Learn the Basics of 3D Printing

What is 3D printing?

carbon fibre 3D printed yoda head layer height

A 3D printer is just another tool that allows one to manufacture objects. The reason 3D printing is special is because it is an affordable, easy to use method of making very complex parts.

There are many types of 3D printing. The main types are listed below.

  • FFF – Fused Filament Fabrication (plastic)
  • SLA – Stereolithography (resin)
  • SLS – Selective Laser Sintering (powder)
  • SLM – Selective Laser Melting (metal)

Of course, plastic 3D printing (FFF) is the most common, cost effective and easiest to adopt by schools, businesses and individuals.

Safety around 3D printing

It is very important to be safe when using a 3D printer. Although it can be extremely easy to use the technology needs to be used correctly to be safe.

There are many factors to control the risk associated with 3D printing, examples being hot moving parts and also the melting plastic giving off an odour/ fumes.

Please read our general safety guidelines to learn more.

Maintenance 3D printers

It is critical to follow maintenance procedures to assist longevity and good health of your 3D printer.

Please read our general maintenance guidelines 

How does 3D printing work?

It is actually very simple. Generally, all FFF (plastic) 3D printers work in a similar fashion.

Filament (a reel of plastic material) is fed through a hot end (nozzle) and layers of the part are layed down, each layer on top of the last. The time lapse video below may help show how this works.

The basic workflow of 3D printing

So how does one start from an idea and turn it into a 3D printed part?

basics 3d printing workflow

Click and expand the below sections to find out more about each transition.

How long does it take to print?

How long is a piece of string? Printing time can vary greatly depending on the settings chosen and the geometry of the part. The most influential factor is layer height. The smaller the layer height the more layers need to be printed. Lower layer height takes longer to print however are much more detailed.

3D printing layer height comparison

The difference between a DIY printer and Plug and Print

Do It Yourself – DIY kits are 3D printers that need significant assembly before use. They must be built, calibrated, tested and optimised by the user… hence, Do It Yourself. The savings are mainly in cost. Also the user gets to learn all the components of the 3D printer which may be beneficial to those willing to learn what happens under the hood. DIY kits typically don’t include enclosures, are less reliable and need more maintenance and upkeep to keep running.

If your budget is tight, you have the time to put in and only use the printer occasionally then a DIY kit is for you.

Plug and Print machines are almost ready to use out of the box. They are more expensive than DIY printers however are much more reliable as they have been tested and the design optimised. Typically they come with an enclosed build chamber too making prints more reliable AND adding another layer of safety!

Selecting a 3D printer

If you have made it this far you will want to know what you need to look for when choosing a FFF (plastic) 3D printer?

  • Want to know how big you can print? What is the printers maximum print (build) size?
  • What materials can you print in? Using a heated bed gives you the ability to print in more materials AND increasing the reliability of these prints. This is because are much more firmly held down using heat.
  • An enclosed build chamber helps 3D prints come out more reliably and safely!
  • How many materials do you want to print with simultaneously? Most FFF (plastic) 3D printers have only one extruder nozzle however some come with two. The benefit of two is being able to print parts with two colours or using dissolvable support material.
  • Price vs reliability/performance. Keep in mind what price you are willing to spend. Generally speaking, the higher the value of the 3D printer the better the given reliability/performance.