How 3D Printing Works
When you are first getting started, 3D printing can be somewhat intimidating. After you look closer at the printer and actual printing process you will find it's actually very easy to understand (and also master!)To keep things simple, if you have ever used a hot glue gun then you have used a 3D printer...sort of. As you probably already understand, a hot glue gun works by pushing a glue stick through a hot nozzle until it melts and extrudes through a small nozzle--this is exactly how a 3D printer works with a few other components added to the mix.
3D Printing Anatomy:
3D Printers consist of the following major systems:
- Hotend - this is the nozzle that melts the plastic filament
- Extruder - electric motor and gear assembly used to push filament through the hot end
- Print Bed - the surface where the 3D printed part is built on
- XYZ Stepper Motors - In order to print a desired shape, the hot end must move while extruding plastic. Most machines come with 3 or 4 stepper motors to handle the motion
- Controller Board - a small computer that reads the print file (G-Code) and controls the machine's components to print the desired object
- Controller Display - small LCD display used to show information from the Controller board
- Power Supply - this system is responsible for taking your household power, converting it, and making it suitable for the various components on the 3D printer
3D printers are used to print 3D objects. This means you must find an existing 3D model or create your own. If you are just starting out I recommend browsing thingiverse and finding something simple that looks interesting for your first test print. A great model to start with something simple like a test cube. It doesn't require any special printing techniques such as supports--more on that later. Whatever file you choose make sure that it is in STL file format. While there are countless other formats for 3D models (STP, IGES, PRT, etc.) these are generally not compatible with the software you will use to create the program to run the 3D printer (aka Slicer).
Once you have selected the 3D model you want to print, you will then need to create a program to give to the printer. This is called "slicing" and simply means you are taking a 3D object and slicing it into layers. What you end up with is several layers that are two dimensional in shape. Once you have your model sliced you will need to export a GCode file which is the actual file the printer will read. If you try to open the GCode file and make sense of what it is saying it will likely be extremely confusing. Do not stress about this, there will likely be any need to understand the in's and out's of the file until you become much more advanced.
Slicing a 3D model is by far the most difficult task you will go through when trying to print your first model. It is important to pick software that will be easy to use and will also have profiles available for your specific printer. While there is no "best" slicer, my vote for a beginner is Cura. To be honest, it is even good for someone who is advanced and can grow as you become more knowledgeable of 3D printing. Another advantage is that it is by far the most popular slicing software on the market so there are ENDLESS forums, Facebook groups, and YouTube tutorials on the subject. In addition to being free, they also offer printer profiles for most models on the market. This means there will be very little technical setup involved which is very helpful as a beginner. One last thing I really like about Cura is they offer a "recommended mode" which really simplifies print settings for someone just getting started. It removes all of the settings and only leaves Layer Height, Infill %, Support (Y/N), and Adhesion (Y/N).
After you become more skilled with 3D printing you can switch to the "Custom Mode" which will unlock all of the detailed settings to further tweak your prints. That is why I like Cura so much because it truly will grow with you from beginner to expert.
Slicer Software Runner Up:
Once you export your G-Code file from your slicer onto either a flash drive or SD card (depending on your printer), you will then insert it into your printer. Using your printer's menu, locate the file you created and begin your print.
*Please ensure your machine is calibrated and ready to print before starting your G-Code file using our printer calibration guides