By Steven Bennett, Technology Specialist
Hey everyone; Steve here. So you’ve more than likely heard or seen something about the newest maker movement: 3D Printing. But what is it, and why should you be interested in it beyond the occasional news article and Facebook post? What does it even do? Well, over the next few parts I’m hoping to give you all the info and know how on 3D Printers, so that not only will you be able to say “I know how it does that,” but will help you decide if you can use this technology in your classes. So let’s get started!
When I’m explaining how most 3D Printers work, I often compare them to “extremely precise, computerized hot glue guns,” and it’s actually not far from the truth. Most commonly seen 3D Printers are based on a technology called Fused Filament Fabrication (or FFF). In essence, the printer works by feeding plastic filament into a heated extruder (commonly referred to as a “hot end”) and moving along computer coded paths, dispensing molten plastic along the paths layer by layer, forming a physical copy of a 3D model. The software that it uses takes the 3D model (typically a .stl “stereolithography”, or .obj “object” file) and performs an action called slicing.
This process separates the 3D model into wafer-thin layers (the thickness is predetermined based on the printer’s settings), and then codes these layers as movements for the extruder to follow. Once a layer has been completed, the code dictates that the extruder moves to the next layer, which is how the printer works in three dimensions (X – width, Y – length, Z – height).
Inside G Code, you’ll find various Letter/Number combinations, such as:
Now I know that looks daunting. But this is all stuff that happens on the back end of the programs most 3D printers use. The front end of these programs is almost entirely graphical, allowing you to place your model on a virtual rendering of the print bed and change various parameters and details without having to know all of the code commands. Here you can access a PDF Cheat Sheet of the most commonly used commands if you’d like to have them. They can be handy to have because most programs have a place to enter in commands for just in case you need to modify something, like the hot end’s temperature level depending on the type of plastic filament you’re working with.
There are two types of plastic filaments primarily associated with FFF style 3D Printers:
There are other types of filaments that are being developed to work with these printers (as they’re the most commonly owned by individuals), from rubberized plastics and nylon to even wood-based and carbon-fiber filaments. And other larger scale machines work with their materials in completely different ways!
In the next part we’ll go over the differences between Open Source printers and manufactured out-of-the-box machines, and the reasons that each could benefit you. See you then!