Learning Curve Thoughts for a Beginner Interested in 3D Printing


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There is no way that you will ever be this happy with your 3D printer. Pirate3D.

You will probably never be this happy with your 3D printer. [Image: Pirate3D]

So, you want to buy a 3D printer? Want to pull the trigger? Make the leap? Get into this wonderful world of 3D printing? Be a part of the fourth industrial revolution sweeping this earth? Wonderful, wonderful I’m sure it will be amazing for you and you will make amazing things. But, um yeah let’s take a moment to take a deep breath. I think it’s time we sat down and had the talk. Yes, the talk. It’s time to tell you the truth. Look, are you sure this 3D printing thing is for you? Are you sure you’re going to go the distance with this?

Could I ask you a few questions to determine if 3D printing is right for you? Great. Are you a masochist? Yes. Well, then you’ll love 3D printing. Do you like it when things don’t work? Perfect. Are you happy when stuff breaks? Then this is the hobby for you. Do you like settings? How about endlessly tweaking settings? Fantastic.    

Yes, you’ve heard of all the wonderful things you can print and make. And yes it’s great to have a little itty bitty factory in your house. But…um I don’t know how to break it to you but well..3D printing blows. Blows? Oh yes if your crazy ex-girlfriend blew like 3D printing blows, you would have never left her no matter what she did to your car.

As far as hobby goes, 3D printing is kind of like toasting slices of bread as a hobby. Only difference is that the toaster doesn’t work most of the time and the bread is never really toasted like you want it to be. Since we jumped the shark as an industry already a while ago, without further ado:


1. Breathe. This is the most important piece of advice I can give anyone when starting out with 3D printing. A 3D printer is a relatively fragile device. Hitting it won’t help and it won’t survive being drop kicked through the room. So, breathe. Let the bad thoughts slip away. Don’t be annoyed at little micro factory buddy. Don’t see it as a repair. Don’t think of it as a thing that is broken once again. Don’t see it as a frustrating thing. It can be a very zen thing to wait a few hours in silent meditation for things to emerge. Just breathe. Have fun with it, tinker, play, learn.

2. Before you buy a 3D printer, do research. There are still no well defined criteria by which to judge 3D printers. There are no definitive reviewers or review sites. The best thing you can do is head to a makerspace or fair and see a bunch in action. Maybe start a self help group. The best places are usually forums. That’s where all the good info is shared and where you can really learn what the problems are.

3. Ask the community. I’m not sure how or why, but we’re a very friendly bunch. Stockholm Syndrome? People are very eager to help you get started. A lot of people try to figure out their printers on their own. They then individually make all the mistakes that tons of others have made already. Don’t do this. You are not alone. Read the forums and posts on your printer. Find out the ideal settings and hacks for that printer.

4. Never buy a 3D printer on Kickstarter. Just don’t. You want to be a guinea pig? Companies will pay you to become a medical test subject. Or you can buy a Kickstarter 3D printer which will be a year late, have half the functionality that it was promised, be obsolete by the time you get it and probably not work. You might get lucky and it may work but you’ll have more fun at the casino.

You can do many things with your Kickstarter 3D printer. This Tiko was upcycled into a chair.

You can do many things with your Kickstarter 3D printer. This Tiko was upcycled into a chair.

A 3D printer seems simple but it is actually a complex device that needs to be designed and made well to work properly. There is a continual interplay between software, hardware, nozzle and many other elements which means that it is a difficult thing to make well, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.

5. Bed leveling. Bed leveling is a big problem for many users and even with automatic bed leveling can lead to a lot of misprints or not actually solve the issue in many cases. Work hard initially to get this right since it will otherwise lead to a lot of problems or exacerbate other problems.

6. Just because it’s called a desktop 3D printer doesn’t mean you should put it on a desk.

The stability of the printer and surface you put it on have a large influence on your results. Rickety desks, vibrations, resonance or movement will degrade the printer’s performance. Usually a flat floor works better. A rubber pad could lessen the vibrations of your printer and improve performance. Making sure the printer itself is level is also important. Sometimes your printer buddy has cute little feets, play with them so it is completely level.

7. Bed adhesion. This is a huge problem for a lot of people. Depending on the material, printer and build platform surface, the optimal solution is different. A clean dirt free borosilicate glass plate washed with high alcohol content detergent is usually best for PLA with a heated bed. Blue tape is best on a cold bed. PEI sheets work best for many other materials. Maker juice is nasty stuff and you should probably not want it just lying about in your house. Hairspray works, but not all hair sprays are created equal. If you do use hairspray, don’t use too much or it might gunk up your machine. Pritt may work but Pritt isn’t Pritt. Check with your vendor, 3D printing shop or online to see what the optimal bed adhesion solution is for your particular printer and the material you’re printing with. 

8. Learn to 3D print with one material. Transparent materials let you see what’s happening in your print but solid colors and especially grey materials make it easier to spot what’s going on by looking at your print. Pick one material and dial in your printer to that material. So one color, one vendor, one material. Only once you’re printing perfectly and have explored what all the slicer settings do, know how to do maintenance on the machine and know how to calibrate it, then move on to other colors or materials. I wish I had done this instead being a moron. I spend a ton of time 3D printing with different materials from different vendors and with different plastics. Just switching from orange PLA to that cool glow in the dark or black one has huge differences not only because of the color but the additives in the material. I wasn’t getting anywhere because I didn’t take the time to see what settings actually did. Instead there were a lot of variations due to the material and I wasn’t correcting for them. The same PLA in a different color from the same vendor could print optimally at a 5 degrees hotter nozzle temp for example. If you switch materials often in the beginning you’re going to take a lot longer to learn what the key settings are that you can change. 

With 3D printers such as the Peachy printer, you can even 3D print your own house.

With 3D printers such as the Peachy printer, you can even 3D print your own house.

9. Control the variables. With 3D printing there are a lot of variables; any reduction in those variables makes it easier to control and lets you learn faster. With regards to fumes it’s generally a good idea to enclose your 3D printer. PLA is not somehow magically intrinsically safe because it has been made from plants. There may be additives in it that are not safe. At one point you’re going to want to print something that should have an enclosure, such as flexible materials or ABS. So get one in the beginning. Having an enclosure is not only safer but it makes for more consistent 3D printing. As well as aiding in consistency it helps improve your prints themselves. Air flow across the bed, air flow in the chamber, room temperature, air flows in the room and humidity can all affect your 3D prints. You will get better and safer 3D prints faster with an enclosure.

10. Print 100 keychains. Where you place your 3D print on the bed and in what orientation the part is 3D printed has huge effects on the print itself. Take a test part and print it in lots of different orientations and bed placements to learn these effects on your particular printer. You can then for example also print the same object again and again with different nozzle temperature settings to see what that does. Then do ten but keep the temperature the same but change the bed temperature. Then do ten and change your fan speed. Then take a fun hard long look at retraction. Then start playing with the combination of these factors. Give 100 keychains to friends for Christmas. This may seem like a boring thing to do but it’s a challenge that will give you a bit of a realistic perspective on 3D printing and let you learn so much since the material and the gcode are the same.

11. BONUS. 3D Printing is fun, exciting and a very enjoyable hobby. It is also an industry that is expanding at a rapid clip. It will not be easy to get started in 3D printing. It will be a bit of a slog in the beginning. However, with dedication and hard work this will be a very rewarding thing for you to do with your time. You’ll meet many interesting people, make many cool things and push the boundaries of what can be made. But, don’t forget 3D printing blows.

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