A mere 5–6 years ago 3D printing was a very expensive hobby. There was lots of hype around it and every nerd or curious maker enthusiast wanted one. The problem was two-fold: 3D printers were expensive, often in the thousands of dollars for an entry level model and secondly, it was ssssllllllooooooow. How slow? It would take 5–6 hours to make a 3cm x 1.5cm x 0.3cm monogram with one of my kid’s initials. In 2015 I distinctly remember (at a tech conference) a booth with 2 big, “professional” 3D printers was 3D printing stuff for people in exchange for a badge scan. It was a 5-day conference and by the end of the 5th day, they were still printing things (all small, simple shapes) requested the first day. Both of those things were a huge turn off for most people — including myself.
Fast forward to earlier this year. Out of sheer and bored curiosity I began looking into 3D printing again, as a potential creative outlet. The first thing I was pleasantly surprised about is how active, creative and helpful the surrounding community was, in particular reddit’s 3D Priting Sub. Then the next pleasant surprise is how affordable 3D printers have become, they’re officially now at the “impulse buy” price range for most people ($200–350):
- Creality Ender 3, sells for $179
- AnyCubic i3 Mega S, sells for $250 (often less if you wait for a sale)
- Prusa MINI, the most full-featured of entry level, sells for $350
After looking around for user reviews, use cases and so forth I ended up deciding for the AnyCubic i3 Mega S. It comes mostly assembled and a ton of needed accessories. I was able to put it together in about half an hour (mostly making sure repeatedly I hadn’t skipped any steps — which I’m infamous for).
At this stage it is important that we discuss safety. At a very basic level all 3D printers are micro-plastic melters. In goes a polymer filament, out goes a millimeter wide string in molten form. Many of these polymers (PLA, TPU, ABS, etc.) contain chemicals that are released in gas form (in very small quantities) in the melting process. So you need to find a place with access to good air flow or a window and keep children and pets at a distance while in use.
The second step was leveling and calibrating the printing bed. This took me a a little while to figure out because you want to get it right otherwise you can either damage the extruder or lousy print results. This step took me about 20 minutes.
Once convinced I had leveled the bed correctly, I installed the filament, which was far trickier than I originally thought given the filament duct tube was the same color as the filament, so I couldn’t tell with certainty whether the filament was feeding into the extruder correctly. After some trial and error, I got it working.
With all user steps completed, it’s off to the races. The first print was a sample that came with the printer, a pair of superb owls. The print took about an hour and 20 minutes.
There are so many interesting things to print out there. I highly recommend browsing Thingverse, from which I’m printing a pretty awesome chess piece set, for sort of community created models. Yeggi is a really solid 3D model search engine and aggregator.
But that only whets your creative appetite. To really satiate that hunger, you need to design and create your own things. Here is where things can get a bit more expensive and/or time consuming. The first thing we need to level-set about this is this: 3D modeling/CAD is hard and has a steep learning curve. Software varies from intuitive but trivial to incomprehensible but full-featured. So these are questions you need to ask: how seriously do you want to get into this hobby and how much previous experience do you have? If you have next to nothing in terms of 3D modeling experience, I highly recommend you watch some YouTube videos and/or blog post about the subject. The 3D Printing subreddit wiki has a great wiki page about this subject, which I recommend you peruse. Personally I know next to nothing about 3D modeling, so I went to the most basic 3D modeling software I could find and tinkercad (which is also kid friendly) to learn the essentials and try your hand at basic 3D modeling. Once you have a vague idea what to do, you could jump to Autodesk Fusion 360 for a more featured experience, which has a good community surrounding it and lots of resources on the web. If you have good 3D modeling experience under your belt, you could use Blender — but be warned, if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll feel so, so, so very lost.
After you create your models and render for printing, you’ll need to pass it through a slicer. A slicer is a piece of software often included with your printer that, as its name would lead to believe, slices your model and generates code your 3D printer understands.
In closing, if you gave 3D printing a try a few years ago, but couldn’t afford it or couldn’t get past the glacial speed at which things were printed, I highly recommend taking a gander again. You might be surprised how things have changed, in a good way.