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I thought it would be as easy as hitting print. Then, voila a miniature robot! A pencil holder! A pair of stunner shades! A Bulbasaur planter!
3D printing has the potential to change everything in our world: the Army is considering using it as an easy way to replace parts during war, and NASA even just sent a printer to space. So when I was given the chance to try printing an object for the first time, of course I wanted to try it.
Then I opened the lid on the 3D printer and saw a wet tangled mess of lasered plastic. Oh. 3D printing, it turns out, is not the perfect life-changing tool I had imagined.
While my colleague Signe Brewster can tell the difference between objects that came off a really great 3D printer and those produced by a mediocre one, I looked down at a lump of a plastic that was supposed to be a crown and a snitch (from Harry Potter) and wondered why people are so enchanted by this device. My desk is a slowly growing menagerie of imperfect prints: a robot in several pieces that don’t snap together, keychains that didn’t finish printing, two pen holders whose edges are curled up and a ball stuck on a platform of black plastic supports.
As an inexperienced consumer, I’ve learned that 3D printing is harder than it looks.
Myth #1: It’s just like printing
My approach was wrong from the outset — I thought you could download a file and hit print. That’s what a printer does, right? But the initial design process is actually where you are most likely to set yourself up to fail.
If you’re an advanced 3D printer user or a graphics whiz, you can turn whatever you want into a 3D model. That’s part of its magic. The average person can also find 3D printing files readily available on sites like Thingiverse or even from places like the Smithsonian.
But once you download the files, you’re faced with a series of decisions, depending on the printer. Some printers come with their own software that let you scale the model or add supports, but for lower-end printers, you often have to figure out how to do it yourself. Most have options to generate low quality or high quality objects — the higher quality ones taking much longer to print.
If there’s one barrier to entry in 3D printing, it’s the design process. In the case of my lump of plastic, the snitch was scaled too small and the “feathers” that would hang from its wings never formed. When I re-printed it at a high-quality setting and at a larger size, it turned out (almost) perfect.
Myth #2: It’s fast
Unless you’re printing a small, low-quality project, 3D printing on machines consumers can afford takes hours or even days, not minutes. A low quality pair of sunglasses? Two hours. Pencil holders? Nine hours. A planter I’d been eyeing? 60 hours. Often, this meant setting-and-forgetting the printer, which produced some disappointing mornings when you realized the beautiful vase you were trying to print overnight looks a little like a sea urchin.
3D printing involves a lot of trial and error, which ends up consuming a lot of time. Signe has spent hours on the phone with support departments just setting up some of the printers she’s tested. Add in the time tweaking the designs, cleaning the platforms and basic machine maintenance, you’ll realize that 3D printing still requires some luck and patience.
Myth #3: It’s easy.
Part of the problem lies in the way objects are created on 3D printers. There are three main types of printers: selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA).
FDM is the most common of the 3D printing types (and was the kind used to print the bright green objects you see in the pictures). It takes a coil of plastic thread, or filament, and heats it to its melting point before extruding it onto the platform of the printer in layers, one on top of another. It’s a slow process because of the tiny size of the plastic extruded and because it the print head can only move so fast. However, from my experience, there was less mess involved, and it was easier to pop the objects off the platform.
On the higher end are the SLS printers, which I did not have a chance to test out because unless you’ve got money to burn, you are less likely to see them on your desk if you’re a consumer or generic hobbyist. The laser on the SLA is equivalent to owning a Blu-ray player, while the laser on an SLS printer can be dangerous to humans. We can leave that one to the professionals.
SLA printers involve a bit more setup, but print faster than an FDM — although they can also print higher-quality objects, which can slow it down. The printer has a vat of light-reactive plastic resin that the platform submerges itself into. A laser then traces the pattern of the object, which solidifies the plastic and attaches it to the previous layer.
Here’s what a SLA printer looks like when it’s printing:
If you’re using an SLA printer, you have to scrape the objects off the platform (another chance to chip your creation), soak them in rubbing alcohol and then cut each support off individually. You also have to be careful that the vat of resin isn’t overfilled, but still has enough liquid in it to make your print, otherwise you’ll find yourself disappointed.
Many objects come with what are called supports, or these little pointy things that help the print stay in its correct shape and are designed to easily snap off objects once they’re done.
But if you don’t design your supports to be in the right places, you can run into trouble clipping them off if they’re inside and object or hard to reach. You’re then left with a robot that can’t be assembled, and another couple hours devoted to fixing the design, re-printing and post-processing it all again.
Myth #4: 3D printed objects are always high quality.
Let’s take a look at the picture below: Which pencil holder would you want to own?
Unless you’re looking for a bright green, frayed-looking holder with an uneven base, you’ll probably choose the one on the right.
I have yet to make a flawless object. Signe knows this is par for the course in 3D printing, and she has a patient explanation for each of my complaints: the curled edges can be caused by the plastic shrinking as it cools or the print bed not being hot enough, the striping on the plastic means not enough material was extruded, the part fell off because we didn’t have enough supports. For a novice, though, it’s hard to tell what is going wrong until you become the expert yourself. I just expected little pieces of plastic perfection and found myself disappointed.
There are tricks to the post-processing work. Often people use sandpaper to rub away the little nobs left by the supports. If you have a print that looks like it has a bunch of layers, you can try using acetone to smooth it out. Of course, unless you like bright green or clear or black objects, there’s a whole world of painting and other artistic embellishments. There’s even more technical processes like “friction-welding” and “riveting” to fully assemble objects.
The fact that the models came out so raw and unprocessed was surprising to me. I had seen 3D-printed necklaces and vases and all sorts of trinkets and expected the ssme. Signe explained how the clear legs on the robot were such great quality while I looked at the little nubs covering its head and arms and thought, “I would never purchase this. And where do I even buy sandpaper?”
My love-hate-love relationship with the future
As a first-timer, I thought 3D printing would be like being a kid choosing anything I wanted from the toy shop. Instead, I found that I had to be part-engineer, part-artist and part-scientist, approaching it with an eye for tinkering.
According to Signe, 3D printers today are like computers in the 1990s. I approached it like someone had given me the keys to a Macbook Pro and unleashed my creativity into the world. In reality, someone had given me an Macintosh Classic from the 1990s and I expected the same kind of performance.
In the end, I’ve come to understand what attracts so many people to 3D printing. After I got over my initial expectations, I appreciate every slight imperfection in my prints because they signal I have something else to learn. While many tout the future and promise of 3D printing, most people fail to recount the actual process and effort it takes to print even the simplest object. These things aren’t coming off the assembly line perfect — unless you’ve put in the effort to tweak your design, maintain your printer and done some post-processing.
However, once I got over my initial disappointment, I’ve come to enjoy it. Sure, my objects may not sit nicely on the table and the robot will never be assembled correctly, but I was able to produce all of these products myself. After printing for several hours, they suddenly existed, spun out of plastic nozzles or lasered out of liquid.
And you know what? That’s pretty damn cool.