What is 3D Printing
The easiest way one could describe 3D printing would be to compare it to Lego. We have all seen or used Lego at some point in our life, the concept is simple: stack one brick on top of the other in order to make a model. Printing in 3D is very similar to that, you lay down plastic layers, one on top of the other, in order to build your model.
The 3D printing process starts with a digital model. Nowadays you have a lot of websites which offer free digital models called STL files (Stereolithography). These would simply be downloaded onto your PC so you can then prepare them for 3D printing.
You can also of course design your own models in any CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. Websites like Tinkercad are a great place to start designing your own models.
Once you have yourself a digital model (stl file), you then need to translate that model into a language a 3D Printer understands, which is called g-code. To do this translation, you need a slicer. There are a ton of free great slicers online which all pretty much do the same exact thing, however they all do it slightly differently.
The purpose of a slicer is for the user to give the 3D Printer instructions on how to print the model in 3D. These instructions will include the height of each layer the model will have, depending on the size of the model and the height used, layers can range from tens to thousands. You also set parameters related to temperatures, how hot do you want your plastic to be as it comes out of the printer nozzle, how strong do you want the part to be, does it require support structures due to the model complexity? These are just a small fraction of all the things 3D printing slicers do, it might seem overwhelming at first, but it becomes second nature after a couple of prints to know what settings are useful and when to tweak them.
Once all parameters are set, you then proceed to slice the model. This is literally what happens to the model, it is dissected into slices based on the settings entered in the slicer. Each slice has in it the instructions for the 3D printer on where to print, how fast to go, how much plastic is needed etc.
The model is now in g-code format. G-code is the language that 3D printers understand, it’s purely a long list of commands with coordinates so the printer knows what it needs to do, when and where which looks like this:
Once you have saved the file on a memory card, you can then simply insert the memory card in the printer and set it to print. For the most part, 3D Printers do everything on their own.
While 3D Printers seem like complicated machines, they all work with the same basic principle. Any 3D Printer works with 3 axes, X (from side to side), Y (front to back) and Z (Up and down). Those three axis generate the movement of the machine.
The next important component is the extruder, this is the part of the machine that pushes the filament through. Filament is the plastic used to print the actual models. Filaments come in all types and colours, however the most popular being PLA (Polylactic Acid) which is easy to print with and very user friendly.
Once the filament is pushed through to the extruder, it goes into the hotend. The Hotend is the part of the 3D Printer that melts the plastic filament in order for it to be laid down and make the model. Once again, there are many variations of the hotend, however, the concept is still exactly the same.
You have a heatblock which melts the filament at temperatures exceeding 200 degrees Celsius. You then have a heatbreak which separates the heatblock from the heatsink. This way the heat is contained within the heatblock only. Attached to the heatblock is a nozzle. This is where the melted plastic comes out from. The hole in the nozzle is typically 0.4mm wide, it could be more or less, however most printers come stock with a 0.4mm nozzle.
Combine all these things together, add some patience to the mix (3D printing is not a fast process) and you’ll have the ability to create anything your mind thinks of. From little trinkets to custom models, prototyping to fully functional prints.
Desktop 3D Printing empowers your creativity, giving you the freedom to experiment, learn and create anything.
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