Since 3D printers became available to hobbyists and now are being marketed as a consumer product the media has had a field day with stories that range from practical to prophetic to wondrous to ludicrous. Some of the practical uses include 3D printing dental implants and prosthetic devices. The super hyped hysteria about 3D printing guns was more on the ludicrous end of the scale. Yes, it could be done, but a gun made from the plastic resin that most printers use would explode in your hand if you tried to fire it. There are metal 3D printers but they are not consumer machines. In my experience, 3D printing is not simple, the technology is not ready for wide use by consumers. It is still a niche hobbyist process. All of that will change and probably faster than I imagine.
Keep in mind that 3D printing is a catch-all term for a wide variety of technologies. There is additive (like the FDM fused deposition modeling Makerbot which I use) or additive that fuses a resin powder with UV laser light or even additive using ceramic materials. There is subtractive 3D printing, too, in which a piece of raw material is cut away to make the model (much as sculptors do with a chisel and hammer and a block of stone.)
Operating a 3D printer has a steep learning curve. The manufacturers of the printers would have you believe it is as easy as using a toaster. And maybe someday it will be that easy, but for now you have to deal with ensuring the build plate is exactly parallel to the print head (called “leveling the build plate.”) and that the printing filament is properly loaded. Once printing begins all sorts of failures can – and will – happen. If the filament does not feed smoothly then the extruder is starved of raw material and the print fails. If the print does not stick to the build plate then you get spider diarrhea – a tangle of fine threads of extruded plastic resin (see photo above.) Those are just two examples of common problems. My learning curve was flattened by some very smart and generous fellow printers in a Google group. The sharing of information, techniques, and advice was invaluable for overcoming and avoiding the pitfalls. This is a joy of an open source process such as 3D printing started in the hobbyist world. Printer manufacturers now are evolving into closed systems where they control every aspect of the process much like Apple Computers in comparison to the early PC hobbyists who could manipulate the hardware and software to tailor the machines to their own particular uses. I prefer the open systems and a large community of users who support each other.
Even before you get to “pressing print” for the machine you must start with a 3D design. It can be created in any number of CAD programs, or even in Adobe Photoshop since version CS6. I find the 3D design to be the hardest part of the process. I use a very simple CAD (Computer Aided Design) program called Tinkercad – it is on the web and free to use at www.tinkercad.com – but it only works in Google Chrome, no Firefox, Safari, etc. It is just one of many web-based CAD programs available and is quite rudimentary but it does what I need. Once the object is designed in Tinkercad I download the .stl file. The printer can’t read a .stl file, however.
Next comes slicing the .stl file so that it can be read by the printer. My Makerbot came with slicing software called Makerware which I used for quite a while (it is no longer available, it has been replaced by Makerbot Desktop which is less controllable) . It was pretty good and you could manipulate all sorts of parameters of printing if you had the inclination and didn’t mind editing text files of parameters. “Slicing” is the process of interpreting the .stl file into g-code into a format the printer can understand. The software determines the best way to print the layers which make the print into 3 dimensions.
I have abandoned Makerware for Simplify3D – a more sophisticated slicing software that will slice for a wide variety of printers. It has far more control than I know how to use, but it works well, slices fast (important) and outputs excellent g-code. There are other excellent ones out there: Slic3r is one, KISSlicer is another. Once you have sliced the model and it is in a format your printer can use (for me it is .x3g) then you are ready to “press print.”
Making a 3D printed scupture is far from simple. To take it from idea to finished piece often involves a lot of printing and failing, trying one thing after another and throwing away the failures. Some of the failures are 3D prints which go awry and others are successful prints that don’t express the idea of the sculpture. Thomas Edison said that when he had a failure he saw it as a success – learning another way that didn’t work. Think positive, I guess. I remind myself that “close enough for government work” doesn’t apply to art. It has to be right or I redo it to make it better until I know I have what I want. As a result, I have a stack of finished 3D printed work that I am happy with an an equally large pile of plastic garbage from failures.