It all started with a box of parts.

My family came over for my birthday, they had a cardboard box with the word Anet written on the side. They told me it was a 3D printer, and that I would have to build it.

I was ecstatic, grateful and a bit nervous. Building a 3D printer seemed like a mechanical feat that was beyond my mortal skillset. Whilst I am awesome at building IKEA furniture, I wasn't sure the skills would transfer over. With some help from a good friend I managed to do it. But my work was far from over.

Like Doctor Frankenstein, I have been building this monstrosity for a few months now and I have learned some interesting stuff along the way.

What the heck is 3D printing.

Remember Star Trek? Whenever I turn on my 3D printer and start a new print I am transported aboard the Starship Enterprise watching the replicator create something out of nothing. Sure my 3D printer isn’t replicating the exact atomic structure of the pizza I had in Italy... But it definitely has the same energy. It’s a technology that makes you think "this is the future".

A timelapse of a slice of pizza printed on my Anet A8

In less metaphorical terms, 3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing. Meaning it builds objects up bit by bit (adding things as it goes). On your computer a 3D model is "sliced" into layers, using a program aptly called a slicer. You can think of each layer like a map of what the printer has to create.

The pizza 3D model sliced on my computer, showing all the layers that were printed

The layers are printed one by one, on top of each other until you are left with the final print. You can change the height of the slices to add definition to your model in exchange for print time. It is a really impressive process, but is probably slower than you think. Home printers are getting speedier but for now you still have to wait a while for large prints.

Types of 3D printing

There are about 10 different techniques and types of machine for 3D printing, and if you want to read about all of them all3dp did a great breakdown of the different techniques. In this article, I am only going to talk about the two most popular types; SLA and FDM.

Stereolithography printers (SLA) use a liquid plastic called resin. When the liquid is exposed to focussed light it solidifies in a process call photopolymerisation. Each layer is drawn by a laser or flashed on a screen causing only the top layer of resin to solidify. The layers of hardened plastic stack on top of each other as the print is pulled out of the resin. It looks just as cool as it sounds. The quality of the print is dependent on the size of the laser so it is a very accurate technique as the laser can draw even tiny shapes with ease.

The most common type is called fused deposition modeling (FDM), my machine is an FDM printer. They use a long, thin plastic cylinder as their material. The plastic is squeezed out of a nozzle heated nozzle and it softens as it goes. Each individual layer is "drawn" in two dimensions, either the nozzle can move or the print bed does. When that layer is finished the print bed, or the nozzle, move so the next layer is printed on top. This is a slightly less accurate method as the print quality relies on the movements of stepper motors.

The history of 3D printing

Looking at 3D printing now it is hard to believe that anyone would doubt the value of the technology, however like most things the current success of 3D printing is down to many years of hard work. Way back In 1981 Hideo Kobama, a Japanese lawyer, attempted to file the first patent for a machine that used an early version of SLA technology. This patent fell through because there was little interest in the technology. Nobody was willing to commit to the investment required to make it happen. The idea was abandoned by Kobama and his university only to be picked up again by a group of French scientists. Again this new group of researchers could not find the interest and money they needed to pursue the project.

Fast forward to 1984 and the engineer Charles Hull (known as Chuck) becomes frustrated with the time it takes to create small custom parts for his prototypes. He picked up the SLA torch and used his connections in the manufacturing industry to secure the funding needed. 3D printing was finally getting its shot. By 1987 he had made his first commercial machine.

Chuck Hull stood in front of a 3D printed wheel hub made using the technology he invented

Credit: Industry Week

In Minnesota another type of 3D printing had been conjured in the mind of Scott Crump. Crump had the idea to heat up long tubes of thermoplastic and squeeze them through a hot end and onto a plate, the first FDM machine. Crump’s company Stratasys was founded in 1989 and they launched their first machine in 1991. 3D printed parts were used in NASA’s technology, Volvo’s manufacturing plant and in countless formula one cars; to name just a few. Although it would take another 20 years for the technology to make its way into people’s homes.

No history of a technology would be complete without the obligatory picture of someone standing next to something huge. So here it is…

A newspaper clipping showing the inventors of another type of 3D printing SLS, stood in front of a large machine.

Why do people like 3D printing?

This is the question, what is so great about 3D printing and why should you be excited? For me the answer is two-fold; people love 3D printers as a tool and the things they can do with it, but they also see their printers as a project.

3D printers as a tool

3D printers are awesome tools with a near infinite amount of uses you can put them to. These jobs might be; creating a small part to use in a larger project, a part of tool to be used on its own or something to build a project around - to name a few. You could, for example, make a motor mount for a robot buggy. You can create precise screw holes and create pieces to neatly fit into tricky spaces. Maybe a bag clip to keep your crisps nice and fresh. You can also use your 3D printer to create structures or cases for your projects. Matty - my best friend who helped me set up my printer - loves making robots and he uses his printer to create the robot’s chassis. He then attaches all the parts to that central body. I have used mine to create a case for a wildlife camera I am working on for Abi’s allotment, I can make the print fit the components I need exactly.

3D printers allow me to create precise parts relatively quickly. The fact that I can think of a project in the morning, find a model or make one and print the thing so I have it by the afternoon is just incredible. If something is wrong I can just adjust the model and print it again the very same day.

3D printers as a project

Printers are so much more than a tool, mine has been a personal project. Most of the things I have printed have been upgrades for the printer. I have added filament holders and guides to steer the plastic in the right direction and improve the flow. There are cable chains to tidy my wires and look smart as hell.

My cable chain upgrade for the Anet A8, found on Thingiverse,

I also had to print a whole bunch of frame stabilisers. My printer came with an acrylic frame and it does not absorb vibrations very well. It has taken up a lot of my time, but I have honestly loved every minute of it. Getting to know the printer and how it works has been really fun. Frustrating at times, especially the many times when I thought I has broken it. But I have fixed it every time, so far. My printer has become a perfect Frankenstein that I’ve cobbled together as I learned to use it. You don’t just build a printer, you make it your own.

Resources to learn more about 3D printing

If I have peaked your interest then here are some awesome sites and creators you can follow to learn more about 3D printing.

Resources

  1. Thingiverse - A huge repository of 3D models that you can download and print. If you have a project in mind, have a look as it has probably already been done. Use this as a starting point and adjust if you need to, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
  2. All3DP - A blog and general resource website dedicated to the craft of 3D printing. I can’t tell you how many times all3dp have had the answer to my 3D printing questions.
  3. 3D Printing Hacks - a tutorial on Instructables that will take you from the initial setup of your printer to getting your first successful print. Even if you don’t have a printer this is a great place to find out what is involved.

Creators to follow

  1. 3D printing nerd - Joel is one of the foremost creators on YouTube for 3D printing. I have watched his videos for longer than I have had a printer. In particular I like his recent tips from the community video where he shares some advice on how to get great looking prints
  2. 3D printing brothers - a smaller creator but one definitely worth following. These brothers are printing all day every day and they make sure to share all the tools they are using as well so you can get your hands on them too.
  3. Thomas Sanlanderer - if tutorials and tips and tricks are what you are after look no further than Thomas Sanlanderer. His channel is full of super useful videos that cover the process of 3D printing but also show off some of the amazing uses you can put your printer to. All of this combines with the electronics Thomas is well versed in make for a suite of super inspirational content for you to feast your eyes upon.

What’s next?

So that is an introduction to the first hobby I will be covering here on the Den, and it is just the start. I have a couple more pieces of 3D printing content for you guys coming real soon. Be sure to subscribe to the Den of Alacrity on YouTube and follow us on social platforms (you will find all the linkies at the bottom of the page) to hear when those come out.

Until next time my beautiful murder of internet crows, happy learning.

There is more where that came from...