June 22, 2017
You did it! You've seen your friend's 3D printer or really liked the 3D printer you saw at work or school, so you bought your own... now what? You're in luck thanks to this handy guide to walk you through the steps of setting up your printer, the basics of using it, what to do with your prints, or where to even get models in the first place!
There are many 3D modeling programs that exist for 3D printing; some have a steep learning curve, and others are so easy that elementary schools regularly use it. Depending on your prior experience with 3D modeling, here are some options:
These are the programs to use if you've never done any 3D modeling before:
These are used for a multitude of applications, from mechanical fixtures to organic movie props, these are versatile programs:
These programs are perfect for people with extensive knowledge of 3D modeling, or for those feeling bold and are ready to fully commit to the art of 3D design.
If you're still not sure which 3D modeling software will be best for you, check out a more in-depth article here.
Maybe you aren't quite ready to model yet, and that's okay! There are many different websites called "file repositories" that exist just to collect 3D models specifically for 3D printing.
We have a super handy article on the various tools you will need to start 3D printing. If you don't feel comfortable getting all those tools at the start and want to build up your toolbox, at least make sure you have a PVA (not PHP) glue stick, Aqua Net hairspray (brand is specific), a spatula to remove your prints, blue painter's tape, and a pair of pliers to clean off support.
Slicing is the term used for the process that takes your 3D design (most likely an .stl file) and transcribes it into the "language" that the printer can understand (gcode). Slicing basically takes your 3D digital model and turns it into a ton of really tiny layers. There are many slicing softwares that exist, some paid for, others free, but MatterHacker's has an awesome slicer called MatterControl. MatterControl has printer profiles, so you can find your make and model and automatically have all the necessary settings filled in. Plus, you can store all of your .stl files in the cloud, and even share them with your friends. Oh, did we mention that it is completely free to download?
In MatterControl, there are many settings you can change, from how fast you print, to how hot your printer is, and everything in between. To start off, you won't need to change many settings, in fact, "Basic" settings are all you will need as you first learn how to 3D print. These are the settings you will first see:
Gcode is the code language that most 3D printers run on. It's what tells them where to move, how fast to move there, and how hot to be. There are some 3D printers that run on different languages (some printers are proprietary, others just uncommon), but in general, Gcode is what your printer will understand.
To generate the Gcode you need, you have two options: you can "Export" in the bottom right when you're in the "3D View," or you can go to "Layer View" and click "Generate." "Generate" will completely slice your model, but it will only save it in the backend of MatterControl, which is helpful if you aren't quite sure if the settings for your print aren't right yet and don't want to fill up your SD card. "Export" will slice your model and save it to a location of your choosing.
Once the Gcode has been generated, if you go to "Layer View" you can view what each layer will look like with either one layer at a time or in 3D and see the layer you are on and all the previous layers.
So, you have your Gcode, but before you get printing, let's first run through a "pre-flight checklist" to make sure you're good to go.
1. Make sure your bed is level. Depending on your printer there are many different ways to level your bed. Some use inductive sensors and probe the bed, some have a switch that taps around the bed, others need to be done manually. If it's a manually leveled printer, you have two options: turn the thumb screws under the bed to raise and lower each corner until the whole bed is level to the nozzle, or use MatterControl's bed leveling software to precisely align your bed, even if it's ridiculously skewed. If you want to try baby-stepping to level your bed, read our Feature Spotlight we have on the method. Follow the directions provided with your 3D printer.
2. Add your bed adhesive (if necessary). Some materials need bed adhesives, others don't, and some need very specific adhesives as well. There are much too many filaments to go over all of them, but we have the Filament Comparison Guide which goes over all the best bed adhesion materials.
3. Load your filament. Some printers are bowden, which means the extruder motor is not on the print head, other printers are direct drive, which the extruder motor directly on the print head and moves with it. Each method loads slightly differently, so follow the instructions provided by the printer manufacturer. In either case, make sure the nozzle is hot when you change filament, and that the color coming out the nozzle is the same as the one you put in; make sure previous filament is properly purged.
4. Load your SD card or plug your printer into your computer. They each have their pros and cons; printing straight from your slicing software means you can baby-step your print if the bed wasn't as level as you'd like, but if your computer goes to sleep or restarts from an update, you will lose the print. With an SD card, you give up the fine tuning controls you'd get from MatterControl, but free up your computer.
When everything has been checked off, you're ready to get printing! Wait - here are some quick tips though, don't walk away just yet.
We hope that this article has helped you succeed in getting a great first print. If you are still having some trouble, feel free to comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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