5 First Impressions of 3D Printing

maker-botLike a lot of people, I’ve been fascinated by the rapidity with which 3D printing has become more mainstream, whether in printing widgets or human tissue or, even directly useful stuff such as pizza in space.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve gotten first-hand access to two such printers. (Neither is mine.) Later in the semester, I’ll post some more detailed reflections and how-to’s and so forth, but I thought I’d give a few first impressions.

  • The technology is becoming more and more accessible day-by-day. My 10yo redeployed money he’d been saving towards the LEGO Death Star and bought one of these instead. (The Death Star is $100 more!) More to the point, he has built it 100% by himself. And if it took him a couple of weeks, well, he’s ten, and it’s an assemble-it-yourself kit. At work, I was able to get one of these print-ready in about 20 minutes. If you are interested in giving the technology a try, you can do it.
  • That said, the word “fiddly” doesn’t even begin to describe it. For example, there’s the preheating, which with my printer can take up to an hour. Even after an hour, your model is still probably going to warp and lift up off the platform unless you make a special solution and coat the platform in it. At this price level, there’s not a lot of error correction: if the nozzle gets at all stuck somehow on the model, it’s not going to stop printing, or cool off, or adjust the model. It’s going to melt a hole in your model. Printing is not *quite* set-it-and-forget-it. A lot of it is easy enough, but no one should buy one thinking it was going to be as easy or straightforward to use as, say, a laser printer.
  • The ability to scan easily will be a huge thing. For smaller items, there’s the MakerBot Digitizer ($1500), and of course for bigger items (or people!) there’s the Kinect (about $250, but also apparently fiddly). (Many more are on the way.) Otherwise, you’re restricted to what you can find on sites such as the Thingiverse or to what you can create on a CAD program or something similar.
  • There is definitely a learning curve with the software, both for the various printers and for designing objects. If you are interested in 3D printing, you should probably start familiarizing yourself with CAD software, or an open-source modeling program such as MeshLab. That said, you know what makes the pain of that curve diminish? Rapidly printing out trial designs and learning as you go.
  • Because of the fiddliness of the process and the learning curves associated with the software, you might think that the process is disappointing or not as cool as you might think. Not so! It still seems pretty magical.

As this documentary from Funny or Die shows, however, there can be some drawbacks that you need to be wary of. (The video has swears. It’s from Funny or Die.)

Do you have tips for getting started with 3d printing? Share them in comments! I’ve been gathering use cases for 3D printers in the classroom (or, more precisely, for student projects), and so I’d love to hear those, too.

Photo by me. The thing I printed was the Maker Faire Robot.

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