Printing in the 3rd dimension: 3D Printers

I vividly remember seeing a 3D printer on a TV news report for the first time. The story was about a 3D printer made by 3D Systems. The short report showed a model of a skull rising from a vat of clear liquid. It was not apparent at the time that it took a long time to make that model, since all you saw was the finished part rising from the goop. That false impression of speed made it all the more impressive. That particular type of machine used a clear resin that was cured by an ultraviolet laser which traced out each layer of the object.

Jump to present day, and 3D printers are popping up all over the place. It’s not quite “for everyone” yet, but it’s getting there. Prices have come down to sub $1000 for one that works right out of the box, and there is a huge community of users now, as well as a large source of models and modeling programs.

One thing common with the early printers is the layer by layer construction. Whether it’s liquid resin, powdered material, or plastic filament, it’s all put down layer by layer until the model is complete.

The development and refinement of filament based printers is certainly of enormous significance for the expansion of the base of 3D printers. These machines are generally known as “FDM” (Fused Deposition Modeling) printers and work by melting plastic, extruding it (pushing it really) through a thin nozzle, and fusing the layers together as the model is being built. Materials are cheap, the technology is simple, and the resulting models are functional and have decent strength. They are not the prettiest, because of the fairly coarse patterns in the material when compared to other technologies, but they are certainly quite good for the relative low cost and simplicity.

After looking at the options, and deciding that I’d like to have something I could use to make good prints without a lot of fiddling around, I chose to buy an UP! printer from pp3dp.com about a year ago.

printing3D printer as seen on the pp3dp web site

Sold directly from China at first, this printer didn’t take long to get a good reputation as a good performer, though it was a bit more pricey than a kit like one of the makerbot models at the time. The software has a decent number of options to control print speed and quality, but not so many that you can’t determine some pretty good settings without much fuss. It had a few rough spots in the design that seemed silly, like holding the extruder assembly onto the carriage with just one screw, and some of the parts in the machine are 3D printed, which I think 3D printer makers regard as “cool” because it can print parts for itself. But all in all, it’s been a solid little printer, with good quality, support, and community.

I love being able to have an idea and hold a real object that I made the same day. It opens up so many possibilities for prototyping and design verification before expensive tools are made for production parts. I’ll continue to post more on this subject, including some tips and fun projects. If you’ve been thinking about getting into this technology, I’d certainly encourage it. It’s a lot of fun.




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