3D printers offer a never before available resource for your home, office or workshop. A 3D printer gives you the ability to create your own three-dimensional things, a very powerful tool for anyone involved in electronics, arts and technology. 3D printers are so versatile that the can make almost anything from the very practical to the purely artistic.

Some of our favourite uses include printing custom enclosures for electronics, Arduino and Raspberry Pi, creating parts for robotics, and of course printing the bits for the next RepRap printer. What you want to do with your printer will help you make a choice of the best model for you. Consider the maximum printable size from a printer, the types and choices of materials available to print with and if you intend to use it on a very regular basis you may also want to look at print speed.

Types of 3D Printers

By far the most abundant type of 3D printer is the extrusion type printer, where a bead of molten plastic is laid down in tracks to produce the model layer by layer, there are other types that use light, liquids and powders, but for the consumer market the price and features of extrusion type 3D printers makes them the ideal choice. Some are enclosed within a small cabinet, others are an open frame.

HOW DOES A 3D PRINTER WORK?

First of all a 3D printer needs a model to print – a 3D object created within one of the many software options available. Special software then ‘slices’ the model into sections which is printed one on top of another to build the model up from the bottom, if there are ‘floating’ sections of a model the software will build in temporary supports to ensure that even the most complex models can be printed as a single entity. The print head heats up and the solid plastic filament is pushed into the melting end and emerges on the other side as the bead of liquid plastic which quickly cools to a solid.

MATERIALS FOR 3D PRINTING

There are quite a few options depending on the type of printer you have, although the most common types of material you will see are ABS and PLA.

  • ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Sytrene): ABS wins for strength, flexibility and machinability over PLA and it’s higher temperature resistance makes it useful for some requirements. Downsides to PLA can be the melting plastic smell and it is a petroleum based polymer. A printer with ABS capabilities will almost always require a heated print bed.
  • PLA (PolyLactic Acid): PLA is available in a huge number of colours and the glossy and transparent finish it can have make it very popular in the hobbyist market. It is also less susceptible to warping that can occur in ABS printing and has a very green origin, the majority of the substance comes from plants. PLA also produces a more pleasant smell when printing compared to ABS.

CREATING MODELS

There are a huge number of options for creating 3D models that range from simple interfaces suitable for beginners through to professional options from established names in 3D like Autodesk and Dassault Systemes. Beginners and hobbyists are also catered for with a huge amount of free options offering many different approaches to 3D modelling. There are also a number of website where you can host, share and even sell your models, which are a great resource for getting files ready to print without even having to design them.

If you already make things with a 3D printer we’d love to see what you’re making – send us some photos to showandtell@maplin.co.uk with the subject ‘3D print’ or share them with us on Facebook or Twitter.