Background and overview of the 3D printing process

Despite what you may have read from the latest tech magazine, 3D printing has been around a while.  Until recently, this technology has been primarily only available to large corporations, due to the complexity and costs involved.  Thanks to the reduction in costs for software and simplification of hardware, we now have printers available to many hobbyists and small businesses.  This explosion in number of users with low-cost 3D printers has driven the industry to make many advances, and is considered by most to be just the beginning of a much larger industry.  If you ever read the phrase 3D printing is dead, know youve just been click-baited by someone who likely has near zero experience or understanding of the capabilities of technology in the 20th and 21st centuries.

There are many types of 3D printers.  The previously mentioned explosion of 3D printer users are using the FDM, or also called FFF printer type.  These printers use filament (plastic typically sold in spools of 1kg or so) which is melted and ejected from a small diameter nozzle layer-by-layer, where it then cools and solidifies.  FDM printers are more or less, the least expensive, most flexible, but provide the least quality part of all 3D printers types.  FDM printers create parts in a variety of affordable plastics or alloys, and depending on user settings, can produce fine detail, and large functional parts.  These printers are limited to filament which can be melted and extruded through a small diameter nozzle.  FDM machines can extrude almost all of the available plastics, but some work better than others.  Some of these plastics are mixed with metals, glass, and carbon fiber to produce alloys with unique properties.

FDM printers use several softwares to take concepts from imagination to reality.  Depending on a users needs, this software can be completely free for use or cost tens of thousands.  The basic process is the following:

This can begin bydownloading a dumb (non-editable) 3D modelin .stl or .obj format, in which case there is no need to open the model in yourCAD software.  Your CAD software can manipulate existing editable models or create one from scratch.  Many CAD softwares are available with a wide range of capabilities, the minimum of which is outputting .stl files.  Your CAD software is not only your gateway to creating your own 3D prints or editing others, but can help you create, analyze, and makewellanything.

Open your model file (.stl or .obj) in yourslicer software,

which is most often also the printer controller software.  The slicer software places your model on a virtual printer bed and  is where your 3D printing parameters are defined.  When the printing parameters (orientation, nozzle size, perimeter numbers, infill %, of parts, supports, etc) are set one will click a slice button, which processes the 3D model into layers of what is called G-code, or NC-code.  This G-code is a text file of printer vector moves and commands by which your printer follows these control commands.  Once the G-code file is created, a part can be printed via USB connection to the printer or by saving the G-code file on an SDcard.

Running your machine will involve ensuring your part adheres properly to the bed(see bed adhesion)and loading enough filament to complete your print.  As everything in life, running your printer takes time to master.  There are TONS of variables involved in printing a part, and every filament type has different physical properties.  Many variables make no or only subtle changes in your 3D print, and many are rules which must be followed.  Following standard REPRAP printing practices is actually quite simple, despite the the overwhelming amount of information and settings one is first presented with.  Once understood your printer is quite simple and is unquestionably the easiest way to create a physical part with complex geometry.

Background and overview of the 3D printing process

Showroom quality parts (post processing)