3D Printing – Intro.


About 4-5 years ago, I started hearing about 3D Printing and I thought at the time that it was an interesting, but maybe a little gimmicky an idea. The first mention I remember of it was of a guy (student?) who made a 3D Printer in the desert using solar magnification (check it out) which could make things out of sand. Seemed pretty cool, but impractical. Then I heard about some companies who were prototyping toys with 3D printers. That made sense. Shortly thereafter, I heard about projects where you could get the plans and make your own, then kits became available, then you could buy a pre-built model.

For the longest time the idea grew on me, but whenever I would read about them, one thing was clear: prepare to spend more time tinkering with the 3D printer than actually making anything. That was kind of a bummer. As the past few years have passed, more companies have been born with different models of printers. Most people have heard of MakerBot, which was one of the earliest companies selling kits and pre-built models. At some point, I decided I was definitely going to make the jump, but there were so many options and every model seems to have serious pros and serious cons. There are $500 models and some that go all the way up to $3500+ (in the consumer line, I’m sure you can go to 6-figures easily in the pro lines) Reading reviews online didn’t help a whole lot because every model has good and bad reviews. When I changed jobs in February, I earmarkeda budget of $2500 from my signing bonus for it.

Once our house sold and we got moved in to our new place in Chattanooga (still a work-in-progress), I was ready. I decided on the Ultimaker 2 printer due to it’s quality and speed of printing, size of the printing area, and ease of use as reported by and consistently used by several YouTube folks I follow. Check out @Barnacules and his YouTube videos, Tested’s YouTube Review, and just do a search for Ultimaker on YouTube or Google). It was right at the $2500 budget mark. The other candidates were the Lulzbot Taz 5 (used by James Bruton extensively) and the MendelMax. I ruled out MakerBot’s products due to common failure issues, lack of multi-material support, and numerous bad reviews (pretty much nothing BUT bad reviews, really). 

I didn’t end up buying the Ultimaker. 

Something came up. Actually 2 things:

Printrbot Plus

1. A relatively new entry became available – the Printrbot Metal Plus (see the photo above)- which combined quality of printing, large build area, multiple filament support, nice form factor, and much cheaper price ($1199), though not nearly as fast at printing as the Ultimaker 2.

2. I started seeing videos of the Inventables X-Carve, which is a CNC Router, which allows you to create carvings from wood, MDF, and acrylic. As a person with a woodworking hobby, this thing looks awesome! 

Turns out I could buy both of these for the same price as just the Ultimaker 2 and will broaden what I can make a ton. Both use somewhat similar (kinda) tools. That seems like a better alternative and a good way to “get into” the hobby. One thing I’ve learned is that in the world of 3D printing, things change quickly. New options become available all the time. I suspect by the time my capabilities surpass the Printrbot, in 2-3 years, there will be something vastly superior on the market. If you’re reading this in the future, it’s September 27, 2015 as I write this.

I bought the Printrbot Plus earlier this month, and the experience has totally exceeded my expectations! (I’ll probably get the X-Carve next year, if time allows it.)

Common Questions

So far, people have asked some pretty consistent questions about the 3D printer thing:

1. Why?

For me, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m a geek and have a long-term fascination with 3D modeling. I’ve been dabbling with 3D modeling applications since high school in the late 80’s. I have always liked to draw. The process of creation is soothing and almost magical. 3D graphics seemed somewhat natural to me. Taking something that exists in your mind and creating a virtual object on paper or in the computer is pretty amazing. The 3D printer takes that to the next level. You can actually create a physical object that has never existed before and hold it in your hand. 

2. What can you print?

There are half a dozen or so repositories of pre-made objects designed by other people with access to 3D designing software (there are many options out there and many good options are actually free). People with 3D scanners can also scan in real-world objects and upload these as well. Every day, thousands of new objects are available to print. But the REAL magic is when you design something of your own. 

3. Can you print with metal?

Yes and no. There are dozens of filaments out there, all of which are thermo-plastic based. The printer works by taking a piece of filament 1.75mm in diameter, driving it through a heated extruder which melts the plastic at a precise temperature, and lays down a thin line of plastic about 0.4mm wide and about as thin as a sheet of paper. There are filaments that have real metal embedded in the plastic (copper, bronze, etc.), which after printing AND a fair amount of work afterwards actually has the look and feel of metal, but not the strength or conductivity. There are industrial printers that will print in real steel and other metals. You can design an object and send it to a printing company like Shapeways and they will print it, finish it, and mail it to you.

4. Is this for everybody?

Short answer – not yet. I think it’s still a few years away from the point at which these are as reliable as typical desktop hardware like a copier or regular printer. And probably more than a decade before they’re as commonplace as a microwave. At this point, I wouldn’t recommend most people spend the money on one unless you know what you’re going to create with it. And even then I would recommend spending some time writing down ideas and getting into 3D software first. Then you can try out Shapeways, or join a makerspace, or talk to a friend who already owns one of these things first. If you’re not interested in getting into 3D object design, and are planning on just printing objects made by others, I wouldn’t recommend it. There are quite a few things to print, and though it’s “neat,”it’s probably not “worth it.” (maybe with the exception of if you’re into Cosplay.) 

This is just the into piece to a series of blog posts I’m planning. For me, this is exciting stuff, and while there may not be a huge potential audience out there, it’s right up my alley, so I’m going to write a bout it. In closing, I’ll just add this. I’ve had this thing about 4 weeks now. I’ve learned a lot, and there is a lot left to learn.

Here’s what I’ve printed so far:

1. Low-poly versions of Mario, Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Zelda (these are great because they’re good for testing out settings and Luke LOVES them).

2. I’ve created 2 different versions of filament spool holders I’ve designed. This allows the spool of plastic to sit on top of the Printrbot and feed the extruder without requiring too much “pull” from the extruder’s drive gear. While the first version was pretty generic, the second version I’m pretty proud of. It’s specific to this printer and actually “snaps” into place.

Spool Holder

Spool Holder in use

3. Tool holders for things I find myself using a lot with the 3D printer – digital caliper, the included printrbot adjustment wrenches, a digital protractor.

4. A TV stand “adapter.” A couple years ago, we got the kids a 32” TV floor model at Best Buy. It was SUPER cheap, but didn’t have the TV stand part. Didn’t need it at first, but I thought I’d print one out. Then I realized I have another TV stand for a TV we had mounted on the wall, so I just decided to design an adapter to make that work. Ultimately this was a failure. Here’s the reason: I knew it was going to be pretty “iffy” for the thing to fit both sides I needed it to (both the TV and the mismatched stand) AND all the little screw holes needed to line up pretty tight. I designed it (in 123d Design, which was frustrating compared to Fusion 360 which I’m using now). It was going to take 8 hours to print and about 250g of material even at the lowest settings. So I cut it in half for test-fitting purposes and it still took 4 hours to print and used 125g of PLA. This thing was going to be about 6”x7” and pretty bulky. After all that work, it didn’t fit because I mis-calculated the offset of a part of the main slot. Ugh. Based on my frustration, I searched for that brand of TV on Amazon and found a generic VESA table mount for $23. 

The moral of the story here is: some things aren’t worth it to print. Both in time used and material. In this case, I’ll chock it up to a lesson learned.

5. A downloaded medallion of a certain group of super heroes. I think my daughter Megan will like it.

What am I working on?

1. I’m printing a downloaded TIE Advanced right now. This thing has a great level of detail and is looking great. I’m a big Star Wars fan, so this is just a cool factor thing. Plus, this will really be more about how to finish the object to get a great final look. I plan to sand it, fill it, prime it, paint it and end up with something that doesn’t look like it was 3D printed. Kind of like model kit building, really.

IMG 0565

IMG 0569


2. Feet for the PrintrBot. The printer is about 14” wide. The frame is only about 6” deep, but the bed travels 10” forward and back. When the prints are finished, the bed moves all the way forward and often the machine feels like it’s going to tip over while I’m fighting to get the finished print off the bed. I’m going to design some “feet” to stabilize and support it.

3. I have a 13” Cintiq monitor that I use for photoshop. With my new setup, I’m actually using this as a 2nd display (usually has Spotify or iTunes on it, or a YouTube video). It has a “stand” but it’s more for holding it at a low angle as you draw on the surface. I’m planning on designing a small upright stand for it so it’s more secure. I’m going to aim for something that looks nice as well.

Sorry for the long post. And this is just the “intro.” It’s been a while since I did any blog post at all, but I’m thinking that will be changing soon. Ask me any questions you have about this topic and I’ll be happy to answer!

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