How 3D Printing works
3D printing is not a new technology. It has been around since the 80s but it never really caught on in the consumer market until the 2000s. What is this technology and how does it work?
The first thing a person needs to know is 3D is the absolute wild west. At this moment any person can think up an idea for an object, design it and have the physical item in days. There are no gatekeepers either. Anyone can begin creating, which is why you are reading this.
3D printing works like this. We come up with an idea for a thing. In my case, I wanted 1.64 scale parts I could consistently order versus make by hand. Basically save myself time. Plus, there are models I want manufacturers like Ertl, Speccast and First Gear cannot make due to licensing or low demand. A company like Ertl diecast for example makes their money by producing high volumes of low detail models for the most part. If I want a high detail model of an obscure piece of farm equipment, 3D allows me to get that item. Or, additional parts can be made for stock pieces to make them better.
Once a model has been chosen, detailed measurements and pictures are used to design the model in engineering software. Basically create the item in a digital file once completed, a 3D printer can read. A printer creates our parts by laying down layer upon layer of material until the item is made.
3D parts are commonly produced in a variety of plastics, resin, and metals. Other materials are available as well. When the parts are modeled, saved in the proper format then printed (think 3D printer blueprints), we have taken something out of our imaginations and brought to life.
What is 3D printing used for
As mentioned above, I use 3D printing for creating redundant parts I handmade at one time. This was a huge time saver for doing custom builds for others. The parts or models can be purchased on demand and make custom building more consistent. By having the parts manufactured they are all identical.
Not only can parts be made, but as I mentioned, products that toy manufacturers will not bring to market can be made. This is especially useful for people that want retired models from a generation ago. Typically toy manufactures like to make current year toys for collectors and for play. With 3D, older antique models can be brought to life and enjoyed.
For years I have had a love affair with end dump grain trucks. There was company that manufactured a model that was great at the time but it did not look like anything I was used to seeing where I live. Actually, I had never seen a real one like that except on the toy. With 3D, I could find real truck beds that I liked, measure them, have them designed, then have a very cool looking model that no manufacturer would take time to make.
3D printed models are also great for prototyping. This is more commonly used in industrial settings where a 3D part can be made in an inexpensive plastic to see how it will look. This is a great way for companies to see a life sized part, how it will look, feel, and behave before a part goes into mass production. Imagine a team of people working tirelessly on a part only to have a commercially manufactured sample arrive all wrong. 3D printing saves money and time by utilizing cheaper materials and faster turn around.
Is 3D printing expensive?
The best answer to this is yes….and no.
First, there is the question, can we use design software or not? In my case I have not taken time to learn 3D design so I pay others to do design work for me. This is an additional expense to the cost of the project I’m working on. Regarding design, it is very learnable. There are all sorts of free software options on the internet and plenty of free tutorials that a person can be self taught with patience. This is a definite option for lower budget creators.
Regarding the 3D printable models, let’s say we like to design jewelry and find a printer that can create our 3D design in precious metals like gold or platinum. In that case yes it would be expensive due to the chosen material. However, print that same item in a low detail plastic and the object becomes inexpensive.
The two common factors that influence price will be the size of an object and the material we choose to print that item. I make a variety of 1/64 scale bumpers for semi trucks. Think no bigger than a quarter. In high detail plastic the bumper costs $7.50. In natural brass the same bumper is $12.50. When I graduate into printing a grain bed that is 3 3/4″ long, 1 1/2″ wide and 15/16″ tall the prices are $30 in a low detail plastic and $52 in a high detail plastic. To print is brass is over $600.
One thing we have not discussed yet is owning a printer versus using a third party company to print items. 3D printers have a variety of price points and the finish of the final pieces are reflected in the price of each printer.
For example, a desktop 3D printer that costs $200 will not produce a final product that is smooth, elegant and highly detailed as a $1,000 printer. And, a $1,000 printer will not print as well as a $5,000. The factor that influences these price points is the material each printer is using to create the final piece and the resolution of the printer. Resolution meaning how fine the layers are of printed material.
I mentioned above that a printer makes an item by laying down layer upon layer of material. The resolution determines how thick those layers are and how well they can be seen with the naked eye. A $200 printer will have visible layers. A $5,000 printer will have very fine layers harder to see. Even negligible.
Is 3D printing expensive? It can be, but does not have to be. If a person has a teachable spirit, willingness to learn, and uses third party printers, the process can be very affordable for beginners.
Are 3D parts strong?
There are a couple ways to answer this question. The first way is yes. Many plastics, resins and metals are very strong to make parts and for prototyping. Most $200 lower detail printers up to high detail printers will produce a product that can be used and withstand some abuse. Having said that, there are some printed plastics that are brittle and do not withstand some temperatures. Plastics used to print very detailed models with thin parts can be delicate. The trade off is the ability to print very detailed accurate pieces with thin parts that are delicate. Or, lower grade plastics that are very strong but do not allow fine detail. The strength of 3D printable models hinges on the type of material used to print the item and the level of precision desired.
Each printer that could be purchased will tell the buyer exactly what strength to expect from the machine. Third party printers will have a material list describing what to expect from each material offered and design tolerances which is a great added feature.
Can 3D printing use metal?
Yes! A variety of metals can be used in 3D printing including steel, bronze, brass, stainless steel, and precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum. At the moment, to print with metals can be cost prohibitive depending on the size of an object. As the technology progresses, hopefully we will get to a point that is more affordable for common items we might want.
What do I need to get started?
What do I need to get started making my imagination come to life with 3D printing. First, we need 3D printing designs. So far we have discussed that we can learn how to design using paid or free programs and watching free tutorials. We could even take classes at a university or community college to learn design as well.
A few free design software programs include Tinkercad, Sketchup, and Blender. These are three choices among many free programs that can be downloaded and used to make 3D designs. Paid options offer more features and can be more robust than free versions. Subscriptions vary in cost and include Autocad, Inventor and Solidworks. These are professional design programs often found in engineering firms. One thing to look for are student versions if we happen to be enrolled in a university. This allows students to have access to the programs at a deep discount.
Another option to find 3D printer design plans is to go to a website like thingiverse, pinshape, or all3dp and see if someone has already made a 3D design of a thing we want and either buy the file or even download it for free. This idea is a long shot as it is pretty rare someone has taken time to make a specific part or add on kit for a 1985 X model in X scale for example. However, it could be worth spending an hour searching websites for the 3D printer patterns if we are on an extreme budget.
After we have secured our 3D printer blueprints, we need to either buy a 3D printer or use a third party that would make the physical item in the digital file we have. We have learned printers can be bought at all different price points and vary in resolution at each price point. The main question to ask is “do I want to see print layers or not”. Remember, 3D printed models are made layer upon layer. The more we spend on a printer, the less visible those layers will be, giving a smoother surface with more detail.
One thing not mentioned yet, unlike a desktop inkjet or laser printer, 3D printers do require an amount of skill to set up and maintain. This is very learnable and should be considered. There is also the purchase of additional material to make the actual items. That will have to be resupplied.
Readers may be surprised to learn I do not own a 3D printer. Thus far I have used third party companies to create all my prints. To date I have used Shapeways, Imaterialize, 3D Hubs, and Facfox. I will discuss each company in the next section.
Which 3D printing company is best?
This is a great question to ask, which 3D printing company is the best. One of the popular companies is Shapeways.com. Shapeways is a great company for the following reasons. One, they offer a wide variety of materials to print in. From entry level versatile plastics to high detail plastics with choices in between to a variety of metals and even sandstone. One of my favorite features of Shapeways is, a person can open a store and sell your own designs for a profit!
Shapeways works this way, I have a 3D design, it is uploaded to the Shapeways website for free. The material the object will be printed is chosen, the quantity is chosen, it is paid for and 8-10 days later the item(s) are in my mailbox. Then, I can open a store and make my digital file visible to the public and sell the prints. If my cost is $10, I can list the item for sale and mark the item up at any profit I choose. Not only can I get cool parts and things I want, I can sell them to others and make money on my designs. And the greatest feature yet! Shapeways does all the shipping and customer care. This means we do not have to have our own website or shopping cart to sell our parts and models. For a small fee Shapeways will do it for us.
Another bonus for using Shapeways, there are online message boards to help people at all levels. From showing off our physical items we had created to finding designers to make our 3D printing blueprints. There are specific boards in the Shapeways community to help us along the way which are very valuable.
I.materialize is a second company I have used for 3D prints. This company is Belgian owned and offers many features as Shapeways. I have found it is not quite as user friendly as Shapeways. The reason I began using it is to explore other companies and, I.materialize offers a quantity discount. This means the price per item goes down the more that is ordered. For example, one print might cost $15. If I order five prints of a model or part, they might cost $10 per part. This feature is very handy for bulk orders. One downfall to I.materialize is the company is “picky” about files we would upload to print.
What I mean by picky, each material has design parameters. This means if we want to print in brass, that material has specific tolerances that might be different than versatile plastic. I.materialize will reject our 3D printer plans if our digital file does not explicitly adhere to the design standards for each material. More on this later. I.materialize does have store capabilities as Shapeways has and an online community for additional support. Although, I.materialize community is not quite as robust as Shapeways.
3Dhubs is a website where people all over the world with 3D printers offer to print our items for us. Imagine there are five people in your neighborhood that each own a 3D printer. You tell each person I want a print of this model in high detail plastic. Two neighbors tell you “sorry, I cannot print detail plastic”. Three neighbors say “yes I can print that for you”. The first neighbor offers to print your design for $5, the second $7.50 and the third $9. We can choose who will do the printing on our behalf. Now, magnify this method with the internet. That is how 3Dhubs works. At this time there are no capabilities for a store.
Facfox is a Chinese company I have been using for all bulk orders. I say bulk orders as to order one part can be expensive due to the shipping cost. For prototype work this expense is unavoidable. However, if we own 3D designs that have printed successfully with other companies, Facfox offers a very economical way to print. The entry level materials are resins which offer a very nice finish at a fraction of the cost of similar materials that can be found at other companies. Check out my blogpost where I go into detail explaining the difference of Facfox to other companies. Like 3Dhubs, there are no capabilities for a store or online community.
What you should know about contacting a 3D printing company
Third party printers can best be described as helpful. They make money by printing designs for us. It is in their best interest to help us get our designs created. That being said, it is worthwhile to research their websites and look at their policies on returns, broken parts, design parameters. In the case of Shapeways and I.materialize, what kind of customer care they offer. This is especially important if we happen to have a known brand in a hobby or other kind of niche. It could be damaging to our brand if the customer care is not great.
Questions to ask BEFORE choosing a 3D printing company
A couple of important questions to consider BEFORE uploading our designs to a third party printing company.
1- Who retains the intellectual property of our designs?
At this moment, the companies I have used DO NOT assume any intellectual rights to design uploads. Each design remains my property to do with as I wish. It would be unusual if this was not the case with any third party printer but it is worth asking. Especially in the with printers that may not reside in the same country. Or, a vague online freelance printer.
2- What happens if my design is rejected?
This can be frustrating as we learn design parameters for specific materials we want our finished items in. Does the company give some indication where problem areas in our 3D design are? Or, are we left to figure out the design flaws on our own? This is a big deal.
Problems when 3D printing
It is worth stating that I love 3D printing. It is also worth stating there is a learning curve that can be significant. Not to mention, it is not uncommon for me to hear fellows say something like “I am not into computers”.
Really though, if a person has a teachable spirit and can navigate Facebook, being able to 3D print is not that far ahead. And, it does not hurt to be a bit stubborn while figuring things out.
Here is a variety of problems with 3D printing.
Problem #1 – Overcoming technology.
Not only is there the potential need to learn how to use engineering software to create 3D designs, there is buying and setting up an actual printer. When purchasing a 3D printer, an ability to read and comprehend technical instruction is vital. Each machine requires an amount calibration to print items correctly. Tables need leveled, nozzles need cleaned and maintained among other things. In addition, each machine has its own software so the digital file can be manipulated to orient the object correctly. Again, very much learnable but does take time and can be scary.
Problem #2 – For those hiring paid help to do 3D model design (which is what I do).
Finding good designers that are affordable is a huge challenge. Often, the most affordable designers for me are from outside the United States. This presents a whole new set of challenges with language and understanding. What makes sense in English may not translate well with a person whose English is a second language. It is hard enough instructing a person in the same language to understand well what I want. It is a new level when dealing with a person from another country. I often coach people to create a common vocabulary so design needs are crystal clear.
Problem #3 – Expectation and technology.
I have had a few people reach out disappointed with their designs. It is true 3D tech has limitations. The disappointment usually comes from people who are price sensitive and those who are very exact about design. The price sensitive people have expectations their end product will be cheap. That is true for some parts, they are inexpensive. It is good to keep in mind, parts that existed only in imagination and are now available in small amounts are generally a bit more in price than a piece made from scratch or mass produced.
The group of people who are very exact about scale and detail can find their finished designs very delicate and expensive. In some cases, the design cannot be made at all. All 3D print materials have design limitations. If details on our models do not meet these minimum standards, the models may be rejected until the digital model is edited. What happens is some details can be lost as they simply do meet the minimum tolerances. Or, the details may need to be exaggerated distorting how they look on the finished piece.
Problem #4 – “What if someone copies my design?”
This phrase is something I hear from people in hobby niches. My question is this “who cares if a design is copied?” When 3D printing is used in hobby niches to create parts and models manufacturers are not interested in, some designers will get pretty mad when someone copies the same real world model. Here is the problem, if I make a copy of a real item and another person does the same, whose intellectual property did we infringe upon? Not each other. Nor the manufacturer for that matter. Neither my copy nor another person will be exact to the real thing. There will be resemblance and that is all.
If a design is original to a creator, now we get into intellectual property rights that can be challenged.
I stated at the beginning that 3D printing is the “wild west”. Never in human history can a person with an idea bring that idea to life for fun or profit so easily. There are no gatekeepers. Depending on how a person proceeds, the technology can be very affordable and available to anyone with internet access.
To all 3D printers who are absolute beginners, now is your time to begin. Be sure to read the next articles that will go into more detail about the ideas presented here.
Like what you have read so far? Dive deeper with 3D Printing the Smart Way Part 1