Despite being around for the better part of 40 years, 3D printing is still a relatively new technology that most home consumers are still yet to learn the benefits of. It’s still thought of as a concept that was cherry-picked out of a science fiction movie without any real merit.
It’s an assumption that couldn’t be more true, as 3D printing has actually undergone a number of exciting developments over the last couple of decades. Even still, there are probably many who are wondering, “what is 3D printing? What can it do for me?”
These questions (and many more) are exactly what we at PC Guide are here to answer. This page is your hub to everything you need to know about the world of 3D printing, its history behind 3D printing, and its uses today.
History of 3D Printing
Whilst you might assume that 3D printing is still in its infancy, which in some ways it very much is, additive manufacturing technology has actually been around for the last 40 years.
The Financial Times has recently reported it as being “bigger than the internet”, which goes to show how technology can evolve and develop over time into what they are today.
You can date the earliest record of 3D printing back to May 1980, when Dr. Kodama filled out a patent application in Japan, but you can trace it further back to its origins in 1986 when Charles Hull patented his stereolithography apparatus (SLA). He then went on to co-found 3D Systems Corporation, which is now a household name in the 3D printing industry.
It was this company that created one of the first machines to utilize 3D printing technology, and they’ve only gone on to develop their products and make new strides in this field.
However, it might interest you to know that only in the late 1990s was 3D printing truly acknowledged for the potential you see it beginning to touch upon today.
Since then, there have been major efforts to better understand this technology. One example of this was in 2005 when it became apparent that 3D printers had evolved to the point where they could basically build themselves. Who knows where we’ll be with it in another twenty years!
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is the production of parts and system components which are typically stronger, better quality, and more lightweight compared to their more traditionally printed counterparts.
What this essentially entails is the creation of a three-dimensional digital design by layering material on top of itself in order to build a physical model that replicates this design exactly.
At its core, additive manufacturing technology provides the basis for 3D printing, which is an entirely new and unique printing process compared to anything else currently on the market.
This is different from subtractive manufacturing, which is the process of cutting out sections of a type of material such as metal or plastic, using a tool like a milling machine, for example.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
In order for 3D printing to work, you’ll need to design your digital model.
There is a wide variety of software available that you can use to design your 3D model, each with a number of different tools ranging from industrial level to open source.
We believe the best software to start out with when you’re still learning the ropes of 3D printing is Tinkercad, which is free and can be used in-browser without needing to install it.
There are lessons offered for beginners and once designed, you can export your model as a printable file, like .STL or .OBJ, for example. Once the file is ready, you will need to get it prepped and ready for your 3D printer, which is what’s known as slicing.
In order to be ready for printing, your 3D design needs to undergo a process called slicing, done using special slicing software. This essentially means your 3D model is sliced into thousands of layers, ready for your 3D printer to layer the material as it builds your design.
Your digital design turned printable file will now be ready for printing, and you can transfer the design to the printer via a USB, SD, or Wi-Fi connection.
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Uses of 3D Printing at home
As well as being used for more industrial purposes, 3D printing can be just as useful for application around the home.
They’re admittedly expensive, and therefore not an option for every home, but if you have the budget for it then there are plenty of reasons why you should consider getting a 3D printer, which we’re about to delve into.
It Saves Time and Money
To put this into perspective, imagine you’re in a band, but a part of your guitar has broken or snapped off the night before your big performance. Instead of spending the next day running around town looking for replacement parts or a repair shop, imagine if you could print the part you need right at home and replace it yourself.
This would save you both time and money compared to purchasing the required parts and having to potentially wait weeks for them to be delivered or pay a premium for postage, and it’s a great example of how 3D printing can be used at home to benefit you.
High-Quality Home Printing
It’s understandable to be wondering why you need to bother with a 3D printer at home when there are plenty of services available to do your 3D printing for you.
The simple answer to this is that there is always a certain amount of trust placed in supplies, which doesn’t necessarily always pay off. Sometimes the quality of your printed products are not up to the standards you had hoped for, or that there’s been a mistake with the design.
Unfortunately, not even the professionals get it right one hundred percent of the time, whereas at least at home you have total control over the quality of your printing. It also gives you the ability to prototype your designs, which has the added benefit of allowing you to pick up on any mistakes or design flaws before you begin to mass-produce them.
Creates Unique Gifts
What do you get for the person who has everything? Why not design your very own gift to give those close to you something totally unique and personable to them. At least you can guarantee they won’t already have one in this color…
A great way to utilize having a 3D printer at home is to use it to design and make beautiful gifts for your friends and family. There is literally nothing you can’t make, so you can take gift-giving to the next level with beautiful jewelry, personalized toys, and bespoke items.
It Improves Creativity
When your design options are limitless, what can you come up with? 3D printing allows you to test the limits of your own creativity, forcing you to think outside the boxes you were otherwise restricted to working within.
Whatever artistic field you’re in, 3D printing can unlock new levels and lets you set new boundaries with your work, all from the comfort of your own studio or home.
Helps You Develop New Skills
Due to the different steps involved in 3D printing, including using specific design software to create your digital model and then figuring out how to use your 3D printer to bring it to life.
It’s therefore safe to say that 3D printing is a hobby that will undoubtedly widen your horizons and help you to improve upon and develop new skills. There’s also the fact that 3D printing can introduce you to something new entirely, as you’ll be able to print anything you can imagine which leaves the door wide open for trying new things.
Educates The Kids in The House
We’ve already touched upon how 3D printing can be used for educational purposes, but what about when this is in a home setting? Does the same still apply? To put it simply, yes.
Certain research has demonstrated that kids can benefit from iterating with physical items and carrying out tasks in a hands-on way, as this can help develop their information retention ability. Getting to grips with the technology used to create 3D printed models will also be a huge advantage to them. You can bet they won’t grow up to have difficulty using the internet.
It’s Loads of Fun!
Last but not least, there’s the fact that having a 3D printer in the home can be a whole lot of fun. Think of the endless possibilities for printing and the games you could come up with as a family, or the pranks you can pull off with 3D printed props at your disposal.
Benefits of 3D Printing
As you can probably imagine after having read this far, there are plenty of benefits of 3D printing, which are the reason that there’s been such a surge in the development of this technology for various different purposes.
As a general rule, 3D printing is a more accessible option than traditional manufacturing processes, meaning that a wider range of people can utilize the benefits of this technology.
Not only is it more affordable, but the automated process means it requires little to no maintenance and can be left to run unsupervised which is highly convenient by comparison.
This is great for small businesses, which can utilize the advantages of 3D printing to prototype their products for a much cheaper expense compared to having them professionally printed.
Speed in Production
Time is money, as they say, so being able to speed up your production times is one of the main advantages of 3D printing processes. Rapid prototyping, as it is known, allows you to design, manufacture, and test parts in a much shorter space of time.
This also means that any changes to the design can be carried out almost instantly which prevents any additional costs or delays to the manufacturing process. Compared to the weeks it could take using more traditional production methods, this is a huge improvement.
Consistency in Production
Where outsourcing your production can be useful at times, there’s always the risk that your manufacturers won’t achieve the level of consistency that you’re happy with. The accuracy of 3D printing ensures greater consistency across your printing with more precise results.
You’ll lower the risk of receiving inconsistent batches or certain parts that are defective, as you can monitor the production process at each stage and immediately rectify any issues.
This will also ensure fewer failed parts which results in less wastage overall, and at the same time, improves the quality of your products through higher consistency across the board.
An additional advantage of 3D printing is that you’ll have greater flexibility over your designs and how they’re brought to life. Due to their ability to create complex, intricate designs, you can print pretty much anything provided it fits within the limits of the printer’s build volume.
This is a far cry from the more traditional manufacturing processes where any changes to the design or the introduction of new parts result in the need for a new tool, mold, or jib to produce it with.
When it comes to 3D printing, all you need to do is make the desired changes to the digital design and voila, it should print the next model with the new adjustments. This makes it easy for even the most novice CAD users to have greater flexibility and control over their printing.
It’s Cost Efficient
When you only need to create a smaller number of prototypes, it’s often more cost-efficient to opt for 3D printing processes over more traditional prototyping methods.
Not only are these more expensive to run compared to 3D printing, but they also result in more wasted material which is unsustainable for both financial and environmental reasons.
This is due to the difference in the manufacturing process, which is based on layering material, and therefore only using as much as is needed to create the model, rather than hollowing it out of a larger block of material and wasting the cut-offs.
There is the potential for 3D printing to become a more sustainable option when it comes to manufacturing and production processes, not in the least because the components you can produce are stronger, more durable, and will typically have a longer expected lifespan.
Compared to typical manufacturing methods, there is far less waste produced as a byproduct of printing, and the process itself offers improved levels of energy efficiency.
In terms of reducing the carbon footprint, 3D printing offers an environmentally-friendly alternative to shipping products post-manufacturing across the globe to reach their destination.
What Can You Make On A 3D Printer?
The world is your oyster – to a point. You can only print out things as large as your printer’s Build Bed will allow, and in the realm of consumer home-use 3D printers that we are dealing with here, that means objects that are pretty small in reality.
You would struggle for example to build out a stand for your laptop as it simply wouldn’t fit on the build plate of a cheap 3 D printer. There are ways around it, you can chop up the object and print it in several sections and then simply Super Glue it together when it’s done – and indeed many makers do that if they are making props or prototypes, but if you are looking to 3D print a Mandalorian helmet so you can do some crazy cosplay, just be aware you are going to have to do more work than pressing CTRL-P.
Is 3D Printing Cheap?
3D printing can be both cheap or expensive depending on the setup you go for.
First, there are inexpensive but also quite pricey 3D printers so that’s the first aspect that affects how ‘cheap’ 3D printing is. Obviously, you’ll be saving money if you opt for a low-cost 3D printing machine but that might impact the quality so that’s down to personal preference. Then comes the materials you use. The cheapest 3D printing material is PLA with metal powders being the much more costly option. So again, it down to you for how cheap you want to make your 3D printing setup.
All in all, though, 3D printing your own creations rather than purchasing them at retail will always cost less as you’re doing the work yourself thus essentially making it ‘cheaper’. It’s the initial cost you’re putting down that’s the big difference, as well as any upkeep for your 3D printer that needs to be done.
How Much Does A 3D Printer Cost?
The quick answer is we bet it’s a lot cheaper than you thought. You can get great entry-level FDM printers for well under $200. The Ender 3v2 from Creality and its cheaper (and possibly better) clone, the Aquila from Voxelab are more than enough printer to get you building great stuff on a budget.
As you step up to the advanced models and large-format machines things start to rise. Medium spec printers will start to push $600 plus, but in truth, they are overkill for the vast majority of hobbyists.
A lot of the costs will add up over time in terms of upgrades. It won’t be long before you want to upgrade your extruder, or print out extra mods for your new hobby – all of which cost in the currency of 3D printing, filament – you can find out all about the different filaments you can use in our handy article right here.
If a resin filament is what you are after – maybe to make high-quality miniatures have a look at our rundown of the best you can buy here and also everything you need to know about the resin printing hobby here.
The price of 3D resin printers continues to fall dramatically with the Proxima from Voxelab now regularly picked up for around £170/$170 which is an insane price for the quality you can get from this machine. If you are looking for a resin printer to build larger models with the cost will rise dramatically to $600+, but in truth, most people will be absolutely fine with the small form factor ones. Certainly, while they are learning the ropes.
How To Make Money With A 3D Printer
There is a whole army of makers making hard cash with their 3D printers with a bit of time, know-how, imaginations, and an online storefront somewhere like Etsy or eBay.
This is both good and bad as competition is high, but if you hit on a good idea and have lady luck on your side with timing there is serious money to be made.
Recent examples of people making wads of cash have been on things such as Nerf gun accessories – you know the toys you buy for your kids but are really for the adults, I’ve done it, you probably have too! New stocks for guns, sights, silencer barrels – you name it somebody is selling it, and therefore making money out of it.
People also make gun stocks to put oculus rift controllers into so you can play first-person shooters more realistically. Not many people can print them themselves so if you can offer the service you are going to make money somewhere along the line.
Getting in at the start of a trend is also a surefire way to fill the coffers. 3D printing YouTuber Uncle Jessy has made nearly $40,000 selling movie props and also a steering wheel add-on for an Xbox controller. Many people now offer the same item (such is life!) but as he was in first he cleaned up in the first place.
Another example is the plethora of Pokemon aimers for your smartphone to help you play Pokemon Go – and if there’s one thing we know, people will spend hard cash on things to catch Pokemon – even though they don’t exist.
How Do 3D Printers Work?
3D printing is the process of making an object out of material. Just like “normal” printing takes a blank sheet of paper and turns it into a sheet of words, or a photograph or whatever, a 3D printer takes, well thin air, and eventually chucks out a 3D item – be it a model or whatever that you sent to it.
3D printing is the process of additive manufacturing which is a fancy way of adding something to something to eventually make something else. Don’t be afraid of the term, children use additive manufacturing when they are building something out of lego. We don’t need a degree here.
Instead of Lego, a 3D printer takes information sent in the form of a 3D object, sliced into tiny layers, and then goes about building the layers on top of each other until you get the end result. Lego again. If you want to mess with the space/time continuum you could even use one to make your own Lego. That’s extreme additive manufacturing!
To do this we need to use a program called a Slicer. Just like we use a word processor for sending text to an Inkjet printer we use a slicer to send information about our object to the 3D printer and just like a word processor performing this task, much of the hard work is done for us and we can sit back and take all the glory.
Of course, we still have to do some of the initial hard labor ourselves but if you are just looking to get something printed out you can just download a model from the internet, automatically slice it and send if to the printer and end up with spectacular results (alongside the occasional gooey disaster!)
How To Clean A 3D Printer Nozzle
First thing’s first, getting a serious blockage in your 3D printer’s nozzle is pretty rare in our experience. Plastic melts and 3D printer’s Hot End’s are called just for a reason. When plastic melts at the right temperature it drips out of its own accord.
Most printers will come with a needle-type implement you can shove up or down into the nozzle itself to help things along. You might have found that after a filament swap with a different material that melts at a different temperature then you end up blocking the nozzle for the filament that needs a lower melting point as the material that has a higher melting point remains solid. Crank up the nozzle temperature and it will hopefully sort itself out.
Most of the time you can remove the blockage this way but if it is being stubborn you have a technique called the Cold Pull in your arsenal. This is where you should head before you start taking things apart, even if you are really in a bind and can’t clear the clog.
The technique works but adding a length of filament with a molten tip to the area of the blockage and then yanking it out quickly, the theory being the blocked material will adhere to the molten bit and be forcibly ejected when you pull it out. You may need to repeat the process a few times, but makers with blockages swear by the process.
If you want to read more about the different kinds of filament that will block your nozzle, check out our full guide right here.