Choosing the right 3D printer for you

The popularity of 3D printing is soaring. More and more people are discovering its uses from education to healthcare to building spare parts for your broken or missing vacuum cleaner.Just a few years ago, 3D printers cost several thousand pounds and were only useful for industry and trade. Today, in comparison, anyone can buy 3D printers for a few hundred pounds and they are becoming increasingly accessible, particularly for makers and hobbyists.

But what is 3D printing and how does it work?

3D printing for the trade

Although the idea of 3D printing still seems fairly new, the technology has been around for some time. In fact, the first patent for 3D printing was registered back in 1984.

Today, professional 3D printers are used in many areas. Car manufacturers use them to create individual components for their vehicles, and they are also helping to build the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. SpaceX, run by Tesla-founder Elon Musk, even produce small rocket engines using a 3D printer.

3D printers for the private sector use the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) method.In this case, molten plastic is applied layer by layer. Polylactides, referred to as PLA for short, are used for this.

These lactic acid-based plastics are biocompatible, so they are therefore not harmful. However, be careful not to swallow them – even though they are not poisonous, PLA plastics are not good for your body.

3D printing at home

Printers for home use can help with all sorts of projects. They allow hobbyists to produce special components from the screw nut right down to the dowel itself. Creatives can use them to make jewellery, for example, too.

If you lose your battery compartment cover for a remote control, a replacement can easily be made with a 3D printer, or you can even make a chess set. Helpful websites, Shapeking and Thingiverse, offer inspiration on 3D printing projects, with ready-to-print files to use at home.

Items like a chess piece can of course be made by hand. However, the flexibility and versatility of a 3D printer means that rather than sawing and filing sixteen individual pieces by hand, one process can be executed sixteen times with computer software. Production in the printing process takes significantly less time and costs less money.

What do you need for 3D printing?

To work a 3D printer, besides the device itself, you’ll also need a computer and the printing software.

Depending on the printer and the computer operating system, driver software must also be installed. Set up and connection is simple for most 3D printers; they are usually connected to the computer via USB, and many devices can also be accessed via WiFi.

The printing software itself is also referred to as “slicing” software. It processes the STL files used in 3D printing and cuts the model into wafer-thin disks, which are then layered by the printer one after the other. If necessary, the software adds necessary support elements to the printed object.

Some manufacturers, such as Makerbot, can provide this software directly, or it is available on their homepage free of charge. Alternatively, you can also use the free Slic3er software for Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

If you want to design your own objects, as well as print finished STL files, you’ll need a CAD (Computer Aided Design) programme. CAD programmes that support the STL format include FreeCAD for Windows, Mac OS and Ubuntu Linux or the 3D Builder included in Windows 10.

Which 3D printer is right for you?

Different models vary considerably, not only in terms of price but also in how they are used. The size of the printer also approximately determines the maximum size of your printed objects.

The layer thickness during production is important: a printer with a very low layer thickness takes longer to print, but can print particularly high-resolution.

A good printer for beginners is the Da Vinci Minimaker. The handy device produces objects up to a size of 15cm x 15cm x 15cm.

Despite its low price, its print quality is comparable to other, more expensive printers. Its variable layer thickness is between 0.1mm and 0.4mm, so provides a good compromise between high resolution and printing speed.

The included XYZmaker software for Windows and Mac is easy to understand, which makes the Da Vinci Minimaker particularly suitable for schools and makers printing for the first time.

For larger objects of up to 20cm x 20cm x 20cm, we’d recommend the Da Vinci 1.0PRO. Costing under £670, the device operates in a very compact, closed space, meaning it makes less noise.

Where should I put my 3D printer?

This may seem an odd consideration, but 3D printers are bulky objects and the production of an object can be noisy and take considerable time. Ultrafine particles are also released during printing, so you need to ensure the space is well aired to ensure lactide particles emitted into the air from printing with plastics are ventilated.

Spare rooms such as a guest room or study are the most common choices. Don’t forget the room must also have a good WiFi connection for WiFi enabled 3D printers. Then you have a bit more flexibility than those connected via USBs.

Author profile:
Frank Gerwarth, product manager IT, 3D printing, photography, Reichelt Electronics