Guide to Personal 3D Printers
3D Systems’ Cube 3D
There is an emerging new category in the gadget world. The products are called 3D printers and although still evolving, they are becoming relatively affordable and quite workable. The term and the idea of a personal 3D printer came from the work of two MIT grad students who in 1995 modified an inkjet printer to deposit layers of plastic in a process sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing. RepRap was also early on the 3D printer scene with an open source 3D printer project that helped inspire an early 3D printer from MakerBot called the Cupcake CNC machine. The Cupcake has since evolved into the high quality, $2,000 Replicator 2, 3D printer. Although there are many different varieties of 3D printers ranging in price from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, we’re going to look at what goes into the more “affordable” versions.

Note: Be sure and check out our roundup of affordable 3D printers.

Start With a 3D Modeling Application
Source: Autodesk (Left) / FreeCAD (Right)
To produce something with one of these 3D printers you need to start with a “printable” file that you can download from somewhere like Thingiverse or generate your own file with a 3D modeling program like AutoCAD from Autodesk. There are also plenty of other applications like Sketchup a free 3D modeling program or FreeCAD as the name says, a free and open source modeling program. From a CAD program you generally move to an STL (Standard Tessellation Language) industry-standard file format that can be read by the 3D printer application. Tessellation, by the way, is a term associated with the manipulation of polygons in rendering complex 3D models in computer graphics applications and now, in 3D printing.
Fused Filament Fabrication
Most of the “affordable” 3D printers work on a principal similar to inkjet printers but instead of laying down dots of ink on paper to build a 2D image, most of these 3D printers lay down successive layers of plastic to form a 3D object. The technology is referred to as fused filament fabrication or additive manufacturing as it feeds a plastic filament through a “print head” similar to a hot glue gun. One drawback to these first generation affordable or desktop 3D printers is that “printing” an object can take a long time. With “print” speeds measured in cubic centimeters per hour, a typical small model might take about an hour on a 10 cm-cubed per hour printer. Of course, printers using thinner layers in the 100 micron range, that produce finer details will usually take longer to print than a printer using thicker, 300 micron layers. 3D printers commonly have a heated bed that helps prevent models from warping during the printing process. The Cube 3D printer includes a water soluble glue to hold the model to the platform that releases the model when dipped in water.
How Much Plastic Does It Take To Make A Yoda?
Source: Solidoodle GalleryMost 3D printers use 1.75mm or 3mm filaments of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (polylactic acid) while some printers also use PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) or HDPE (high-density polyethylene). Filament generally runs around $20 a pound. The Solidoodle folks say the small 3-inch wide Yoda model shown above used about 40 cents worth of filament.
Recycle Old Plastic Bottles Into Filament

There are people working on ways to lower the cost of filament using do-it-yourself extruders like the Filabot that can make filament out of recyclable plastics. Imagine grinding up an old soda bottle and feeding it into your own extruder to produce a 3D model.

Who Needs a 3D Printer?

The question of why anyone would need their own 3D printer reminds of the same question asked many years ago why anyone would need a personal computer. The Christmas cookie video shows what can be done with a 3D printer with some imagination and a “modified” 3D printer but it goes to show that when you put a new tool in front of imaginative people there’s no telling what can happen.

Ready-To-Print 3D Libraries
One a more practical level there are new sources appearing all the time for 3D models to print. One of the more popular sites is called Thingiverse that has a wide assortment of files you can downdload and print. Some other sources include 3Dvia and 123D
Check Out Our Roundup of Affordable 3D Printers
Here’s a roundup of 3D printers in the $500 - $2000 range along with videos that show how they work.

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