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.

It’s Time for You to 3D Print

Everyone I talk to seems interested in 3D printing but hasn’t pulled the trigger on buying one yet. Why? They’re getting stupidly cheap.

Every decade or so a new technology comes along that changes the way society functions. This has been true for almost a century. One of the problems I’m noticing in recent years is that there’s a decline or split in this cycle. People seem to be declining opportunities to try something new. Maybe they look at the new thing as an oddity, or a fad. Maybe times are tough, maybe they’re skeptical that it’s for them. It’s new, it’s too complicated, or something like that. Then they go and get the next gaming console that’s not noticeably better than the last one, or sit in front of [latest B-quality show] on [streaming service].

We’ve had virtual reality and 3D printing for years now but they haven’t had the success that home paper printers or walkmans and iPods did long ago. I don’t see all the cool kids on the internet doing things like VR for more than a single video for clicks. It’s a lot of fun, and should be the wave of the future if more of the average people signed on to be a part of it. But it remains only a gimmick.

I feel like we’ve fallen into a cynical postmodern age, where we no longer believe in the new and the modern. I really think it’s going to hurt us if we don’t find a way to break free. You can’t have hope for the future if it’s not something you want to participate in! If I can’t get you to write software, at least maybe I can get you to learn to make things this way. More fun for less effort.

I guess what I want people to hear from me this fall season of a dismal 2020 is that the future is for you. What’s mainly stopping us from moving forward personally and as a civilization is ourselves, far as I can tell. We aren’t daring to dream of what could be anymore. Too many of us are so caught up in worries about what’s in the news that we don’t have a vision anymore.

Remember when the internet was new? Remember when the whole world opened up before us? That’s what 3D printing is. If you’re in technology, the combination it with Arduino and Raspberry Pi allow you to make virtually anything you can dream of. The world is opening up to those getting into this and I see too many standing on the sidelines still. Go make an army of robots! Nothing’s stopping you anymore.

It’s time to start dreaming again. I’m still a novice at 3D printing but I already have a lot to show for it, and I haven’t even started designing yet! I’m just pouring excellent creations out of Thingiverse. GO TAKE A LOOK please. (The search is a little clunky with how they use URLs so navigate back to the home before doing another search, but there’s cool stuff everywhere.)

Right now you can get a popular (well supported by the community!) 3D printer called the Ender 3 Pro for a little over $200. Rolls of filament are all over Amazon for $20-$30 for a massive 1kg wheel. I don’t think i’ve used half my first wheel and now I’m stockpiling a bunch of new types. Look at some of this stuff! Color changing, glow in the dark, clear, metallic, even red ones with glitter inside you could make ornaments with! For those getting better at it, some printers and filament allow you to print wood. They have sawdust as the main component. Sounds like work to deal with its issues, but the products are gorgeous, just l0ok up some YouTube videos.

I think we’re long overdue for everyone, and I do mean everyone, to own a 3D printer. Long, long overdue. This is bigger than AOL or iPods. I don’t know why it took me so long. It’s time for you to dive in when you have a weekend to toy with it. There’s a lot of things you can make with 3D printing that are hard to make with traditional plastic molding used for the stuff you see in toy aisles. I’ll be making one of those zip cord helicopter disk launchers in the next week or so. I’ve just been printing whatever looks good, and soon i’ll be coming up with my own things.

We’re living in an era of game-changers that many of us are letting blow right by us as we work our day jobs and then waste time talking about events on social media. The darkness of winter is coming and it’s time for you to add something to your spirit and mental health if you haven’t, and it’s never been easier to learn to do something more exciting. Do yourself a favor and make a flexi rex, and giggle as it wiggles. Be able to say I made this.