How it works

Here we shed a bit more light on the dark art of print­ing in 3D

Mac Format - - GET INTO 3D PRINTING -

Depend­ing on what you’re pro­duc­ing, and the amount you’re will­ing to spend on a 3D printer, there are a va­ri­ety of ways that you can print a 3D model at home. Some tech­niques in­volve lasers cut­ting through ma­te­rial, some fire UV beams at resin, but the tech­nique used in the ma­jor­ity of home 3D print­ers is called FDM (fused de­po­si­tion mod­el­ling) – liq­uid plas­tic ba­si­cally.

Sim­ply put, FDM in­volves push­ing heated fil­a­ment (plas­tic, in most cases) through a tiny noz­zle, build­ing up thin lay­ers, or ‘slices’, as it goes along. The more de­tail you want in your model, the longer it takes, as the printer needs to lay down more lay­ers, which are mea­sured in mi­crons. In most cases the fil­a­ment used for FDM print­ers is ei­ther PLA or ABS, which are cat­e­gorised as ther­mo­plas­tics; this means they can be easily be heated to a soft state, and then cooled to a solid. And you can buy these fil­a­ments on reels from com­pa­nies such as col­orFabb (col­ and Fash­ber­dash­ery (fab­er­dash­

ABS re­quires a heated bed to print on to, oth­er­wise it tends to curl, but it has a bet­ter strength and flex­i­bil­ity than PLA. How­ever, PLA can pro­vide more de­tail in prints, warps less, comes in funkier colours, and gives off less no­tice­able fumes. Also, it’s plant-based, whilst ABS is a petroleum-based plas­tic.

So there’s quite a lot to con­sider be­fore you get started, but there’s one com­mon el­e­ment across all 3D print­ing: the model. You can cre­ate mod­els in a CAD or 3D app (such as Au­toCAD 360 or 3ds Max). And if you want to have a go at mak­ing 3D mod­els with­out hav­ing to learn a pro app, Au­todesk has an amaz­ing suite of free, 3D tools avail­able at But thou­sands of ready­made mod­els can also be found via online repos­i­to­ries such as Thin­gi­verse, Shape­ways,­te­ri­alise, Sketch­fab and YouMagine.

If you do choose to de­sign your own model, you will need to en­sure it’s ex­ported as a 3D printer-friendly model for­mat, which will ei­ther be an STL or an OBJ file (all the print­ers we’ve fea­tured sup­port these for­mats). But there’s one last thing you need to do.

Be­cause 3D print­ers work in slightly dif­fer­ent ways, and have their own idio­syn­cra­sies, you need to con­vert your OBJ or STL file via an app called a ‘slicer’ (many print­ers come with their own, such as Ul­ti­maker’s Cura app). What this app does is take your model, and – based on the pa­ram­e­ters you set – cre­ate a file that trans­forms your model into a se­ries of lay­ers. This is called G-code. And G-code makes the magic hap­pen!

FDM in­volves push­ing heated fila ment through a tiny noz­zle

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