A while ago, I got myself a 3D printer. While I’m still unmistakably a novice, I’ve already found it an incredibly useful tool in my Maker toolbox while also developing a small CAD modeling passion along the way.
If you believe - like I did - that hobby 3D printing requires a lot of technical know-how, setup, and calibration hassle to achieve at best mediocre results, I can tell you that this is no longer true. Hobby 3D printing has become affordable (< 300 EUR), requires virtually no time to get started (< 2hr) and only requires intermediate computer skills and general handiness on par with building some Ikea furniture.
If you like tinkering, building things or are just a general technology enthusiast and are in doubt about buying a 3D printer - I’d compel you to try it. It’s such a super-power and really, what do you have to lose?
The first few days after getting the printer, I mostly printed free downloadable models (STL files) designed by others. The internet is full of them.
You can really find almost anything: from toys to art to appliance replacement parts. What I find most interesting though, are situations where a part isn’t (readily) available to buy or where you can tailor a model to meet your specific use-case.
One way to do this is by downloading so-called parametric models, which allow you to customize a generic model by modifying pre-defined input parameters.
Of course, the ultimate customized part is the one you designed yourself in CAD software. 3D modelling is something I had played with a tiny bit before, but it was only after getting a 3D printer that I really started to dig in.
If you’ve never done any CAD before, I wholeheartedly recommend playing with TinkerCAD: free online CAD software that makes it super easy to get started.
Taking it a few steps up, there’s a lot of options, but Fusion360 is a very popular option which is also free for personal use (although some more restrictions have been added recently).
For me, learning Fusion360 (F360) was what made 3D printing go from being a tool to being a true super-power. I personally found F360 quite approachable and was able to teach myself the basics using trial-and-error, Youtube and Google. Since then, I’ve designed and printed two dozen or so custom widgets, enclosures, hooks and holders. Some of those I’ve uploaded to my 3d-printing repository on github (together with some downloaded models).
Long story short: slicing is a whole art on its own, but you can easily get started by using one of default slicing profiles of popular slicing software. I personally use an older version of CURA which is popular, free, easy to learn and feature-rich. For most of my use-cases, slicing comes down to loading the 3D model in CURA and re-saving it as a GCODE file - a 30 second operation.
Then you need to get the GCODE file to your printer. By default, most printers use an SD Card for this, although almost all of them also have a USB port that allows you to control them using a computer.
Octoprint is by far the most popular open-source software for such computer-based control. I use the excellent Octopi to host Octoprint on a Raspberry Pi I’ve got hooked up to my 3D printer. It’s hard to praise Octoprint enough (shout-out to maintainer Gina Häußge). Some of its best features:
As with any new hobby or interest, the endless amount of options and terminology related to 3D printing can be overwhelming. This can both be scary as well as make you spend way too much time researching everything trying to find the best fit for your use-case.
The best thing to do is to just buy an entry-level FDM 3D printer (FDM is the type of printer, like an inkjet vs. laser printer with regular printing) and jump in. You’ll be surprised what you can learn in an afternoon! Happy Printing 🤙