If you haven’t heard the news, 3D printers are all the rage. And it’s not so surprising. People have always dreamed of creating stuff out of ‘thin air’ from the comfort of their homes. While it’s not precisely “thin air” 3D printers use, it is cheaper than expected. It can become a great hobby if you have what you need and a basic understanding of 3D printing.
3D printers nowadays have a variety of purposes. From creating medical equipment to houses, guns, and toys, they are a reality that the average consumer can dive into. While still expensive, prices have drastically fallen, and you can afford a solid 3D printer for a couple of thousand bucks. Not exactly the cheapest option, but hey, that sword of Doom or Batman headphone holders are more expensive in stores.
The reality is that 3D printing has hit the mainstream. We can now print stuff from home, no matter how pointless it looks. But how do 3D printers work? And what exactly is the cost of printing something? We break down all those questions in the paragraphs below.
What’s a 3D Printer?
Let’s start with the fundamentals – what precisely does the 3D printer represent. The definition of 3D printing is constructing a three-dimensional object from a 3D model or a CAD. In short, this device uses a variety of processes that deposit material under computer control to produce an object. It usually uses plastic. However, some 3D printers also use powder grains or liquid to deliver the excellent headphone stand you’ve found online.
Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing isn’t in that new age. Its history dates back to the 1980s. At the time, 3D printers were considered usable for producing aesthetic and functional prototypes. The term used back then was rapid prototyping. Over the years, this has evolved into 3D printing, a process now available to consumers worldwide.
The main ability of 3D printers is to produce complex shapes or geometries that are impossible to construct by hand. For example, they are often used to make hollow parts of specific equipment. These parts have internal truss structures that reduce weight and are essential in particular industries. When 3D printing became a draw for the masses in the 2010s, it was mainly used for medicinal purposes such as creating non-essential parts of medical equipment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many used them to produce COVID shields made of plastic that were then delivered to doctors worldwide. Talk about the community using technology for good.
People started printing anything from toys to headphone stands when the average 3D printer became available for broader use. Companies even use 3D printers to create houses. The range of uses is wide enough to make it almost an essential piece of equipment in any home. Of course, it’s still expensive, but not so much that no one could afford it.
From 2020 onward, most 3D printers use fused deposition modeling, or FDM, to produce objects. This process uses special filaments of thermoplastic material to create various objects.
What Do 3D Printers Use to Create Models?
What do 3D printers need to start making models? It depends on your specific needs. Most 3D printers nowadays use special plastic filaments. These differ in flexibility, heat resistance, durability, and other factors. But it’s not just plastic filaments you can use. Different materials should be used depending on the 3D model and your needs. Carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar materials are used in the biggest 3D printers for building homes.
Let’s take a look at the most popular plastic filaments for your average 3D printer.
- PLA: short for polylactic acid, this is the most common and cheapest plastic filament for 3D printing. It can be found in any hardware shop. It’s the easiest to use, relatively rigid and strong, but it’s not as heat-resistant and brittle as other materials. PLA is eco-friendly and biodegradable without any smell. This filament is used for the simplest 3D models, including prototypes and concept models.
- PET-G: PET-G is polyethylene terephthalate glycol, a material that’s compatible with low 3D printing procedures. It is resistant to chemicals and humidity, highly transparent, and can be used to store food. PET-G is commonly used in snap-fit components and for waterproof applications. It’s a beginner-friendly material but can also be used in more complex modeling.
- TPU: thermoplastic polyurethane is a flexible and stretchable material that’s impact resistant. It works perfectly as a vibration damper. This material is commonly used for flexible prototypes.
- Nylon: Nylon is solid and durable and heat and impact resistant. It’s an excellent material for wear-resistant parts and functional prototypes.
- HIPS: HIPS is high-impact polystyrene, a soluble material commonly used with ABS. It dissolves in the chemical limonene and is widely used to print support material.
- PVA: short for polyvinyl alcohol, PVA dissolves in water and is excellent as a support material.
- Composites (fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber): rare 3D printing materials used in construction and complex engineering. Unless you have a particular industry printer meant for building full-size homes, chances are you won’t be able to find these in your local hardware store.
In most cases, hardware stores should offer PLA, PET-G, Nylon, and PVA filaments. These are great for beginners and 3D printing enthusiasts who stick to small and mid-sized models.
How Does a 3D Printer Work?
3D printing has become quite a popular hobby in the past few years. Some people play 21 online, others are into sports, and some are enthusiastic about 3D printing. It’s a bit of an expensive hobby, but one that creates models you can’t obtain in any other way unless you buy them. However, before you buy a 3D printer and start, you should learn the basics.
In general, the process relies on 3 steps:
- You need a 3D printer to start
- Some filament
- Slicing software for the models
Of course, you also have the option to create your own designs. That requires special designing software, so unless you’re well-versed with model design, we will go with 3D models from the web. If you already have a 3D printer at home, buy some filaments. Always have them ready at hand. The cool thing about most sites where you can find 3D models is that they mention the filament requirements and size, so you always know how much you need for those excellent toy models you saw.
Next, choose the model, select your materials, enter the parameters, and use the software to print. Depending on the complexity of the model, the process can finish anywhere between a few hours or weeks. Well, weeks is for the most complex 3D models like full-size houses. Plastic headphone stands and toys usually take just a couple of hours.
By the way, it would help if you used both CAD and slicing software. CAD comes before – it is used for building your designs or exporting the 3D model found online in STL format. This is a file type that a 3D printer understands so it can start the process. This is done by creating a so-called Gcode with all the movement information for the printer that essentially instructs it to build the model.
3D Printing Techniques
There are different 3D printing techniques depending on the size, detail, and scope of the 3D models you want to print. We’ll detail all these techniques below and tell you which of them works best for your needs. To be clear – the techniques for a small model and a full-sized house are quite different.
DLP (Digital Light Processing)
This is the oldest form of 3D printing. It uses high-temperature lamps to dry layers in seconds. This makes it faster than SLA printing, but it’s not as accurate or technologically complex.
FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling)
If you own a 3D printer, it is most likely an FDM one. This most common 3D printing technique works great with plastic models and manufacturing prototypes. For example, it can be used for various cool toys you’ve found online or movable parts of smaller machines.
SLA is fast, reliable, and most commonly used for objects with a lot of detail. This technique relies on ultraviolet lasers to craft objects in a couple of hours. Not as fast as DLP, but still quick and very reliable for various objects.
SLS (Selective Laser Sintering)
SLS is trusted by engineers and manufacturers worldwide compared to SLA or other techniques. This technique is used in many industries and produces solid and functional parts. The high productivity paired with low cost per part and no need for dedicated support structures makes it a favorite for complex geometric shapes.
3D-printed SLS parts are rougher on the outside than SLA or SLS parts but have no visible lines.
CLIP (Continued Liquid Interface Production)
CLIP uses a process known as Vat Photorpolymerisation to build models. It also relies on Digital Light Synthesis to project UV images across sections of a 3D object. This means that it’s exact. Once created, the model is baked in an oven. This results in particular chemical reactions that harden it.
Material jetting applies tiny filament droplets evenly along with a liquid binder. These build a platform that is hardened with UV light in the end.
Other 3D printing techniques are used by individuals or in specific industries. It all depends on what you’re looking to get out of your 3D printer. For simple models, FDM is an excellent technique. More complex stuff will require bigger printers that use a different tech.
What Can You Use a 3D Printer For?
3D printers were (and still are) very cool tech from the moment they were introduced. Everyone wanted to get their hands on one, even if the cost was a bit high. The average 3D printer these days is around the $500 mark, so it’s in the range of a Play Station 5. If you’ve always loved the idea of 3D printing various models you saw on the web, it’s the perfect choice for a birthday or Christmas gift to ask for.
What can you print with this device? Designers use them to create prototypes and product models that make their job much more manageable. Shoe designs, wax castings for jewelry, tripods, gifts, and some novelty items are all produced with 3D printers nowadays. It’s cheaper and more efficient, and the industry loves it.
The automotive industry, for example, uses big 3D printers to fabricate models for new projects. Do you know those prototype vehicles at car shows? They were probably built by a 3D printer before the models took shape. Designers draw their ideas on paper, the model gets 3D crafted, and if everything’s OK, production can begin.
In archeology, 3D printing is used to reconstruct fragile artifacts. In the past decade, ISIS destroyed invaluable antiquities in the Middle East, and archeologists are trying to rebuild many of them with a 3D printer. Dinosaur skeletons and other fossils can also be recreated using 3D printers, so if you ask us, this is one of those technologies that has reshaped the world.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most 3D printers are used at home, and reconstructing dinosaur fossils is not on the menu unless you’re a paleontologist with company funding. Most people use cheap 3D printers to build tiny prototypes or print cool stuff they found online. This means toys, keychains, headphone stands, or simple ornaments. These objects are often delivered in hours, making 3D printers so popular.
As the technology gets more widespread, prices will go even lower. In around a decade, we may all have a 3D printer at home, which will undoubtedly result in more creative generations.