Monday, December 19, 2016

3D Printing 101 - 8 Questions to ask before buying a 3D printer

Code for 3D Printing Scholars: D:OLIYI'M D GWVODGO JWYU WV UA FTWK

The first conversation between someone who does 3D printing, and someone who wants to do 3D printing usually follows a sort of pattern. Are you interested in 3D printing? Then perhaps this series of questions will tell you if 3D printing is right for you.

Of course, the goal of this conversation isn't to convince you that you shouldn't get into 3D printing. I would love everyone to get into 3D printing. But I want everyone to be successful in 3D printing. The goal is to make your transition into 3D printing begin on as solid a footing as possible. 3D printers aren't perfect, they're hardly what could be called turnkey technology right now. 3D printers are very cool, but the hype can sometimes overshadow reality. It's best to have a good and honest idea of what you're getting into before you start. I hope that you answer these questions honestly and come out of this with a firmer determination to get into 3D printing.

What do you need a 3D printer for?

When people hear about 3D printing it opens their eyes. Eventually they see something that gives them an idea and they think "I could make that... if I had a 3D printer." So the answer to this first question is, a surprising amount of the time, some specific project. The individual projects are all varied. Sometimes it's a part for a car, or a gun, or a phone accessory. "It sounds like a great way to get into electronics" is another common answer, meaning the 3D printer is, itself, the project.

Of course there are those who want a 3D printer because "they're just so cool", which they are. This is hardly a wise reason to spend a not inconsiderable amount of money and time, and it's not a strong basis for you to keep going when things get hard.

Do you have the skills and abilities to bring your idea into reality?

Assuming there's a project or an idea you want to make a reality, this next question is simply a reality check. A 3D printer is just a tool.  It can't make everything, and it can't make anything without a 3D file to work with. Measuring and 3D modeling, at a minimum, are going to be required to make your ideas reality. There may also be other skills for your particular idea, like electronics.

If the answer to this question is "no" then maybe you can build those skills you've identified first.

Are there other materials you'll need and do you have them?

It is not uncommon to get excited about the "cool" component of an idea, get that cool part, and have it sit around waiting for a handful of cheaper components that never get acquired because they're not as cool. The desire to finish the project never really was there, just a desire for that cool thing. With 3D printing, the time and effort to learn it may distract you from your idea if you don't have everything else in place. Also, there are options for getting 3D printed parts without a 3D printer, some of which will be covered in the next chapter.

Can you develop the skill you need without a major expense?

Sometimes the skills you identified in the second question can be developed without a major expense. For example, many 3D modeling software programs are free, as are tutorials for learning them. Go get the software and start learning them now, you don't need a 3D printer to model for one.

What else do you think you'll be using your 3D printer for once you have one?

One of the best things about 3D printers are their versatility. There is no end of things they can make, so there should be no end to the ideas you have about what to make with them. So what's next after this idea?

If you didn't start this conversation with a specific idea, this is the next question to ask. What's the breadth of reasons you want a 3D printer. "There are thousands of things online" isn't an adequate answer. For one, there are tens of thousands of things. And just because there are things doesn't mean once you understand the time and effort that goes into 3D printing that you'll still want to print all those things. Once you have a dozen figurines taking up space on your shelf you'll begin to wonder what you need it for and begin to slow down on your printing.

Instead, look around you. What sort of things do you use in your every day life that could be 3D printed? What are you heading to the store to get this week that could be 3D printed instead? Do those models already exist online so you don't need to develop skills to print them? If you can look around you and see the need for owning a 3D printer then you may already be on the right track.

Are you ready for a hobby?

Like I have said before, 3D printing isn't turnkey. Even just running the machines requires loading and unloading filament, prepping the model, monitoring the print, and sometimes canceling it and retrying with different settings to get it right. That doesn't even take into account learning how to 3D model and make your ideas a reality.

If you've got a full time job and are going to school part time, or if you're a full time student with a part time job, or any combination of "busy" that many of us have to deal with, chances are you don't have time for a hobby if you want to maintain a life. Maybe getting a 3D printer should be put off for a little while. But don't forget about 3D printing. In fact let it stew. Maybe in that time you'll come up with better reasons to have one, and maybe the 3D printers will be even better by the time you have some time for it.

About waiting on the technology, though, don't do that. There's always a better thing coming in a year or two, but that's a year or two that you haven't been using 3D printing. If now is the time, now's the time. Do it. Just think critically about that.

Are you ready for the work involved, including some light electronics?

Most 3D printers, especially the ones on the cheaper end, fall apart from time to time. Cheap components break, poorly assembled welds come undone, and it's best if you can fix them every once in a while. It's not just a question of if you want to be a tinkerer. Do you pull things apart and see how they work? Do you own a soldering iron, set of Allen wrenches, or other tools, and have you used them? These are all skills and things that you can have and do without owning a 3D printer.

Some may argue the necessity of being a tinkerer and owning a 3D printer. Can't you just send them back to the manufacturer and have them send you a good one? If your 3D printer was costly then there's a chance of that, but if you're 3D printer was cheap, even very cheap, then there's a good chance there is no good ones out there for you and you're going to be entering on a never ending cycle until you're warranty runs out. It's best to void the warranty on day one and get your hands dirty.

Do you have an idea of what 3D printing can and cannot do?

There's no end to what 3D printers can do, but that doesn't mean they can do anything. We're far from the science fiction future where a complicated machine creates everything from a steeped beverage, complete with ornate cup, to a battery operated toy with batteries included. By comparison 3D printers nowadays are pretty limited, but within those limitations there's still a world of possibilities.

You can find out how 3D printing works before getting into it. We're living in an age of boundless information. Those with 3D printers are excited to share what they're learning (including this series). It's possible to find online videos of 3D printers operating, working, and failing. Individuals have compiled videos detailing the process of using 3D printers for their projects including the settings they used and problems they had to overcome. These experiences can be very instructive to someone before they make the plunge.

Of course there will still be things that you will only learn when using the printer yourself or holding something you've designed.

Along those lines there should be another question asked with this one. "Why hasn't anyone done what you're thinking of yet?" Chances are you see your idea as filling a gap, solving a problem that no one else has before. And as new as 3D printing is there's a lot of chance for that. However, there's also a chance someone else has tried and failed. It's always less costly to learn from other people's mistakes. So along with what 3D printing can do in general, try to learn about your specific goals and get a realistic idea of "if" it has a chance of working.

Don't let any of this discourage you from getting into 3D printing. If you're into it, go for it. Just temper the hype with a little bit of reality so you're not frustrated and disappointed when things don't go as planned from the very beginning.

My story

Photo courtesy of Deal Extreme
When I first heard about 3D printing it was through the RepRap project and I was immediately hyped. I never knew that there could be a machine that could automatically make things, and suddenly I was being told that they were not only possible but available for only $800 in parts. However, as reasonable as that expense was for what it was promising, I couldn't afford it while I had a family and kids to support. So I started saving, and in the meanwhile, I did more research. I say research, but it was more like uncontrollably drooling over any piece of information I could find. I was an insufferable fan.

I'm glad that I held off because I quickly learned that $800 worth of parts was a little misleading. There was another $300 of recommended parts if you wanted a machine that didn't suck, and at least 3 hours to assemble, and a whole weekend to troubleshoot. Most of those early RepRap printers were self-sourced, and if you did manage to get it to work once, there was nothing saying they'd work again. There was a particular sort of madness to those early 3D printer makers. Of course you could buy a kit with all the part you needed, ready for you to assemble, but those were more expensive without being any more reliable or easy, only saving you the self-sourcing. As much as I wanted a 3D printer, I'm glad I waited.

But I was still interested. I had gone to school for computer animation and so I had the ability to make 3D models. I found Blender was the free 3D modeling program du jour. My experiences with Maya and 3DS max made Blender not too difficult to use for me, and I starting modeling and sharing the models I made with the online community of 3D printer owners.

One of the first models I shared online was a Chinese chess set, but made with icons instead of Chinese characters, you know for those people who are scared by any communicative glyph not in the roman alphabet. I was playing a lot of a game played with the Chinese Chess set, so this was of interest to me. Someone in Massachusetts with a 3D printer informed me that they wanted to print my model because it was also of interest to them. So I asked if they'd print me a set as well. He quoted me a price for it which seemed a little high for a Chinese chess set, but he had the 3D printer and I realized this couldn't be compared to the price of a mass manufactured set at all, it was custom manufacturing.

The first time I held in my hand a design I had made in the computer, brought to life with a machine, my fate was sealed. Of course there were things about this model that weren't quite right. For instance, the raised line near the horse's neck was 1mm thick, which I thought was fine, but I discovered that a 1mm wall is 3D printed with a gap if you're using a 4mm nozzle, by necessity. It was the sort of thing that I wouldn't have learned without actually printing it.

I kept designing and entered several contests, eventually winning the grand prize in one contest and netting myself a 3D printer of my very own.

I'm grateful I took a slow approach to getting into 3D printing, and so I recommend that approach to everyone. The longer you take to get into it, the longer you'll probably stick with it. But my experience isn't necessarily the best for everyone and many people have jumped in the deep end and are going strong. Do what works for you to get that sure footing so you can make awesome things.

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