Desktop 3D printing - Thoughts from a New User
By Steffanie Yeakle
Les Fées Hilares Background: Working for Creata in 2003, I saw pictures of a Nemo Happy Meal prototype being 3D‐printed and was amazed ‐ what magic!
Fast‐forward to 2013, in the 10 years that had passed I’ve become an independent games inventor, seen 3D printers in action, spent a long time on research, taken the plunge and finally received my Solidoodle 2. Here is what I have learned: In Early 2013, 3D printing wasn’t yet consumer‐ready, and one year later I don’t think it is very different, but if there is a great on‐line community around your printer you will be OK. When I tried out my new printer with a simple test file, the printer made a blobby slug rather than the design I had loaded. That was a bit scary ‐ I am not an electronics specialist, nor even all that handy with a wrench. I spent a bit of time on the Internet trying to understand why. The repair turned out to be simple: a rod had come loose in transport and fixing the printer was as simple as banging it backk into place. W What saved my investment was the active and helpful on‐line community. My printer has an activeforum, plenty of YouTube videos and Ian Johnson’s excellent blog http://solidoodletips.wordpress.com/ . An active community is definitely something that should guide your choice when you are deciding on a printer model. Creating your own 3D files isn’t that difficult. With no prior 3D experience, I tried the free online platform Tinkercad, which generates print‐ready .stl files, among other formats. It has a great series of free lessons to walk you through the process, and that really helps understand the mindset required for creating objects in 3D. For example, sometimes to create a shape, you will need to create a counter‐shape then subtract that from your initial shape, which isn’t intuitive. I love Tinkercad, even if I’m surely limited in the designs I can create vs. a paying program. In earlly 2013 Tinkercad was having difficulties with profitability and was bought by Autodesk in May 2013, but it is still available for free (I actually stopped by their booth at the Paris Maker Faire this June just to thank them for that). Your next step is to clean‐up the .stl file. I use a simple application that examines my file and checks that the edges really touch each other where I want them to and other 3D‐specific issues that can cause printing snafus. It is another free (for now) online resource that you can find here http://netfabb.azurewebsites.neet/index.php ‐ it now appears to be hosted by Microsoft so you need a hotmail or outlook account. Completing the File. The last step in the process is to make a file the 3D printer will actually understand, this is called slicing and will create a .gcode file. Most printers have a program they recommend. This is where you can ‐ for example ‐ add support material, as 3D print supports an overhang up to 45°. There are many other things these programs allow you to fine‐tune that will help you get perfect prints, but I’ve mostly managed fine with the standard settings. The blog I referred to above does a great job of explaining the settings for those who have the need, patience or interest. Troubleshooting. Sometimes your file will not print, and you don’t understand why. Because I use a very simplified process, I just generally go back to Tinkercad, make a very minor change and get a new file. While you are at it, check that your design is actually lying flat on the platform and not hanging in the air. And, of course, sometimes, the old‐as‐computers trick of restarting your printer and computer will resolve everything. So, what do I use my 3D printer for? Before I bought it, I was a bit worried it would prove too complex to use, or that my activity wouldn’t give me enough opportunities to use it. Now, I say take the plunge. Here is a sampling of what I have printed: - custom playing pieces for board games - full‐sized or downscaled working prototypes of our action game concepts ‐ or just the gears and other inner components that make the magic. - when working with a manufacturer towards cost savings, I can make components to see exactly what size they are proposing to make. - when an editor wants to test an idea: without having to send the prototype back to China we can rework components to fit what they have in mind and test it with kids. - .stl files from a manufacturer to verify them before production ‐ on non‐critical components this saves shipping samples from China. A Final tip. My printer has a heated printing bed, which helps the prints to adhere, but it can take a long time to warm up. It heats up a whole lot faster when I lay my favorite Ugly Doll (Icebat, ironically) on top of it!