So you have decided that you want to try your hand at 3D Printing, you've seen all the cool YouTube videos, and you are ready to pick up your first printer. But getting started requires a little more than you might think.
Here's an overview of the things you will need to ensure you can start printing straight away — and have a good chance of those prints actually working.
Not only do you need a computer for finding 3D models and for preparing those models for printing, but a lot of the back end of printing can be done here. From firmware upgrades to running the printer in real time, almost anything can be done from a laptop or PC.
I would recommend making sure you have at least 4GB of RAM and a fairly powerful processor. My Dell XPS 13 runs all of my slicing software and even some of my 3D design software well, but my 2011 MacBook struggles to prepare some of the more complex models for the printer.
If at all possible avoid using a direct connection to your PC. Using an SD card to copy your models over to the printer and letting it do the work is far better than using your laptop. If anything happens to your PC while you print, an update for example or a blue screen of death (BSOD), you could potentially lose hours of printing.
A 3D printer
If you have never owned a 3D printer, have no idea what you want to do and have no plans to make something specific, then start with the Monoprice Maker Select Mini v2. For just $200, you can start printing with very little fuss.
While the print bed is relatively small, only 4.75 inches squared, the Select Mini is a sturdy, reliable little printer that can sit on your desk next to your PC and print some excellent starter pieces, while having enough parts to tweak and upgrade.
And $200 for a printer this good really is an amazing price and is the perfect infection vector for the hobby.
Filament is the material you use to make everything in your 3D printer. The most popular and arguably the easiest to use is PLA, a corn-based plastic that requires fairly low temperatures to print and is easy to sand, prime, and paint. There are many other choices of filament, such as ABS, a stronger higher temp plastic, and Ninja Flex, a flexible filament you can use for phone cases.
Rolls of filament come in many different sizes and I like to use the 1kg or 2.2lb rolls that you can get for as little as $16.99 on Amazon. Plenty of people will tell you the cheap stuff is no good, and they may be right if you are planning on selling your prints or you don't want to paint them. For your first few rolls, though, while you are learning the ropes, go as cheap as you can. You will reach a point in your printing career when it will be time to buy some of the more expensive materials.
A note of caution, some of the filaments are noxious when printed. ABS shouldn't be printed without adequate ventilation in the house and needs to have an air-controlled room to really work well. Most printers don't come with an enclosure so you will need to build one to properly print ABS. That said ABS is a really nice material to get very smooth prints from, so it's worth learning more about. Make sure, as well, that you get the right size filament; 1.75mm is the norm but 3mm is available for some printers.
There are several small tools that are key to making sure your 3D printing goes off without a hitch. While any 3D printer you purchase normally comes with a few tools to start you off, they normally aren't very high quality. Here are links to the stuff I personally use.
There are some really helpful things for your printer that you can get from your local supermarket or D.I.Y. store. Aquanet hairspray or any water-based hairspray is extremely helpful for sticking your prints firmly to your print bed, especially if it is glass. You'll also want some 90 percent isopropyl alcohol to clean the hairspray off after each print. The alcohol is used often to clean your print bed as your fingers leave oils on the surface which can stop the plastic from sticking.
Check your local D.I.Y. store for a nice set of fine wire snippers, preferably with a flat bottom, to help cut the filament. They are also helpful for simply cleaning up some prints and when you start to get into modifications you can use them for actually cutting wire.
I've recently found an amazing build plate adhesive for glass beds called Magigoo. At just $20 on Amazon for around 100 prints, Magigoo is a cheap way of ensuring you get fantastic adhesion every time.
There are several slightly larger tools that you will need. A set of metric Hex wrenches, a digital caliper, and a rounded pallet knife. This Pallet Knife set is my go-to for print removal as it comes with two different tools — 3D Prints are sometimes extremely difficult to remove so having a variety of tools is a good idea. One of the tools has a sharp edge for the very difficult prints, and one is a flexible rounded tool for the normal removals. Most 3D printers come with a paint scraper, but they tend to damage the print bed more than remove the print.
Most 3D printers you will buy will have metric screws and nuts holding it together, and while they often come with one hex wrench having a full set will save you time and effort. The one I use can be found here. I actually have a set of these attached to each printer so I always have them handy.
Lastly, a digital caliper is worth investing in to help fine-tune your prints. There are a lot of ways to make your prints better, but they normally require you to make very small measurements in millimeters. You can spend a lot of money on a set of digital calipers, and the more money the more accurate normally, but I've been using this set for a while now and they haven't steered me wrong.
Most printers come with an SD card and a few basic models to try out, but you may have an idea of what you want to print for your first go. You can always design your own models, but for now, let's find one on the interwebs.
The two most popular places to find 3D models specifically for printing are Thingiverse and My Mini Factory, and both offer a broad range of models that other people have made and that you can use. Tipping is available if you want to help the designer out.
Thingiverse is the largest repository of free-to-use 3D models on the web, with hundreds of thousands of models to choose from. If you have had an idea, the chances are someone already made one. I even uploaded a quick design of the Windows Central Logo that you could use as your first print.
My Mini Factory is smaller than Thingiverse but each model on there is guaranteed to be print ready. This means someone has actually printed all the models to make sure they will print. There are a lot more paid artists on My Mini Factory, but honestly, it's worth a few dollars to get some of these amazing models.
Slicers are the final piece of the 3D Printing puzzle. Slicing software turns the 3D model file, normally an .STL or .OBJ, into a usable set of instructions for your printer to plot in 3D space. Normally a slicer will create a file called GCode, which can be edited by you to tweak certain aspects of the print. The GCode tells the printer when to start and stop, when to home the print head, and when to extrude filament between two points. There are quite a lot of different slicers, but the two I use most are the free-to-use Cura by Ultimaker and the costly Simplify 3D.
Simplify 3D (S3D) is an extremely powerful slicer that can be used on just about any printer. One of my printers uses a different flavor of code to print called .x3g, and as such, it needs specific software to run, which S3D includes. S3D has an excellent UI and powerful features to help you generate the best prints. Due to the price tag of $149, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for a person new to 3D printing, but if you can afford it then you may as well start with what I feel is the best slicer around.
Cura by Ultimaker, on the other hand, is completely free and almost as powerful as Simplify 3D. Due to the open-source nature of Cura, you will see many different versions floating around in the world, your printer may even come with a version on the SD card. Don't use any other version than the current stable version unless you are secure in your 3D printing skills, as even one wrong setting can make all your prints look like garbage. I like Cura, and its UI is a little easier to understand than S3D, though there are some utilities missing in Cura that I find helpful in S3D. The biggest draw to Cura and what makes it the most popular slicer around is the price: it's free. And with an almost monthly upgrade cycle, it is hard to beat in the Slicing game.
What have we missed?
For those of you already 3D printing, what have I missed? Is there anything you can't do without that you think we should know about? Let us know in the comments.
Updated November 30, 2018: We added more information on Magigoo and updated some other details on the printers mentioned throughout.
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