3D Printers

When 3D printers started becoming somewhat affordable several years ago, I thought it would be fun to have one and learn more about the technology and see what uses I could find for it. But the first ones were a bit out of my budget, and I didn’t see what use I would really have for one.

Scroll ahead a few years. This past summer, at Julie’s urging, I bought one for myself for my birthday (it actually arrived the day of my birthday). The photo below (not a good photo…) is my Creality Ender 3 Pro printer. A little over $200. “Some assembly required.”

The Creality Ender 3 is one of the less expensive printers available at this time. It’s print volume is somewhere around 8” x 8” x 10”. It arrived partly assembled, but there was still some assembly required. I think that was a good thing, as it familiarized me with the printer and took some of the fear of working with it away. More on that later.

Creality Ender 3 Printer

My first discovery was how slow it is to print something! We’re often not measuring print time in minutes but hours. When you begin to understand how it prints, this makes more sense. The printer oozes a small amount of melted plastic through a 0.4 millimeter nozzle (that’s about one sixty-fourth of an inch) and deposits it onto the surface of the object you are printing, creating a layer of plastic in the right places. An average layer is 0.2 mm thick, or less than one one-hundredth of an inch. So to make an object one inch high requires the printer to lay down about 100 layers of plastic. Each layer may take several minutes, depending on the size of the object.

Creality Ender 3 printer in action
Creality Ender 3 Printer in action

So what do you do with a 3D printer? As was pointed out to me early on, you first print things to make your printer better! Things like cable guides or filament guides or tool trays… The list of possibilities is endless. But that’s not all. There are many websites where you can download ready-to-print models, many for free.

Well, almost ready to print. Usually you download an “.stl” file, which is a description of the 3D object. You then must use a “slicer” program to convert that model into instructions that your printer can understand. Then you give that file to the printer, and it magically interprets these instructions into the movements necessary to create a lump of plastic that resembles what you wanted.

Really cool threaded cylindrical container with a lid
Really cool threaded cylindrical container with a lid

Once you’ve printed a number of objects that other people have created, you’ll probably start thinking about designing your own 3D creations. Can you do that? Yes, of course. There are a number of 3D design tools costing from free to thousands of dollars. I’ve tried several, and designed a few simple items.

My first design was simply a knob to replace a missing seat release knob in Julie’s car. Certainly not elegant, but quite functional. My second (ongoing) project has been to create some simple stands to display some Native American pottery. My latest completed project (if a project is ever truly complete – there are always enhancements that can be made!) is a variety of specialized hooks for holding items on 1/2” shelf edges in our camping trailer. And what is in the future? For starters, repair for a plastic part on my “Little Giant” ladder that broke. Photographs have been taken, measurements made with calipers, preliminary drawings have been drafted, but no 3D model – yet.

What is in the printer’s future? I’ve already made a few modifications I haven’t yet mentioned (something for a future blog). I have parts for one more “upgrade.” And I have tentative plans for at least one upgrade beyond that. I have a list of things to print, some quite simple and some fairly complex. With Christmas less than two months away, the printer might get put to use making a few items for that.

Stay tuned