Behind the Curtain with 3D Printing

January 29 2018, 2:59am

It’s been almost a year since I received my 3D printer. Since then, I’ve printed dozens of 3D models and designed many more. Over the span of time, I’ve come to realize that 3D printing and, specifically, modeling is a lot harder than it looks. Sure, before jumping into Autodesk Fusion 360, I was designing mobile and web UI’s using 2D design tools. This helped me get into the software and figure out, loosely, what I wanted to do. It didn’t get me thinking about how or why I should design something until much later in the process though. As I think about it, designing in 2D is thinking about a handful of problems. Modeling in 3D, especially for 3D printing, is easily multiplying the number of considerations to be made, threefold.

3D printing lessons

I wanted to use this opportunity to address three things I’ve learned about 3D printing.

  1. There are dozens of ways to design.

When 3D modeling, it’s relatively easy to figure out how to design something. The process may take a few steps to get there, but you’ll get there. Thinking longer about how to design a model, and especially knowing more about what the software can do, can drastically decrease the number of steps a 3D model takes to completion. Many of my models used to take over 30 steps to create. Nowadays, the same models might take a third of that amount.

  1. Replacements won’t always look the same.

One of the cool things about 3D printing is that you can find hundreds of replacement parts for on-demand printing. Moreover, if it’s not out there, you can also just design it. I recently designed a Christmas tree leg, pretty much to the T. It had just the right curves and clearance. It looked great on screen—problem is though it wouldn’t print correctly.

When 3D modeling and printing, you quickly come to understand the impacts of gravity and the occasional need for supports. Because the replacement tree leg would have required supports to print (and mostly because additional software would not add the requisite supports), I had to rework my model. The tweaked 3D model didn’t require supports, printed just fine, and now supports the small tree I have. Sure, it doesn’t look like the other legs but sometimes you have to be okay with that.

  1. Most things can be printed, but at what cost?

Many of the models I have, I’ve placed on sites like Shapeways for sale for to people without 3D printers to buy. In printing 3D models on services like this, you quickly begin to understand more how expensive 3D printing can be. What was haphazardly designed might print on a personal 3D printer or an on-demand printing site. What’s missing from this equation though are considerations of time and the amount of material used to create the model. Designs that used to cost well over $80 to produce could be reduced in cost by half many times simply by reducing the thickness of outside walls or making the design hollow, for instance.

Most of these things, you would never know initially. Hopefully some of these insights help in your own 3D printing journey. If you have any questions about 3D printing or modeling don’t be afraid to ask.

What have you learned as a result of 3D printing?