A 5 Minute Primer on 3D Printing and Why You Should Care

3D Printer, image: unsplash.com

About 6 months ago, for whatever reason, I really wanted to learn more about 3D printing. Probably some sort of ⅓ life crisis (if I live to be 102) and the feeling that technology is flying forward like a rocket ship and I am being left in the dust.

I had watched a number of YouTube videos and read a bunch of articles, but I still wasn’t satisfied with understanding how it worked or how I could make practical use of the technology. I hope this short article can help you understand the basic “how” and “why” of 3D printing.

I’d like to give a special shout to John Kray and Zach Rose at HydraResearch3D for helping me get a basic understanding of the space and helping me to actually print some prototypes with their new Nautilus printer.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is also known as “additive manufacturing”. As the name implies, it literally adds layers on top of previous layers to build a product from the ground up.

This is different from other manufacturing techniques like CNC machining and “injection molding”. On that note, you can generally think of manufacturing methods in these 3 buckets.

Injection Molding

Injection molding is often the best technique for mass producing a product. It requires the most upfront cost to create the mold, typically made of metal, which will then be injected with material for each subsequent copy of the product.

The upfront costs are usually many thousands of dollars, but once that is complete, it is the fastest and cheapest method for producing a large quantity of any items.

Subtractive (CNC)

Machining can be a very good choice for large batch manufacturing needs (and some small batch situations, but also faces a similar issue to IM of higher upfront cost).

The benefits machining offers over 3D printing in specific instances is that it is able to work with a wider range of materials and also complete tasks at a faster speed.

**The benefit in terms of materials is quickly shrinking because of innovations & availability of more 3D printing materials (which I will touch on in a second).

Additional benefits of machining are increased part accuracy, surface finish, and strength. The primary disadvantage compared with 3DP is set up time & costs. Machining is not cost or time effective for prototyping of small runs.

Additive (3D Printing)

3D printing has come a very long way since its inception in the 1980s. We have gone through a few hype cycles in the industry but there seemed to be a general lack of understanding in terms of how 3D printing fits into the trillions of dollars manufacturing market.

The technology also just wasn’t good enough from prime time use (due primarily to cost and accessibility and a lack of material options), but that is all changing very rapidly.

3D printing is the most powerful tool for prototyping and building highly custom small batch components or products. It can take a bit longer than machining but has far more flexibility and range in terms of what types of products it can output.

What 3D printing technologies exist today?

There are a lot of different technological methods and filament materials that can be used to get the job done.

For your purposes, the differences may not matter too much. But here is a good description of those if you are curious.

What is the next big thing in 3D printing?

The barrier to 3D printing metal is rapidly being eliminated with the innovation of metal filament (filament is the print material) so that you don’t need an extremely expensive specialized machine to print metal.

In the past, you’d need a 3D printer costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to print a metal object; but with metal filament, you can accomplish this with a desktop 3D printer and then by placing it into a very hot sintering oven.

The cost of a sintering oven to achieve this goal is still prohibitive, but it’s increasingly clear that we are reaching a point where printing metal is being democratized.

What you should know that you might not know?

3D printing is awesome and makes it much easier, faster and less expensive to produce many prototypes and objects.

However, one misconception is that after you create a 3D model of your object, you just send it over to the printer and everything works magically. That’s what I thought at least.

But there is definitely an art to understanding what shapes will print, how to orient objects on the print plate and where to place structural supports during the process (many objects need supports during the process or they will crumble on themselves).

Fortunately, there are software applications that can help with this. They are called “Slicers” and in many cases, they generate print supports on your object automatically for you (a popular example is the open source application Cura). It automatically adds supports so that when you print your object it won’t just fall apart on the print plate.

Even once you have this all figured out, you aren’t totally out of the woods as there are a lot of mechanical things that can go wrong for you in the print process (ie your print nozzle gets clogged).

Better printer = less mechanical issues, more materials, more precision, larger print plate, faster print speed or some combination of these elements.

In short, the process of 3D printing goes something like this:

1) Use a 3D modeling software like Autodesk Fusion 360 to design an object;

2) Import your object into a slicer, get it modified for printing;

3) Print.

There is already a relatively large industry of print service companies if you ever want to dip your foot in the water without buying a printer. Check out 3DHubs.com. They make getting something printed really easy.

One last thing worth pointing out is that if you want to get involved in 3D printing, a great place to start is learning some CAD basics. Modeling objects in 3D is a large part of the battle and it can be the most expensive part of the process if you need to pay an expert.

Why You Should Care?

I started my journey into the 3D printing world not really having a clear picture of what exactly I should be excited about (aside from other people telling me to be excited). But now it’s more clear.

The convergence of rapidly improving 3D printing technology and the wide availability of inexpensive processors, sensors, microcontrollers and other hardware (Raspberry Pi, Arduino, etc) sets the stage for an explosion of new IoT products and the ability to cheaply (and rapidly) prototype and test them like never before.

This empowers makers, small companies and hobbyists to more effectively innovate and compete in this space.

I’ve worked primarily with software for the past 10 years and am an ardent advocate of a “lean” and customer-centric product innovation approach and this convergence opens up a world of new possibilities.

In fact, I ended up using the 3D printer exactly for this purpose and am launching a new product soon based on these principles! As always, the best way to learn something new is to just dive right in.

All things startup and technology. Founder of https://www.scrumlaunch.com— A product development studio for high growth startups and leading brands.

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