Sunday, August 29, 2021

Thoughts on 3D Printing

 I finally decided to buy a 3D printer. Not really because I needed one for anything in particular, but rather because the price finally fell down to a point where I thought it was worth it. You can now get a decent printer for under $100 and if you wait for sales, you can get the for $60-$70. With some filament and shipping, I was in for about $120. The reason I waited for this price point, is because i have always felt 3D printing was at best mildly amusing and slightly useful. Seriously, these things are about as useful as a CNC machine, if you do it for a living, great, if not, well it collects dust, so spending $300 just seemed a bit expensive for something I might conceivably only use 2 or 3 times a year. At the sub $100 level, they become more practical, even if I end up only using it to print D&D miniatures and Raspberry Pi cases.

So first things first, I bought the EasyThreed K1, shop around and you will find them for $80, the company also sells the X1, which you can find for as low as $60. This printer was amazingly easy to get up and running, it took me less than 5 minutes to put it together and I started my first test print 5 minutes after that. The test print went well and the little rocket printed perfectly without doing anything other than leveling the bed, which is honestly what took the longest in that 10 minute time frame. This thing is easy to learn to operate, I would even trust a 10 year old with this printer it is so easy to operate. Mind you, this is just the hardware, not the software. The test print was already there and ready to print. Getting into designing and preparing a file for printing is far more difficult, but the upside is, there are a ton of files out there on sites like Thingiverse that you can download and print with little effort.

The software is a bit more complicated, if all you plan to do is download things to print, all you need to learn is the slicer software, which is pretty easy, it simply lets you adjust size and positioning on the printer and then converts it to code the 3D printer can understand. If you are going to design your own projects, then you need to learn how to use a CAD program. This printer comes with both a slicer and a CAD program, I am not going to get into it, since I am a Linux user, neither was useful to me. However, Linux has several choices for both of these, and I had no trouble finding something that worked for me. I sat down and learned FreeCAD in a weekend, it is kind of a pain in the ass, but has all the bells and whistles. If you do not want to dedicate a sleepless weekend to learning CAD, TinkerCAD is a free online CAD program that does lack some features, but is easy to use and will do for most projects. I am not going to go into any more detail, there are plenty of websites and YouTube video out there that will teach you how to use CAD and the slicer of your choice.

Now, onto my thoughts on 3D printing. Someday we are going to be able to but a 3D printer for $50, connect it to our phone with an app. The app will allow us to choose what we want to print, and send it to the printer with no fuss. We are not there yet. You can connect most printers to your computer and control it from there, you can also use a package like OctPrint which lets you remote control the printer through a Raspberry Pi. The problem I found is, all this adds layers of complication and points of failure. I got the best results when I simply put the final code on an SD card and manually inserted it into the printer and printed it directly from the printer, my advise, just let the printer print, no need to make it more difficult than it has to be. On the software side, getting things ready to print can be really simple, meaning I have a compatible CAD file (*.stl file), I load it into the slicer software, make one or two minor adjustments for my printer, then export it to a gcode file for the printer. It can also be a seriously fucked up process requiring several days of work, ending in a failed print. I really do not understand at this point why CAD programs do not have the slicer program integrated into it.

So the real question here is, what are these things food for? Well, if you are a serious DIY maker, these things are useful for many things, customer mounting plates for electronics, cases for finished projects, quick and dirty prototyping  of things you will eventually send to a machine shop to be built. If you are looking to start a side hustle, there are people who make a living selling 3D printing services on Etsy. If you are simply a hobbyist looking for a tool, like making D&D miniatures or making one off tools for your garage shop, this could be useful to you. If you do not really fall into one of these categories, you probably do not need a 3D printer. I purposely printed out some common items, mostly because I was teaching myself CAD and needed some easy and straight forward things to design, I did not have to do this, I could have just downloaded the stl files and printed them, but is the fun in that. I made a comb, a tea cup and a coffee cup. While it was fun to design these things from a learning perspective, from a practical stand point, even if I had just downloaded the files and printed them, it would have been far easier for me to go to the dollar store and buy these items and it would have cost me like $2 for all three items and I would have ended up with slightly better plastic crap.

Tea Not Included

I believe in spite of my criticism, that I will continue to use this 3D printer, I am also pretty sure I will eventually get a better one, more expensive model, this one is pretty limited in its uses, primarily due to the size of the objects it is capable of printing, but also because it is missing features that would make the prints better quality and less likely to fail. One of the things I think would be really fun is to print one Christmas decoration a week for an entire year and then decorate a tree only with those decorations. Most of the decorations would probably be standard stuff, but a few of them would be unique, representing an idea either myself or my wife came up with or perhaps representing an event in our lives. It could be seriously cool.

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