Now that the 3D printing industrial complex is humming away nicely, it's time--precisely the time--to dive headfirst into making your own 3D-printed objects at home. Not only are consumer-grade 3D printers proving to be useful, increasingly affordable, and easy to find, but they're the vanguard of an emerging technology that will eventually become as ubiquitous as inkjet printers are today.
Whether you're musing about building a 3D printer from scratch, staring at your new prefab printer and wondering where to start, or just interested in learning more, the information below will give you a working knowledge of these consumer-grade manufacturing machines.
Layers of heated filament
Most 3D printers operate in the same way: They pull a solid material--usually some type of plastic filament--into a heating core, which melts it, and then pushes the molten stuff out through a tiny hole in the printing nozzle. You can think of the moving head of the printer as an exceedingly precise hot-glue gun, but the melted plastic that comes out of the 3D printer nozzle (known as an extruder) is much thinner. Consequently the printer can lay down very thin layers of plastic, each layer building on the one below it.
When there's nothing below the layer--if you're trying to print, say, an arch or a rooftop--the printer creates scaffolding support, which you can remove once the print is complete.
More-advanced printers shoot a laser across a tray of liquid resin at the bottom of the device, which causes a thin layer of resin to solidify into a specific shape. A platform slowly pulls the print upward as each layer of resin hardens. As a result, the object being printed seems to emerge from the tray of resin.
Resin-based printers use the same layering method to form objects that simple 3D printers use, but they create much thinner layers, which in turn makes more-detailed prints possible. Thinner layers also permit more-complex models, and require little or no support material.
Some assembly required. Or a lot. Or none...
Many manufacturers ship their 3D printers as a box of parts that you can put together yourself. If you're not the DIY type, you can get a preassembled model. The Afinia H-Series ($1599), the Solidoodle 2 ($499) and the Solidoodle 3 ($799) are designed to be ready to start printing straight out of the box.
Other manufacturers, like Printrbot, let you choose between paying a lower price for a unassembled printer and paying a premium to have the company assemble it. These printers range in price from $399 to $999 preassembled. The assembly fee is between $100 and $200, depending on the complexity of the printer.
Earlier in 3D printing history, printers had to be built from complex kits that entailed soldering a printed circuit board (and often hunting down missing parts). Nowadays, the kits tend to be greatly simplified. Kits like the Ultimaker contain fewer parts; don't require any soldering, drilling, or cutting; and use a single type of bolt to hold the pieces together.
Building a printer out of hardware from a nearby store is another option, and that makes a RepRap (Replicating Rapid Prototyper) viable for if you have the necessary skill and patience. A RepRap is generally constructed from generic hardware plus some parts that can be printed on just about any 3D printer. Using printed parts removes the need for custom manufacturing, but you do need access to another 3D printer before you can complete the build.
Familiarize yourself with 3D printer terms
3D printing can be confusing to learn if you're constantly stymied by terms (like extruder, filament, raft, and print bed) that you don't understand in the context of the technology. Before you start, take a few minutes to get familiar with the specialized terminology. The RepRap wiki has a good introduction to 3D printing terms, so look it over, and keep it open as you read instructions until you have a good grasp of the vocabulary.
Pick a good location for your printer
Smaller isn't always better in 3D printers, since the size of the printer limits the size of the things you can print. But if you don't plan to print anything too big, or if you need to conserve space, a smaller printer may be your best option.
Smaller printers, like the Solidoodle and the Afinia, can fit on a shelf. Your printer can go anywhere that seems sensible to you, but it's a good idea to keep it out of the reach of pets and small children, due to its very hot moving parts. If space isn't an issue, a sturdy table or workbench is a good spot for a large printers.
3D printers can make a good deal of noise, so keep that in mind when choosing a location for yours. The amount of noise it makes depends on the printer's design and the motors in use. Depending on the printer, the melting of the plastic filament can produce a noticeable odor, too. If that's the case with your printer, place it somewhere that has good ventilation, but not so good that air will be blowing over it constantly.
Filament, filament, filament
You'll have plenty of options for filament material and color, and all of them have their special quirks.
Most printers are designed to be compatible with one type of plastic filament, usually either ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (polyactic acid, which is basically polyester).
If you're a hobbiest who is printing for fun--or if you have a printer without a heated bed--you'll want to use PLA. ABS is tougher but it requires more heat to melt, so it works best with printers that have heated beds (which are fancier and more expensive).
Also, be sure to use the appropriate-diameter filament for your printer: The heating element and melting chamber are generally designed for filament of a specific thickness.
Learn the software
3D printing software tells the physical printer how to move to print a specific object. The software tells the printer things like how fast to push the filament through the extruder, what temperature to heat the filament to, how fast to print the layers, and how the thick to make them.
Some 3D printers don't ship with the necessary software for running them. If you find that the software is missing, you'll have to check the printer manufacturers' website for recommendations or download links.
Some printer manufacturers use proprietary software optimized for their specific printer. But development of such software may not be a high priority for the manufacturer, in which case updates and support are likely be slow, and options for the printer limited.
If you feel that you're outgrowing your printer's proprietary software and you want to do more things with your printing, check out some open-source or free options. Open-source software is widely available and works on many different 3D printers. Since more people use this software, support information for the software is more readily available.
Internet Relay Chat rooms are a great place to find other people who can help you out. I've visited both the Solidoodle chat and the RepRap chat rooms when I couldn't find specific information elsewhere online. More often than not, the chats shed light on my problem.
Calibrate your printer
Printyer calibration is the process of ensuring that your printer is doing what it thinks it's doing. For instance, it may think it's pulling 100mm of filament into the extruder, when it's actually pulling 110mm. This disparity would cause the printer to extrude too much plastic, making for less-than-optimal prints. So you must tweak the settings to tell the software what's really going on.
All sets of instructions should include methods for calibrating your printer. If yours doesn't, consult RepRap's wiki for a good set of generic calibration steps. (The RepRap wiki's general guidance will probably be a bit harder to follow than any instructions for your specific printer, but it's there if you need it.)
Find files to print
Thingiverse, run by MakerBot, is an online repository of free 3D printable object designs that you can download and print them at home. People are constantly posting new designs and coming up with new and interesting things to print, like the Octavius Grabber Claw. It's wise to start with something simple for your first post-calibration print. (I like to use a cute waving octopus for my first print.)
You can find more than a few torture tests online, designed either to test the performance of a single set of settings or to combine lots of scenarios. The software must be able to account for things like printing tall pillars, bridges, overhangs, and small layer sizes, and printed them differently for optimal results.
Get a caliper
A caliper is a tool for performing highly precise measurements, down to hundredths of a millimeter (or even smaller). Having a caliper on hand will make calibrating your printer much easier, and it's essential for certain steps.
After measuring the exact diameter of the filament you're using, you can tell the printer its true thickness. The printer will then feed the filament into the extruder at the correct rate.
Filament diameter doesn't always measure up to what the manufacturer puts on its labels, though. Being able to measure the actual diameter of the filament at different spots, and then calculating an average of the actual diameter, will help make your printer that much more accurate. A caliper will also help you precisely measure calibration objects, to ensure that your printer is doing what it thinks it's doing.
Take it slow
It will probably take you some time to adjust your printer so that it delivers consistent high-quality prints. However, the time you take to tweak all the settings will pay dividends. A poorly calibrated printer might start a print just fine, but fail at a more complex point, or knock the model over halfway through.
If this seems like a lot to keep in mind, don't be put off. The adventure you have in setting up and calibrating your printer is rewarding, and you can often see improvements at once. Start by printing simple things, and learn as you go. And don't be shy about asking people for help (IRC chats for the win!).