3D printers look like fun, and you can't wait to join the party-- right? If you've been waiting for the opportune moment to dive head-first into this exciting world of new technology, wait no more; your time has come. This article will walk you through taking your first steps into the wide world of 3D printing.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a casual term for a form of manufacturing created in 1983 by Chuck Hull. Essentially, melted plastic is printed in thin layers, one on top of another, to create a 3D object. Mr. Hull patented this technology in the United States in 1986, so for a while it could be used by license only. After 20 years, his and other patents relating to 3D printing began to expire, and the general public was then able to begin using the technology free of charge.

Today, countless 3D printer manufacturers, print services companies, model-hosting websites, and other new businesses built around this exciting new technology exist around the world. 3D printing continues to evolve as new printer technology is developed, new filaments are created, and more people join the industry.

Types of 3D Printing

There are many types of 3D printing technologies, typically referred to by their acronym: 

  • SLA (Stereolithography) is a technology that involves curing resin using ultraviolet laser. Layer by layer, the print is raised out of a vat of resin until it is a complete object.

  • SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) uses a laser to sinter, or bake, powder into a specific pattern to form a 3D object.

  • DLP (Digital Light Processing) is similar to SLA, but it uses ultraviolet light instead of laser technology to cure resin.

  • FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) is the most common type of 3D printing, whereby a hot nozzle extrudes melted plastic into thin layers stacked one on top of another to form an object.

  • Polyjet 3D printing is similar to a standard inkjet printer used to print on paper. UV light cures tiny droplets of photopolymers as they are jetted onto a build surface.

For this article we will concentrate on FFF. It's the most common type of 3D printing due to its low cost and general ease of use.

Creating the Need

As someone interested in 3D printing, there’s a good chance you fall into one of the following categories of people.

  • The imaginative type probably already has an idea for a part or project and can't wait to get started. They want to know everything about the process so they can have as much creative control as possible.

  • Another type of person already has a model designed, or has a physical object they want to scan and replicate. They are interested in the technology needed to make their part come into existence. They want to know more about how to print than the design aspect.

  • There are those who are simply fascinated by the idea of 3D printing-- so much so that they don't know what they want to create but want to understand the printing process intricately. These types are also probably not as focused on design but are more interested in how the technology works.

  • Finally, there are folks out there who come from a manufacturing background. They already know how to make things professionally, and are curious to know more about this form of rapid prototyping made much more common since the patents expired.

Turning an idea into a 3D Printed Part


Like an assembly line, a few different positions exist in the toolchain of taking ideas to a 3D-printed reality. First, the process of model design involves drawing specifications for a part and then using computer-aided design (CAD) software to turn the drawings into a usable 3D model. Next, knowledge of printer assembly, calibration, and maintenance are necessary to have to achieve quality prints. Finally, the print is the culmination of all of these aspects in which the 3D printer creates the final, tangible model. 

Let's explore each of these individually.

Types of design

Design for 3D printing falls into two main categories: artistic and engineering. Artistic models have fewer specifications as to their size or shape and are made typically for visual stimulation only. For this reason, the sculptor is free to manipulate a mesh without the need for straight lines and exact measurements. Filament choice achieves specific looks and feels, with less attention paid to the physical makeup.

Design for engineering purposes is almost the opposite, depending on the application: rigid specifications detail requirements for size, shape, and material. Of course, all good engineering design involves some artistic talent, but, in general, to achieve success certain guidelines must be followed. Empirical reasoning guides the choice of the filament, such as the desire to achieve certain strength, elasticity, or other mechanical properties.

Know thy printer

Like the saying "know thyself" implies a necessity to understand one's own being to comprehend his or her place in the universe, intricate knowledge of how your printer operates is invaluable to understanding its role in how it makes your objects. This is especially true if and when something goes wrong, and you are the only one around to fix it. There's a lot to know, so I’ll start by introducing you to the two most common types of printers: Cartesian and Delta.

Cartesian vs. delta printers

  • Cartesian printers move one or two motors along each of the X, Y, and Z axes and the name was derived from the Cartesian coordinates system. They typically have a rectangular build area and the printers themselves tend to have a cube-like shape. The Lulzbot Mini is a fine example of these types of printers.


The open source Lulzbot Mini - A Cartesian 3D printer

  • Delta printers have three arms that come together in the center to suspend the extruder above the build area. Deltas also use a Cartesian coordinates system to move around in, but instead of moving one motor per axis at a time, all three arms move at different rates or times to precisely move the nozzle with triangulation. The SeeMeCNC Rostock MAX V2 is a prime example of a delta printer.

The SeeMeCNC Rostock MAX V2 - A delta 3D printer

Whether Cartesian or delta, all printers have other components in common. A general knowledge of electronics is good to have, especially when something goes wrong. You want to be able to trace a wire and have an understanding of how resistance, conductivity, and other basic electronic concepts work. Also, the ability to solder and work with wires is a skill that will come into play eventually.

Along those same lines, knowledge of physics is helpful when fine-tuning your prints. Many firmware settings deal directly with physical concepts like jerk and acceleration, and they're good to know if you want to understand 3D printing on an intimate level.

Troubleshooting skills are necessary because things will go wrong. You'll have to be able to determine what problem has befallen your beloved 3D printer, and what to do about it. Internet search engines like Google are a great resource and can help narrow down symptoms into probable causes, but you'll still need to use your intellect to effectively solve problems. As you continue to gain more experience, you'll come to recognize patterns of behavior and will be able to stop some problems before they start.

One of the best ways to get to know a printer is to build one yourself. This may sound daunting, but you’ll learn much more about the inner-workings than you would by simply purchasing a pre-built model. Some printers are sold only as kits, giving the owner the experience of assembling a known-working model. These kits are typically well-supported by the manufacturers, so if you have any questions or something goes wrong, you can expect good help.

Serving up prints

The bread and butter of 3D printing are when all of these components come together to produce the printed part. 3D printing is itself a form of engineering; many different factors must come together in the right way to work properly. Like in a car's engine, if one part of the process fails, often the rest will cease functioning properly. Everything must work together to produce the desired outcome.

Mainly, printer knowledge is an important part of the process - it is in constant use during printing. Whichever printer you end up with, you'll want to read the documentation entirely before you begin. Many obvious questions are answered by simply reading the manual, and you'll save yourself from having to seek out knowledge that is already at your fingertips. 

Besides printer knowledge, you'll want to get to know the various types of filament. PLA, ABS, PVA-- they all have different requirements for printing correctly, and you'll want to know these when printing specific projects. Knowledge of different filament also means you can do more with them. When you understand the capabilities of each one, you are more aware of what each one can and cannot do.

Learning Tools

At this point, you may be wondering what the best way to go about learning all of this information is. At MatterHackers, we try to provide as many tools as possible to get folks printing, and we've already got a lot of information available in other articles. Here is a short list of some helpful articles we have written about some of the topics I've covered today:

On a similar note, the process of 3D printing follows a pretty straightforward path from start to finish, and our software MatterControl is designed to flow just like the process. Familiarizing yourself with the documentation for MatterControl, as well as with the program itself, should help explain the bigger picture as you continue to understand more about 3D printing.

MatterControl Articles: http://www.mattercontrol.com/articles

Ongoing Education

Once you achieve a level of proficiency, you'll soon find there's always more to learn about 3D printing. New filaments come on the market requiring new settings or techniques, and new equipment makes printing easier and better-- the industry is changing rapidly as more and more people are searching for their place in it. The better you become at adapting to the changing atmosphere, the better you will be at 3D printing.

One of the best ways to get involved is to join a local maker space or hackerspace. Like-minded folks share your interests, and meeting with them on a regular basis can really help you improve your skill set. To find one near you, try meetup.com, local libraries, or search Google for maker spaces in your town. If you can't find one, start one!

If you need inspiration for new project ideas, think about activities in your day-to-day life and ask yourself what you could create that would enhance them. Commonly printed items include accessories for costumes and customized gifts for friends and family. Again, the more you collaborate with others, the easier it will be to think of ideas.

You can also watch for online contests. Various 3D printing-related sites occasionally have contests that can give you a chance to develop some ideas you may not have otherwise considered. You could win some great prizes-- maybe even a new 3D printer!

And last, but certainly not least, if you're feeling charitable there are plenty of printed objects that can be donated to organizations in need. You could print out the parts for a new printer, purchase the other components, and donate it all to a school-- educational facilities need more 3D printers and few have the budget for them. Prosthetics are also becoming more easily manufactured with 3D printing. For example, a project called e-NABLE pairs 3D printer owners with those in need of prosthetic limbs to facilitate the creation of customized hands, legs, and other appendages.