Home > Computing > What is 3D printing? A beginner’s guide to the…

What is 3D printing? A beginner’s guide to the desktop factory

We all know the 3D printing has potential, but so do a good deal of other things. Yet, unlike others — Beyonce and Jay-Z’s baby, for example — 3D printing is already beginning to live up to the supposed hype. The machines are seemingly a big deal, especially since the landscape is finally beginning to change as a result of more approachable 3D printers designed with the average joe in mind. They may not possess the innate allure of the Star Trek “Replicator,” but the technology is inciting major breakthroughs that go beyond mere trinkets and plastic wares. Modern 3D printers can now create everything synthetic human organs and 12,000-square-foot mansions to some of most elaborate desserts you’ll ever see — all at the fraction of previous costs.

Essentially, 3D printers are on the cusp of changing modern engineering as we know it. Nonetheless, the technology can still be rather intimidating to use if you’re not aware of what it is and how it works. The guide below will fill you in on the basics, outline some major achievements in the space, and explain how you can enter the 3D-printing fanfare should you decide to. Hell, we’ll even inform you on how print 3D objects without actually buying a printer. How’s that for comprehensive?

Related: Will you print your next PC? A reality check on 3D printing

What is 3D printing?

In a nutshell, 3D printing is the process of making a physical object from a virtual model. The process is similar to the ink-and-paper printers with which we’re all familiar, but instead of traditional ink, 3D printers squeeze out a variety of different filaments and print layer-by-layer until the virtual model is reproduced in physical form. This layer-by-layer approach is called additive manufacturing, and until recently, was mostly used to print solid objects such as models and toys using plastic. Today, though, 3D printers utilize a melange of different types of filaments, from chocolate and cement to regenerating tissue. Additive manufacturing isn’t a new concept, but 3D printing servers as a quicker and more precise alternative to older engineering methods such as sculpting and forging. Plus, the process is typically less expensive.

Getting started

Nowadays, consumer-based 3D printing is making its way to individuals and businesses by way of desktop printers. Websites such as Thingiverse, a social network that allows you to browse a host of 3D-modeled objects, provide a pretty good idea regarding the sheer variety of 3D-printed models currently on the market. Moreover, every model on Thingiverse is available as a free download and already optimized for 3D printing.

drone 3d printed header

The blueprints for this 3D printed drone are free on Thingiverse

Joining your local workshop specializing in digital fabrication, such as Hackerspace or Fablab, is a great starting point for getting into 3D printing. The community work area will provide you the necessary space and resources to get you up to speed, allowing you to test your hand at 3D printing without having to opt for a dedicated machine of your own. If you’re not sure where to go, the website Hackerspaces outlines local “Makers” in your area with the appropriate contact information.

The two essential steps for 3D printing

You’re probably wondering, is 3D printing really that easy? The short answer is no, and it’s certainly not for the impatient. The process is a DIY project at its most hardcore, one that often requires you to spend hours or even days troubleshooting and banging your head against a wall. For the sake of brevity, though, we’ve outlined an essential two-step method that likely goes into every 3D printing venture. We suggest locating the nearest hackerspace for a more involved guide, but if you don’t troubleshooting, keep reading.

Step 1: Design a 3D model. Websites such as BlenderGoogle SketchUp, and Tinkercad all offer free tools dedicated to designing and exporting 3D models. Alternatively, you can peruse the robust libraries of Thingiverse or 3D Warehouse for one of thousands of pre-made models designed and posted for your viewing pleasure. Afterward, you merely need to download the proper “coordinates.”

Step 2: Print the 3D model. After creating or downloading the “coordinates” for your design, you’ll need to send the information to a 3D printer to finish the process. The printer will then use a special thermoplastic to turn your virtual design into a physical model. Alternatively, you can use a service such as Sculpteo if you don’t posses a printer of your own. They’ll print and mail you your model for you.

Related: Manufacturing the future: How 3D printing when from pipe dream to your desktop

Next Page: Recommended models and the future of 3D printing

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: