.
  2. Calibrate it. Do your first print bed leveling, and you need to install a slicer on your computer. Find a simple .stl file to print off of Thingiverse and download a program like Cura or use the one that comes with your printer (Prusa has their own) and output a .gcode for your printer. I’ll talk about slicers more below. <Hey you, tighten your X axis belt. It’s too loose> Reddit will help you tweak your printer if you ask for assistance nicely.
  3. Test it. You will have noob problems. Once you get it figured out, the initial wear on your bed will give you more problems. Once you solve those, you’ll have occasional goofing with supports, but once you have experience with each scenario and have opinions on your filaments, you’ll be an expert. I no longer cuss out my derpy black filament for liking a cooler bed. There are several types of test print .stls you’ll find, easily available online.
  4. Design. Once you can print other people’s things online without issues, you’re ready to create your own stuff. There are many programs out there. They are like Gimp versus Adobe, where the free stuff has a high learning curve and the professional licenses want you to sell both your kidneys every year. I was using Blender but switched to the free personal Autodesk Fusion 360 license since the cool kids are using it, and I’m learning that.
  5. Mod. By the time you are comfortable with 3D printing, you’ll have seen people bragging they added drawers and gizmos to theirs that they 3D printed. This is one of the joys of 3D printing – printing things for your printing. You’ll see airflow ducts, levelers, bigger knobs, covers, and so on. I have a few planned myself. Some people replace the whole printing head with stuff bought online.

For the uninitiated, the process to print a thing from start to finish is:

  1. Design or download the .stl file, and edit it as needed (some people add supports and other tricks before the slicer!)
  2. Open the .stl file in the slicer (for me, always Cura) and hit “slice” (after many minutes of fiddling with “ooo what does this do” in profile if it takes too long (2 DAYS AND 14 HOURS WHAT DID YOU CLICK ON) or needs supports) and save a .gcode file. You’ll want to choose quality here. It’s a time/niceness tradeoff. If you cut the size in half, it’ll take 1/8th the time because that’s how mafi-I mean three dimensions works. Try 75% or 80% if size doesn’t matter, to save time. I prefer my medium sized things not much over 4 hours if I have a choice. For small prints, if I could want a lot I like to bring it low at least to see what Cura can do. I made a 2-piece spinning bracelet charm in 2 min once hahaha.
  3. Put the file on the printer and prep the printer (clean? level?). You can eventually set up an Octoprint server on a Raspberry Pi to let you send files to the printer remotely. I’m still moving the microSD card back and forth like a pleb (but hey, Cura auto-detects and then ejects for you!).
  4. Tell it to print.
  5. Panic as you watch in awe and terror as the mystery of creation begins.

This is a workflow, but it’s not a complicated process once you’re doing it. You can go from I WANT THAT to I OWN THIS in 60 sec of download and warm up, then a 2 hour print.

Post-Assembly: Things You Might Need

There’s a number of things you’ll want at some point. You don’t have to have all of them, but you’ll want something from each category if you want to polish off imperfections and debug prints sticking.

  1. Filament. You’ll always want more filament. It’s sold in kg wheels so try not to go too crazy buying because one will last you a long time. They should be $20 to $30. If you can get to the 3D Printing Filament tag kinda hidden under Industrial and Scientific on Amazon you can just check type and size (e.g., PLA, 1.75mm) and then type in only a color name.
  2. A Jewelry Kit. I have this one from Walmart. Specifically, strong needle nose pliers and clippers, and a beam reamer. A bead reamer makes small bead holes bigger, and is like sandpaper and an awl had a evil metal sandpaper baby. Also, get an awl. These are for pulling and cutting and cleaning any supports that don’t come off well, and for poking little ones out of holes.
  3. A misc pack of sandpaper. This is nice to have if a tip is rough.
  4. Cleaning/rubbing isopropyl alcohol. Some say to seek 90%+ but my expired 70% works just fine.
  5. Glue Stick.
  6. Hairspray. These are suggestions by different people to improve bed adhesion. I used to use hairspray but I’m rapidly a glue stick fan.
  7. Paper towels for the above, and maybe some cardstock for leveling.
  8. New plates. Some people use a glass plate to print on and swear by it. I use a golden (fancy plastic) PEI plate now, and it’s really, really nice. It’s magnetic one for my Ender 3.
  9. Calipers. You don’t need them to print a little statue, but if you’re going to print interlocking parts, you can’t afford to be 2mm off. Having this accurate tiny ruler is useful for calibration.
  10. A desk, trash a workspace. 3D printing has a lot of fun and small misc output you’ll toss aside, and you’ll want a place to fiddle. I have an IKEA desk organized for this purpose. I decided to keep all my “interesting garbage” from the beginning in a tiny box, and it’s a fun show and tell bag full of stories to tell.

Calibration and Testing: Problems You Might Have

Not sticking. (Filament go BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR)
Elephant foot.
Not sticking.
Melty tips.
Why the $#!+ isn’t it sticking.

You’re going to have one of these happen. It’s only a matter of time, and you don’t really have a good feel for how to easily avoid them until each happens.

Don’t despair! 99% of print failures happen on the first layer. What this means is most of the time, if you can watch it and make it to layer 2 or 3, you’re in the clear. Only a few min wasted ’til you get it right. The exception is in supports, which you’ll learn how to do over time. So here is all of my advice on various printing problems.
You may not need to remember any of this. It’s here in case you get stuck.

  1. Level your print bed. Every couple prints or when you do a really tall one, you’ll want to check this. You should be able to slide a piece of cardstock paper (like a business card) under the head without the paper being scored and/or demolished by it. Watch people do it on YouTube. Closely. You’ll get it with practice. Don’t go too far down or it’ll tear up your bed.
  2. Clean and (re?)sticky-fy your print bed. Apparently finger grease really reduces grip. I use alcohol and then a glue stick mixed with it like Maker’s Muse taught me. I’m a good boy.
  3. Get your head temperature right. Start with expected default temperature, but you can run a common tower print with labels where you adjust it to see what looks prettiest. Stringing happens when it’s too hot and you get a little spider webbing.
  4. Get your BED temperature right. If your bed is too cold, the prints won’t stick. If it is too hot, they will start to stick and then be ripped off soon after. I had the latter at 60C and for some small prints I turn it down to 55 or 50. The lower you can safely turn this, the less elephant foot you get on the bottom, if your bed is level and not too low.
  5. Don’t hold in one spot. A slicer may not be smart enough to not do this, so if you’re doing a sharp upward point that goes blobby try printing a thin cylinder nearby to force it to move the head away for a second. You can’t always just turn the head colder while it’s printing. Too cold and you get another problem. I solved a serious problem with a pair of earrings I made (printed upright for quality) simply by printing both at once! hahaha
  6. Regulate air flow. Warping happens if the bed isn’t sticky on the ends and the bed is hot and the air above is cold. If the bottom of the print is hot and the top is cold, it might bend up off the plate and disappear that part of the print. If still you really struggle, try buying an enclosure for your printer. Warping on long skinny things is the hardest to fix.
  7. Retraction and Z-Hop. Now we’re getting into slicer setting territory. If you tell it to suck in (retraction) before it travels more, it will not drag strings as much. If you enable a z-hop, it will move up a hair before going over, and not rip tiny prints off the plate.
  8. Rafts. Slicers can print thin little platforms around your print to FIRMLY GRASP the plate. Try this if you’re printing something skinny and tall that barely touches the plate, like a kazoo for your undeserving toddlers.

Design Stuff

I’m just now beginning this so I don’t have a lot of professional advice other than take the time to learn new tools. I’ve already printed things I made in Blender and have a very crisp STL from Fusion 360 I’m waiting to print, but my advice is “pick a tool and learn how to model”. Computer modelling is and endless rabbit hole of stuff that you don’t need for printing. Look up video tutorials like this Fusion 360 playlist I’m following. You just need to know how to make something geometrically and put it in an STL. If you’ve printed things before trying to design like I’ve suggested, that’s all there is to it.
It’s no different than slicing any other STL, as long as you cleaned up your vertices and didn’t make a mess of your faces if you’re using a less smart tool.

Tools in the wild right now include Blender, TinkerCAD, FreeCAD, Fusion 360, a bunch of expensive corporate products for metal shop machining, and a bunch of 3D animation and game modelers like Blender and Maya. If you can make a 3D model, you can print a 3D object. Worst case using one of those, import it into Blender and make Blender do the conversion to an STL. Preferably without Adob- I mean Autodesk stealing all your money, yet the snots are still in this paragraph three times somehow.

Internet On Your Side

If you want to get into modding or participate in the community, you can check out some of these.

Maker’s Muse on YouTube. At this point I deserve a sponsorship deal. But seriously there’s nothing you’ll ever ask that he hasn’t answered. (Unless it’s an absurd question in which case see CNC Kitchen lol)
Major Hardware on YouTube. He’s a dork. Look for a playlist of his ongoing custom CPU fan showdown.
CNC Kitchen on YouTube for crazy experiment entertainment.
You’ll also see Modbot, Make Anything, Integza, Let’s Print, Stuff Made Here, and all the other somewhat clickbaity channels, take whatever inspiration from them you will. 3D printing is a place where the amount of potential vastly exceeds the ideas people have had, so feel free to wander best-prints clickbait looking for ideas and you won’t be disappointed.
https://www.reddit.com/r/3Dprinting/ for a community to lurk on and imitate. They made a Getting Started wiki for you too!
I lurk on https://www.reddit.com/r/ender3/. I’m sure there’s more forums like it for other printers.

Material Design: Meta-Aesthetic for Noobs

I’m still stuck on a problem with my React Native code handling events, so for now let’s…talk about something else. Design.

One of the skills everyone who has modern dreams of making things needs to have is design. Unfortunately, too many artistic people get so wrapped up in their own aesthetic they make things horrifically unwieldy. Incidentally, the same problem happens with scientific and rational people, who get so caught up with abstract functionality they too can bury it in plain sight.

Google decided the world needed to merge the arts and the techs into something that made sense in all resolutions, so they started a project that I still revisit again and again, and it’s called Material Design.

You’ve seen it before. It’s an attempt to make user interfaces on apps for desktop, web, mobile, tablets, … pick your screen, to not be terrible. Apple are the only big holdouts trying to do their own thing, but if you use anything else, you’ve seen it. Windows 8 onward uses parts of it. It’s not the only design system. What’s important to understand is that it is a very good system that gives the average person an easy go-to for making something usable.

I highly recommend, if you have any desire for taste at all, that you spend some time with it (if you haven’t heard of it). You don’t need to be in my line of work. It’s about learning how to convey a brand or identity. Start here. They offer seven studies they did, seven comprehensive thought through examples across industries and products, to design fictional apps to show what it would look like.

Seven Designy Samples

Basil is a cooking and recipe example with an eye to food. It’s green and orange on yellow scheme is one that would make little sense anywhere else. It’s all in on evoking something memorable and showing off a list-making app of ingredients and instructions with pictures. It’s a catalog architecture, like a library.

Crane is a travel and booking example. If anything it shows that even purple can be made professional. It’s a great education on calendaring, communicating options with locations, outings, and availability. They show off picking an airline seat and timetables, and then cover doing a checkout or browsing resorts. It relies on a flow architecture, the pattern of having a linear process of steps for the user to walk through.

Fortnightly is a news example. Simple enough. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if you’re more familiar with apps designed like this. It’s all about content, content, content. Articles everywhere, a search, and readability maxed a user can get through what’s being said. I think it’s a good way to show having a memorable brand while still being super mininal, and out-of-the-way “read-friendly”. It’s also a catalog structure like Basil.

Owl is an education example. It goes hard for vibrant primary colors. The spirit of it is to have totally different main colors depending on what you’re doing, giving you a way to have multiple aesthetics within your one aesthetic. They use yellow for customizing, blue for browsing, and a red/magenta accent for the learning process, which shows a plain white or dark mode for learning/reading and watching videos. The architecture is hub and spoke, where each section has a hub, and each hub has leaf nodes – the “spokes” are the lessons in a course hub. Think of it as a tree structure, but designed as if it’s just a couple tiny ones, each root is the hub, with a bunch of immediate leaves.

Rally is a money example. It takes night mode and runs with it. The color emphasis is subtle gray variants, with a rainbow of thinly used palettes, using one accent here, and another there. The focus of this one is data representation. Bars, pie charts, graphs, wheels, goals, up/down fluctuations, and transaction listings. It also focuses on doing good warnings and other notifications. It’s a hierarchical structure.

Reply is a communication example. It’s modeled after an inbox and smells like GMail (gee, i wonder why /s). Man if only GMail was as nice as this however. It’s plain like Fortnightly, but picks excellent accents. This one shows off a text-with-pics communication medium. It shows a way to cram people into an interface with nice little avatars or “to:” fields.It has an inbox-like architecture, we’ve all used one. You have inbox,trash,drafts, etc.

Shrine is a retail example. Kinda has an Etsy or Pinterest vibe, but soft pink. It puts emphasis on how to give each image maximum attention, with some very unusual organization approaches. It does color and size selection components, but the primary goal is to give way to the products themselves, to make whatever image is placed on it pop. One pattern it shows is having a cart. As you might guess, it’s a catalog architecture.

Each of them gives you a different example of how to take a very particular kind of data and make it do its job. Basil is recipes(lists+instructions), Crane is linear signup, Fortnightly is journalism, Owl is schooling, Rally is number crunching, Reply is socializing, Shrine is sales. The seven can show a how-to, plan, read, learn, calculate, correspond, or buy design setup, respectfully.

One of the most painful parts of seeing good design studies is you’ll wish you could use these very apps that are pretend. I love Fortnightly’s aesthetic so much I’d wish to see it repurposed for something bigger than mail. I would have to put Shrine as least impressive myself, but it’s not meant for people like me so maybe I’m biased. Which one is your favorite? Least? Which one do you think does its job best?