How to 3D print: A crash course

Have you heard about 3D printing? Sure you have! You’ve heard about 3D printed kidneys, 3D printed chocolate, and 3d printed parts for your car! You’ve heard how in the future, we will all own a 3D printer, and instead of buying “things” we will just buy a 3D file and make them at home!

Well, to get to this future, we have to start somewhere. I think that I have found where. Companys like Shapeways, Ponoko and Sculpteo will take a 3D model that you give them, instantly tell you how much it’s going to cost and 3D print it for you in plastic, steel or even GOLD. They have more varied and higher quality machines than the average consumer or company can justify. Here’s a crash course that runs through the steps how to 3D print your own stuff!

CAD (3D Modelling)

To design a 3D object, you need to be able to use CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. These are tools that let you digitally model an object in 3 dimensions.

There are tons of free and paid software, my personal favourite being Autodesk Fusion 360 (see my post about it), free for makers, hobbyists and basically anyone who makes under US$100,000 in revenue from the software’s use. There are also heaps of resources out there on how to learn CAD, and its a great skill to have in an increasingly digital 3D-printy world. Once you have a 3D model, you can save it in a format (usually .STL) that the software that tells the 3D printer what to do can read. The STL format breaks down the geometry into thousands of tiny triangles that it can then map mathematically in a 3D space. This info is then communicated to the 3D

The 3D file, the STL file, and the finished part in brass and bronze.

If you love plasticine and are passionately opposed learning how to sculpt beautiful new objects INSIDE your computer, here is a CAD-less work around where you just need your object (plasticine or otherwise), a smartphone, a few free software downloads and time. Or just check out the thousands of shared 3D files on Thingiverse.

Choosing a 3D printing service.

Ponoko – A kiwi company with manufacturing centres in New Zealand Europe and the USA, Ponoko are pioneers of the “upload a file and we will make it for you” service. Originally focused on laser cutting, they have expanded their services to 3D printing, CNC routing and electronics manufacture.

Shapeways – Originally developed within Phillips Electronics, Shapeways only do 3D printing and they do it really well. They have the most extensive materials catalogue, and often offer the cheapest price for a given model.

Sculpteo – Another 3D printing pioneer, based in France and can print in a super hard tool steel material as well as most typical other materials.

iMaterialise – Notable for offering a woodchip based material.

3D printing price check is an awesome tool to instantly compare quotes for a part from all these vendors and more.’

Find a local vendor 3D Hubs is a well laid out directory for finding 3D printers closer to home (and shorter shipping times I assume)

Buy your own – You can pick up a cheap FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) machine off Ali-express for less than USD 500. This limits you to one material and a fairly course resolution but if this suits your needs it is a great place to start. Also be aware that some of these company’s adopt a model used by the their inkjet “2D printing” cousins, making most of the the money on consumables, in this case the spools of plastic filament.

Build your own – Google “3D printer kit” if you prefer the hard (and marginally cheaper) way.

Choosing a material


Plastic – Plastics generally melt at much lower temperatures than metal or ceramics therefore are much easy melt and reform using a nozzle (FDM, Fused Deposition Modelling) or a laser beam (SLS, Selective Laser Sintering). Certain plastic resins can also be fused using UV light in a method called SLA (StereoLithography). FDM is the cheapest method, SLS can provide finer detail but has a gritty finish and is the method used to produce Shapeways “strong and flexible plastic.” SLA has a very fine detail and smooth finish but is the plastic resin is generally to expensive to be viable.

Metal – The sentence “3D printed metal” is somewhat misleading. Some metal objects are truly made using a “3D printed” additive manufacturing method, but most are made in a multistep process using 3D printed wax version and a plaster cast. Steel, bronze, brass, silver and gold are among the materials offered. Discovering the affordability of having something 3D printed in metal a big revelation to me. It still blows my mind that you can have a solid steel object made halfway round the world and in your hands for under $20.

Ceramics – This seems to be a tough one to get right. Shapeways pulled their ceramics service because of production issues but are now trailing a porcelain service.

For more on different 3D printing process’s this helpful person has put together a pretty good summary, and each of the company’s have detailed material info on thier websites.

And we’re done! Go forth and print beautiful objects for the awesome people in your life.

Or animals. Awww

Case study: Designing a ring in Fusion 360 and getting it made with Shapeways.