This tutorial is intended for complete beginners: people who have heard about 3D printing, are interested in buying one, but don't know where to start. Also this is intended for people who are on a budget or who want to spend less than $500.
In order to get from A to B as straightforward as possible, most of my statements will be simplified and hence 80% true. When you get more advanced, you'll learn that there are a lot of exceptions to the things I said. Also, I'm not affiliated with any of the software developers or 3D printer manufacturers.
Also, no 3D printer is 100% trouble-free. Just like a normal printer, it will jam sometimes and you'll need to fix it. It's sort of the price you pay for using bleeding-edge technology.
Step 1: Summary of the 3D Printing Process
3D printing is the process of building a part layer by layer. A print head, like an inkjet head, deposits plastic material until an entire layer is formed, then the head moves up the width of a hair and deposits another layer. This is repeated until the part is finished.
Step 2: Choosing Your 3D Printer:
Consumer grade 3D printers can cost anything between $100 and $5,000. I'm going to recommend two printers that I have never personally used, but they look pretty good based on the reviews I've read. They're both on the cheap end of the spectrum but they appear to be good quality and offer a lot of bang for your buck:
1. Insanely Cheap but Small Build Volume: The Fabrikator Mini
The Fabrikator Mini costs $177 which is unthinkably cheap for a printer. It's even pre-assembled which is rare for even a sub $500 printer. This printer does have its drawbacks, though. The print volume is about 3" x 3" x 3". Based on the reviews I've seen, and the sample prints I've looked at, the Fabrikator Mini appears to have excellent print quality that is comparable to printers 10x its cost. I might just buy one and do an in-depth review and design upgrade parts for it.
Here's a video review of the Mini Fabrikator.
2. Still Really Cheap but Slightly Larger Build Volume: The Printrbot Play
At $399 pre-assembled, the Printrbot Play is another low cost printer that has excellent features. The print volume is slightly larger at 4" x 4" x 5". It has a metal frame and a lot of metal components which means it should be robust and rigid. The print quality looks excellent too.
Here's a video review of the Printrbot Play.
Step 3: Pro-Tip: How to Make Large Prints With a Small Build Volume
The two printers I mentioned in the previous step have small build volumes. 3" x 3" x 3" on the Mini Fabrikator is small but you'd be surprised by what you could print with it. If you need to print something larger, consider splitting your model up, printing it in several pieces, then gluing them together. You can split up a model with free software like Netfabb Basic. Here's a video tutorial on how to do that.
Step 4: Basic Workflow of 3D Printing:
1. Download a 3D model. That 3D model must be in a file format known as STL.
2. Load the STL file into a type of software known as a "slicer." The slicer lets you configure your print settings. When you're done adjusting the settings, the slicer will convert your STL file into Gcode.
3. Load your Gcode file into your printer and begin your print.
Step 5: Where Do I Download STL Files?
There are many sites that allow users to upload and download 3d print models for free. Thingiverse is the most popular one. Thingiverse is very simple to use and everything on it is free to download. Pretty much everyone on Thingiverse uploads STL files, but you'll find some other file formats as well like "OBJ" or "SLDPRT." Just ignore those and use the STL files.
Step 6: Where Do I Find a Slicer?
Once you have your STL file, you'll need to put it in a slicer. Like the name implies, a slicer chops up a 3D model into many layers and then generates a set of directions for how the printer should move around.
Step 7: What Settings Should I Use for My Slicer?
Every slicer software comes with default settings. These settings are generally good and you should keep most of them the way they are for your first print. That said, there are a few settings that you MUST configure before you start your first print:
1. Set your extruder temperature setting to 190 degrees Celsius (assuming you're using PLA material, more on that later).
2. Set your print bed dimensions.
3. Set your filament diameter. Most printers use 1.75 mm filament but some use 3 mm.
Step 8: Got the Slicer Settings, Now What?
Now that you have your slicer set up properly, you may click on a button that says "Generate Gcode" or "Export Gcode" or "Prepare to Print" or something along those lines. This will generate the Gcode file that you'll need to upload to the printer.
Step 9: (OPTIONAL READ) What's the Difference Between STL and Gcode?
An STL is the actual 3D model itself. If you design your own 3D models, you'll be able to save it in a number of different file formats. One of which is an STL. You can view STL files in software like Netfabb. Netfabb is actually another free and very useful software for 3D printing, because it can "repair" STL files. But that's for another tutorial. Gcode is not an 3D model, it's more like a road map for the 3D printer so that it knows how to make the 3D model. It tells the printer when to turn left, go up, when to push out plastic, what temperature it should be at, etc.
Step 10: Uploading Gcode to Your 3D Printer
There are two ways to upload Gcode files to your 3D printer:
1. Via SD card
2. Via USB cable
Step 11: Option 1: SD Card
Some printers have an SD card slot. This is the easiest and most reliable way to run your printer. You can save your Gcode files to an SD card and then place the SD card into your printer. The printer will have an LCD interface that lets you select which file you want to print.
Step 12: Option 2: USB Cable
If your printer doesn't have an SD card slot it will definitely have a USB port. Connect the included USB cable from the printer to your computer. If you have to use a USB cable, you'll need another type of software known as a print host.
Step 13: What Type of Plastic Should I Use?
There are a few materials out there, but you should start with PLA. PLA is the easiest material to work with, it's also non-toxic, the cheapest, and you don't need a special printer to print it.
3D print material like PLA is packaged as filament wound onto a spool. Most printers use 1.75mm diameter filament, but some use 3mm, so make sure you buy the right one.
Step 14: (OPTIONAL READ) What About ABS?
The second most popular plastic to use is ABS. ABS is generally stronger and is less brittle when compared to PLA. It can make more durable parts, but it's more difficult to print and toxic. If you want to print in ABS this is what you'll need:
1. A printer with a heated bed
2. A printer with an enclosed build chamber so that it can retain heat
If you don't have those two capabilities, you'll have a much harder time printing ABS because it tends to warp and dislodge itself from the print bed.
Step 15: Happy Printing!
3D printing is a lot of fun. Like all good relationships, they have their frustrating moments. Here is a super helpful pictoral troubleshooting guide. Also feel free to contact me via my Facebook page if you have questions regarding 3D printing.
If you're looking for cool things to 3D print, here are some famous 3D print models that are usually the first test prints people do:
3D Benchy (Torture Test)
If you're coming from BGG (Board Game Geeks), be sure to follow my Facebook page, I'll be posting some free designs for you to download including a card game organizer that will fit on the small build volume of the Mini Fabrikator. Stay tuned!