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3D printers 101: Guide to getting started, best printers, tips

Look at the printer next to your computer. What can you use it for? You may rely on it for work, but the truth is the features offered by your old inkjet printer are pretty limited. You can print documents, photos or maybe even make a copy or two if you invested in a printer with advanced features.

Now imagine you’ve replaced it with a 3D printer instead. What could you use that thing for?

You may not even know where to start. This type of technology is pretty new, but it can give us huge advantages in our quality of life — or it can print out cool little objects we put on our desks. If you’re wondering what else you could do with a 3D printer and how to choose one, we’ve got answers below.

How 3D printers work

What’s interesting about 3D printers is they seem like extremely complicated tech gadgets, but they’re not when you break it down to the basics. The typical 3D printer works a lot like an inkjet printer. It prints what you’re sending to it from a computer.

Related: Need a printer upgrade? These are the best options for busy families

The difference is that it builds a 3D model of the 3D CAD drawings you send to it — and it builds it one layer at a time. In other words, you’re creating a 3D image or object from a digital file of a CAD drawing. These drawings break down the object into individual layers, which are then printed out by the 3D printer.

That obviously can’t be done with your typical ink cartridges for your home printer. Rather than ink, these printers use filament, resin or powder, which is fused with adhesive or UV light. Each layer is built on top of the prior layer from the bottom up.

As you may have guessed, it takes a while to print a 3D object, given that each layer is built on top of the prior one. It can take hours or even days for a 3D printer to build the model you’ve sent to it. It all depends on how complex the object is.

The cool thing about it is that you can get really complex with these print-outs. You can use 3D printers to print just about anything.

Want to create a miniature version of you? You can. You can also use 3D printing to produce complex shapes for manufacturing parts or for even for prosthetic limbs for amputees — and you’ll use less material than you would with traditional manufacturing methods. If you can dream it up, you can probably print it.

Types of 3D printers

There are a number of different types of 3D printers available on the market. In general, these are your main options:

  1. Fused deposition modeling (FDM)
  2. Stereolithography (SLA)
  3. Digital Light Processing (DLP)
  4. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
  5. Selective laser melting (SLM)
  6. Laminated object manufacturing (LOM)
  7. Digital Beam Melting (EBM)

The main differences between these types of printers are the types of heat, material and light sources they use. Some use filament, while others use liquid resin or powder to “build” your object.

The different types will also vary in the speed of printing — and price. You’ll spend a lot more for an SLM or DLP printer than you would for an FDM printer, and you’d have to be more tech-savvy to use them.

Most affordable, at-home 3D printers use fused deposition modeling, or FDM, so that’s what we’re going to focus on. FDM technology is the most popular 3D printing technology across the board because it’s affordable and versatile. This type of technology can be used for 3D printers and 3D pens, too.

These 3D printers use a thermoplastic filament, which is heated and extruded through a nozzle, depositing the plastic in layers. These layers are fused and built up throughout the print. They’re the most user-friendly options out there.

The downside is that the printing process can be slower with this type of printer. Still, you’ll be able to get an FDM printer for a lot less money than the other types. It’s not uncommon for a high-end 3D printer to cost tens of thousands of dollars, so if you’re looking for a 3D printer for at-home use, you’re going to want one that uses FDM technology. They’re often less complicated to use, too.

Take, for example, the  Creality Ender 3 3D Printer. This 3D printer is right around $200, and it comes semi-assembled, so it won’t take forever to put together. It’s extremely precise, too — and it heats up quickly.

The Flash Forge is another good option for an affordable 3D printer. This printer costs a bit more than the Creality Ender, but it’s got a 3.5-inch full-color touchscreen with intuitive icons, making it easy to operate. If you’re looking for a user-friendly model, this is it. It’s also a lot quieter than some of the competition.

The ANYCUBIC Photon S 3D Printer is another great starter. This model comes almost entirely preassembled, which isn’t the case with some others on the market. It’s stable, too — no wobbling means precise printing. Plus, it uses upgraded UV lighting to improve the resolution and accuracy of the printing. You’ll spend a bit more than you would for the other two models — this printer is about $360 or so — but you’ll get a lot in return.

Related: Print, scan and copy — all from one machine

How to choose a 3D printer

There are tons of affordable 3D printers on the market, making it tough to narrow down. Consider the following when trying to decide what 3D printer to invest in:

Figure out what you want to print.

Before you even start looking at 3D printers, decide what you want to print. If you’re using a printer for at-home projects, you don’t need an industrial model. It would help if you also narrowed down how often you plan to print and what you’re using the printed objects for.

Narrow down the 3D printer style you want.

As we mentioned, FDM printers are most popular for a reason. These printers use plastic filament and are easy to use, easy to learn and affordable. You may decide you can use this type of printer for your needs. If you need something that uses powder or liquid resin, you’ll have to consider another type of 3D printer — and you’ll have to open your wallet much wider. Those other printers get pricey quickly.

Figure out the features you need.

You can get a 3D printer for a few hundred dollars, but you should make sure it offers the features you need. Do you need extra safety features or touchscreen interfaces? What about a heated glass bed? You may also want to ensure the models you’re considering have enough room to print what you want to print.  

Consider your experience level.

There can be a huge learning curve with some of the higher-end 3D printers. You may even have to assemble them yourself. If you aren’t well-versed in 3D printing, you may want to avoid some of the more advanced options. It’s not easy to learn this type of stuff on the fly, and you don’t want to end up with something that’s well out of your skill level.

Make sure the resolution is up to par.

Resolution is important when it comes to 3D printers. If you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck, look at the resolution the printer offers. You may even want to opt for a printer that lets you adjust the resolution to what you need.

Places to look for prints

You won’t just need your 3D printer to get an object printed. You’ll also need the 3D CAD designs that the printer uses to build and print objects. Luckily, these prints are easy to find, and you don’t have to be a CAD expert in using them.

There are a few places you can buy and share these designs. One is Instructables, a crowd-sourced website that offers instructions on making just about anything, including 3D objects. There are instructions and CAD designs galore on that site, including anything from 3D printed lathes to bobbleheads and lanterns. There are even 3D printed model excavators on Instructables.

Another option is Pinshape, a website that offers free and paid 3D CAD designs. What’s cool about Pinshape is that it offers a ton of weird, unique files you can use to print things. Take, for example, this Totoro model. You can download the file and print it for free, thanks to a user upload shared on the site.

There are tons of other models available on the site, too. From smartphone stands to a “Star Wars” Death Star lamp. There are dozens of 3D puzzle models available, too.

Cults 3D is another great website to find 3D model designs. This website has all of the models broken down by category. You can find designs for art, fashion, jewelry, gadgets, architecture and a ton of others. This site has basically anything you’re looking for available on it. You can even find bobblehead dogs on the site.

How 3D printers can make life easier

While most people buy 3D printers for personal use, there’s another side to 3D printing that’s worth mentioning. They can make life easier for a lot of people. Doctors, dentists and aerospace engineers all use them for their specific needs.

Dentists can 3D print models of dentures or other dental appliances, for example. They can also use them to plan and design a smile before the patient undergoes major surgery.

Doctors are using them, too. Surgeons can now 3D print knee replacements or other useful medical appliances, including prosthetics for amputees. They can even create 3D replicas that match a patient’s anatomy if necessary.

Engineers can also use them to create delicate components or curved manufacturing pieces that need to be extremely precise to fit. There are other engineering uses, too, thanks to the lightweight nature of what you can print with a 3D printer.

We’ve only just begun to figure out what 3D printing can be used for. As the technology advances, so will its uses. It will be awesome to see what they come up with next.

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