3D printing technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, making it easier than ever for beginners to get started.
This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know to begin exploring the exciting world of 3D printing.
What is 3D Printing?
Additive manufacturing, known as 3D printing, constructs objects by depositing material in successive layers based on a digital 3D model. This revolutionary method enables complex geometries to be built up layer-by-layer, only using the amount of material required for that particular design.
Unlike subtractive processes like machining which cut away material, additive manufacturing creates shapes by gradually adding material as guided by the 3D model file. Parts can be printed from the ground up or inside out, allowing intricate internal structures.
Additive manufacturing brings major benefits of design freedom, rapid prototyping, reduced waste, and greater efficiency by eliminating retooling and molds. This emerging technology is enabling a paradigm shift in manufacturing capabilities and product development.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
The basic principles of 3D printing are simple. First, a 3D model of the object is created using computer-aided design (CAD) software. This model is then converted into a file format that the 3D printer can understand. The file is then sent to the 3D printer where the real magic happens.
Most 3D printers work by heating the plastic filament to a semi-liquid state and then depositing it layer by layer according to the 3D model file. This process builds the object from the bottom up. When one layer is finished, the printer moves up slightly and prints the next layer on top, repeating this process until the entire object has been printed.
The speed and quality of the printing process depend on various settings and factors such as the type of 3D printer, the material being used, layer height, infill percentage, and more. We’ll get into those later. But first, let’s look at the different types of 3D printing technologies.
Types of 3D Printing Technologies
All 3D printers use the same basic concept of additive manufacturing, but there are several different technologies and materials available. Here are some of the most common types of 3D printers:
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
This is the most common and affordable type of 3D printing for hobbyists and prosumers. FDM printers work by heating the plastic filament to a semi-liquid state and extruding it through a nozzle onto a build platform. Popular materials for FDM printing include PLA, ABS, PETG, and more.
FDM printers are relatively inexpensive but less accurate compared to other technologies. The main advantages of FDM 3D printers are the wide material selection and the ability to use engineering-grade thermoplastics.
SLA printers use a vat of liquid photopolymer resin which is cured and solidified by a laser. The laser beam traces a cross-section of the object on the surface of the resin, causing it to harden. The build platform then raises and another layer is traced right on top.
SLA 3D printers produce objects with smooth surfaces, fine details, and excellent accuracy. However, the materials are more limited and can be brittle. Supports are also required during printing for overhanging structures.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS uses a high-power laser to fuse powdered material, usually nylon or polyamide. The laser selectively fuses powdered material by scanning cross-sections generated from a 3D model. After each layer is fused, a new layer of powder is applied on top and the process repeats until the object is completed.
SLS produces strong, durable parts with complex geometries. No additional supports are required and unused powder can be recycled. However, SLS printers are very expensive costing well over $100,000.
Material jetting printers have print heads that jet photopolymer droplets onto a build platform and cure them with UV light. The materials harden after being jetted layer-by-layer according to a programmed path.
Pros of material jetting include smooth surfaces, fine details, and the ability to mix rigid and flexible materials. Cons are the high costs and smaller build volumes compared to other technologies.
3D Printing Materials
There’s a huge range of materials available for 3D printing. Here are some of the most common:
- PLA – Polylactic acid plastic, commonly used for 3D printing. Derived from corn starch, PLA is biodegradable and produces less fumes. Easy to print with and great for beginners.
- ABS – Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic. Known for its strength and durability. More difficult to print with than PLA and produces fumes. Used for mechanical parts.
- PETG – Polyethylene terephthalate plastic modified with glycol. More flexible, durable, and easier to print than ABS while maintaining strength.
- Nylon – Strong, flexible engineering plastic with excellent properties for 3D printing. Used for functional parts requiring durability.
- Resins – Liquid photopolymer materials cured with light. Used on SLA and material jetting printers. Great for highly detailed models with smooth surfaces.
- Metals – Materials like stainless steel, titanium, and nickel alloys can be 3D printed on specialized machines, usually using lasers or a binding agent.
- Ceramics – Used in ceramic 3D printing. Layers of ceramic powder are bound together and sintered in a furnace.
- Composites – Mixtures of different materials, like carbon fiber or wood filaments. Provides unique properties, like increased strength or flexibility.
Benefits of 3D Printing
3D printing offers many advantages:
- Design freedom – Ability to create complex geometries not possible with regular manufacturing. Organic shapes, intricate details, and custom objects can be 3D printed.
- Cost-effective – Eliminates high costs associated with traditional production. Less waste since you only use the amount of material required.
- Faster prototyping – Quickly test designs and iterate without needing to outsource prototyping. Makes the product development process faster.
- Customization – Easily customize objects by modifying their digital design files. Each print can be made unique at no extra cost.
- Simplified manufacturing – Reduce steps in the manufacturing process. Digital files can be quickly sent for printing without any special tools.
- On-demand production – Print products on demand instead of needing to manufacture batches in advance. Reduces inventory costs.
- New applications – 3D printing enables new designs not feasible with traditional methods. Engineers and designers can be more creative.
- Simplified repairs – Replacement parts can be printed rather than shipped or warehoused. This can greatly improve maintenance and sustainability.
- Education – Being able to visualize and hold 3D models enhances learning for students. Useful for teaching STEM topics.
Limitations of 3D Printing
While 3D printing has seen tremendous growth, there are still some limitations:
- Material options – Compared to traditional manufacturing, there are fewer materials available for 3D printing. Material properties can be more limited.
- High costs – Industrial 3D printers, materials, and certain post-processing can be expensive. However, prices are rapidly dropping.
- Part size – Consumer printers generally have smaller build volumes, while industrial printers can be very large.
- Speed – Print times range from hours to days depending on the technology, desired quality, and print size. Industrial methods are faster.
- Post-processing – Some additional steps like support removal, sanding, and painting may be required after printing.
- Precision – Tolerances and surface finishes may not be as fine compared to industry standards. However, there are high-precision technologies.
- Strength – Parts printed from plastic filament have lower strength compared to machined metal parts. Some technologies offer better mechanical properties.
While there are some tradeoffs, 3D printing capabilities continue to evolve and improve each year. The technology provides new opportunities for manufacturing and product customization.
Costs of Getting Started
One of the appeals of 3D printing is the relatively low initial investment required, especially compared to other manufacturing technologies. For $200-$500 you can get started with an entry-level desktop 3D printer capable of printing a variety of objects and learning the basics.
Here are some approximate costs to consider:
- Desktop 3D Printer – $200 to $4,000. Prices range dramatically based on build volume, print quality, and features. Good beginner models can be found for around $300.
- Plastic Filament – $20 to $50 per spool. Each spool contains 1 kg of material on average. ABS, PLA, and PETG are common beginner filaments. Exotic materials are more costly.
- 3D Modeling Software – Free options like Tinkercad exist. Higher-end programs like Fusion 360 are also free for personal use. Many printers include free software licenses.
- Finishing supplies – Sandpaper, filler primer, and paints may be useful for achieving a smooth, finished look if desired. Approximately $50+ in supplies.
- Electricity – Costs a few cents per print hour depending on electricity rates. Printers use 200-500 watts while operating.
For under $500, beginners can purchase an entry-level printer, basic supplies, and some filament to begin learning 3D printing. Advanced systems with larger print volumes and multi-material capabilities can cost over $10,000.
Where to Learn More about 3D Printing
The world of 3D printing is vast with new developments happening constantly. Here are some great resources for learning more about this technology:
- Online communities – Large forums and groups like the /r/3Dprinting subreddit are hubs for sharing projects, troubleshooting prints, and discussing new advancements.
- YouTube channels – Many 3D printing enthusiasts post tutorials and educational content about 3D printing. Thomas Sanladerer and CNC Kitchen are great channels.
- Blogs and websites – Sites like 3D Hubs, All3DP, and Make contain guides, news, and tips relating to 3D printing.
- Social media – Follow hashtags like #3dprinting to see what others are printing and discuss topics. Many users share their makes.
- 3D printing services – Order a 3D print to get first-hand experience with the technology before buying your printer. Shapeways, Sculpteo, and others offer printing services.
- Local libraries – Many public libraries and colleges have 3D printers you can use or take workshops to build your skills. Some offer 3D printing services too.
- Conferences and events – Attending a 3D printing conference lets you see new technologies and connect with others in the industry. Maker Faire events often showcase innovations.
- Training & certifications – Programs like those offered by Simplify3D provide structured remote 3D printing education. Earn certifications in 3D printing.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions to learn from the experiences of others. The 3D printing community is welcoming to new members and happy to help.
Best 3D Printers for Beginners
When purchasing your first 3D printer, opting for an affordable, beginner-friendly model is recommended. Here are some solid starter printers:
Creality Ender 3
A very popular budget 3D printer, the Ender 3 has a large 220 x 220 x 250 mm build volume. It uses FDM printing technology with heated print beds up to 110°C. Many mods and upgrades are available too. Reliable enough for newbies while still fairly inexpensive.
For photopolymer resin printing, the Anycubic Photon is hard to beat. It uses DLP projection for smooth prints with small layer heights and good detail. The build volume is moderate at 115 x 65 x 155 mm. Great for miniatures and jewelry.
The Prusa name is well respected among 3D printing enthusiasts. The Mini delivers high print quality with features not often found at this price like auto bed leveling and removable steel spring steel print sheets. Reliable workhorse printer.
Monoprice Select Mini Pro
Extremely wallet-friendly but able to print decent-quality objects. Best for beginners to get basic experience with 3D printing before upgrading. A large user community provides guidance too. Just don’t expect amazing quality.
FlashForge Adventurer 3
A great plug-and-play printer for first-timers. Touchscreen interface and cloud connectivity make it incredibly easy to operate. Decent print size at 150 x 150 x 150 mm build volume. Overall very newbie-friendly.
The best 3D printer is the one that fits your individual needs and budget. Read reviews and watch tutorial videos before purchasing. Many starter printers now cost just a few hundred dollars.
Useful 3D Printing Projects for Beginners
To familiarize yourself with your new printer, try printing some of these useful projects:
A lithophane is an illuminated 3D-printed object that displays an image. As light shines through the thinner areas the image appears in lighter tones. Quick and easy-to-make lithophanes are great beginner prints.
Small toys like fidget spinners and stress relief objects with moving parts are fun starter prints that don’t take too long. Tweak your design for the perfect fidget toy. Kids enjoy them too.
Useful household items
Practical prints like picture frames, coat hooks, containers, organizers, and more make great first projects while benefiting your home. Measure objects around your house to design useful tools.
Board game pieces
Chess pieces, towers for stacking games, dice, and customized game parts can add something unique to your board game nights. Design mods to upgrade your existing games.
A basic phone stand or dock is extremely simple to model and print. Make it the perfect size and shape for holding your smartphone in place while streaming or browsing.
Personalize your space with printed vases, bookends, art pieces, pencil cups, and more decorative objects. Download models or create your designs.
Start simple then move on to more complex projects. Part of the fun with 3D printing is designing exactly what you need.
Helpful 3D Printing Resources for Beginners
These resources offer guidance as you get started with 3D printing:
Tinkercad – Easy online 3D design and modeling tool. Great for beginners to make basic designs to print.
Cura – Free slicing software with advanced settings for converting STL files into printable gcode. Works with many printers.
Slic3r – Open source slicing program with plenty of options for fine-tuning prints. Lightweight and easy to install.
3D Hubs – Provides guides and services for manufacturing with 3D printing and CNC. Lots of useful information for beginners.
YouMagine – Community for learning about and sharing open-source designs that are free to download and print.
Thingiverse – Extensive collection of 3D printable models and projects shared by users. Search for inspiration or upload your creations.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. Start printing objects first to gain practical experience. The learning process is ongoing as technology rapidly evolves. But with patience and persistence, 3D printing can be mastered by any motivated beginner.
Beginner’s guide to 3D printing. Covers the basic principles of 3D printing, types of 3D printers, materials, benefits, and limitations. Provides recommendations for first-time buyers and useful starter projects for gaining experience.
There are many helpful online resources and 3D printing communities to aid users of all skill levels in getting started. With the right mindset and understanding of the fundamentals, 3D printing can become an enriching and highly engaging hobby.
FAQs about 3D Printing for Beginners
What can a beginner do with a 3D printer?
A beginner can make small toys, household items, phone accessories, tools, decorative objects, and endless other useful and fun prints with an entry-level 3D printer. Start simple then work up to more complex projects.
Is it easy to learn 3D printing?
Learning 3D printing involves some initial investment of time in understanding the basic principles, software, and printer operation. However, with today’s user-friendly printers and online resources, the learning curve has become quite approachable for beginners.
Is running a 3D printer expensive?
The printers themselves can range from just a few hundred dollars to thousands for professional models. But plastic filament is affordable at around $20-50 per spool, and electricity costs are fairly minimal. Overall it’s a relatively inexpensive hobby to get started in.
What is the top resolution on your 3D printer?
Print resolution depends on the specific 3D printer model and settings used. Entry-level printers can print at 0.1-0.2mm layer heights, while advanced professional printers achieve resolutions of 25 microns or less.
Is 3D printing a good career choice?
With the increased adoption of 3D printing technologies, there are growing career opportunities for engineers, designers, technicians, and more. However, it’s still an emerging field and may be better suited as an addition to enhance traditional manufacturing skills.
What are the disadvantages of 3D printing?
Some drawbacks include limited materials, high printer costs, slow speeds for mass production, and additional post-processing requirements. However, print quality and capabilities continue to evolve quickly.