3D printing is one of the world’s newest and most exciting technologies. This technology isn’t just designed to be taken advantage of by corporate manufacturing—this is a technology that can be operated in your own home or workshop.
So how do you create a DIY 3D printer? There are many DIY 3D printing kits available that allow a person to assemble their own 3D printer from parts for much cheaper than assembled 3D printers that are sold to manufacturing plants. These 3D printers are used for everything from modeling to printing out parts for machines and vehicles.
DIY 3D printers work by converting a filament additive material into a three-dimensional object via digitally generated drafting instructions known as computer numerical control. In-home versions, these 3D printers are mostly used for small-scale hobby applications, but larger versions are used by industrial manufacturing to create everything from automotive parts to
3D printing used to be science fiction, but these days 3D printing is a science fact. Read on to find out more about the history of 3D printing and how you can bring do-it-yourself 3D printing into your workspace.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is the process of creating three-dimensional objects from a digital file, usually created with drafting software. It uses a variety of different additives from thermoplastics to metal to biological cells to manufacture new objects or materials.
Most do-it-yourself kits operate on laser-based resin-curing technology, which is one of the earliest forms of 3D printing. As the technology advanced, different processes were invented and discovered that allowed printmakers to create everything from plastic scale models to skin grafts.
In desktop do-it-yourself applications, 3D printing is most often used to create small plastic pieces such as the following examples:
- Customized jewelry
- Simple mechanical pieces for use in working models
Thanks to the proliferation of open-source 3D printing plans, however, more and more objects are accessible all the time.
Because 3D printers can theoretically print anything that is programmed into them, the only the limits are of the human imagination.
History of 3D Printing
While 3D printing didn’t really rise to prominence before the last decade, the technology has been around since the early eighties, when Dr. Hideo Kodama applied for a patent for a prototyping machine that cured resin using laser technology.
Unfortunately, he and several other teams of engineers tried and failed to land a patent for 3D printing, and it wasn’t secured until 1986 by what would later become 3D Systems, one of the largest 3D printing companies in the world.
3D printing might have its origins back in the eighties, but this technology didn’t really jump to do-it-yourself prominence until the 2000s when 3D printers started to get cheap enough that everyday people could afford them as well as corporations.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing is essentially an advanced form of computer numerical control (CNC) drafting that allows the software to convert a digital 3D model into a physical object. It accomplishes this by feeding a filament (typically some kind of plastic in DIY 3D printing models) into a feeder nozzle that moves systematically over a printing bed in correspondence with CNC instructions until the object is produced. The 3D model is crafted one layer at a time.
While it is being printed, lasers are used to flash-cure the plastic that has been laid as part of the printed object to dry it quickly and allow for the next layer of the object to be placed almost instantaneously. This is how 3D printers appear to manifest objects out of thin air.
Once the 3D object is printed out onto the surface layer of the print bed, which is called a build plate, the object is then either popped off the build plate or in some cases scraped off with a sharp edge, though this is less than ideal due to the chance of introduced damage to the printed object or the build plate itself.
Using 3D modeling software that is 3D printer compatible, a home engineer can manufacture practically anything at a scaled-down level, which makes it an invaluable tool for multiple different arts and crafts disciplines. It also makes DIY 3D printing a useful tool for those who would like to manufacture small, custom mechanical parts for inventions and prototypes.
What Is a 3D Printer Used For?
3D printing has touched many different arts and industries, but there are a few areas where the use of 3D printing technology has been particularly helpful. Here are a few of the practical applications of 3D printing:
- Scale models: From architectural models to figurines for dioramas or tabletop board games, desktop DIY 3D printers are perfect for manufacturing customized scale models for a dazzling array of educational, recreational, and artistic purposes.
- Human organs: 3D printing technology has advanced to the point that biomedical scientists are able to use the technology to print new organs directly from a patient’s own cells. This has been a major breakthrough in the process of producing skin grafts for burn victims as well as transplant organs.
- Automotive assembly: As 3D printing technology advances, cars are being constructed out of polymer materials that have the similar tensile strength to metals. This means that more and more 3D printing is being used not only to create the drafted prototypes that real vehicles are later assembled on but for the assembly of the automotive parts themselves.
- Prosthetic limbs: One practical application of 3D printing that has improved countless human and animal lives since it was discovered is the use of 3D printing in the creation of prosthetic limbs. This has not only increased the quality of life of many amputees but has also saved the lives of many animals, who would have otherwise been euthanized without access to prosthetics.
The more advanced 3D printing becomes, the more materials we’re able to integrate with the technology and the more practical applications we find.
What Are the General Principles of 3D Printing?
There are three principles that form the foundation of all 3D printing processes regardless of what materials are used, and those principles are the following:
- Modeling: Modelling is the very first step in the process of 3D printing, where the 3D object to be printed is input into a digital software that converts the 3D visual model into a CNC file that directs the 3D printer. This modeling file is then sent to the printer.
- Printing: Once the printer has a 3D digital model to work off, it uses fused depositional modeling (FDM) to project that digital file onto a flat surface over the printing bed known as a build plate. This plate must be constructed out of a material that can be relied on to hold the 3D printed object securely during the printing process but will release it without damaging the 3D object or the build plate once the process is complete.
- Finishing: Finishing is the part of the 3D printing process where the 3D printed object is removed from the printer and any defects in the 3D model are manually corrected. Build plates on 3D printers are designed to leave a 3D printed object with as smooth of a contact point as humanly possible.
No matter what kind of 3D printing is being done or the scientific processes involved, it will follow this same general production process.
Philosophical Principles of 3D Printing
Along with the general principles of how 3D printing is conducted, there are also some overarching philosophical principles that have tagged along with the concept of 3D printing since its inception. While earlier engineers scrambled to see who could patent 3D printing technology the fastest, newer generation of 3D printing scientists embody some different philosophical principles:
- The Maker Movement: The Maker Movement is a fairly recent social movement that is dedicated to increasing egalitarian access to the sciences and arts and encouraging crossover collaboration between the two disciplines. Those people who endorse Maker culture are usually active learning activists who believe in open source information as a keystone for the future of human progress.
- Open source technology: The open-source movement is a movement among artists, inventors, software designers, and other STEM-based scientists to make digital files and other forms of information free to access for the entire public, eliminating the drive for exclusionary copyright.
- The promise of future abundance: 3D printing is poised to completely change how the world manufactures 3D objects in multiple industries across the world. Not only will this have an impact on job markets, but it will also have a massive impact on the availability of cheap and effective tools for craftsmen, scientists, and artists.
How Much Does a 3D Printer Cost?
Only a decade ago, 3D printers were so expensive that many home craftsmen and inventors wouldn’t have been able to afford even a shoddy one. Today, there are several different grades of 3D printer available, from economical DIY consumer kits to large manufacturing units worth thousands of dollars.
The average cost of a consumer-grade 3D printer is $700 but you can find them for cheaper, it really depends on the quality of the printer you are looking for. While up until very recently you could not find a 3D printer for home use for less than two thousand dollars, just in the past few years 3D printers have dropped dramatically in price. It’s to the point that you can get a high-quality machine for home use for less than a thousand dollars, or less than half the price that they were only six years ago.
The way the price of 3D printers has been dropping, it wouldn’t be surprising if within a decade they are almost as cheap as a regular laser-jet printer. That means there has never been a better time to become acquainted with do-it-yourself 3D printing technology. If past trends have anything to say, it doesn’t look like 3D printing is going away any time soon. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.
The 3D printers that are priced for home use are usually thermoplastic or resin-based systems, but there are much more complicated 3D printing machines, such as the biomedical 3D printers that are able to print organs, blood vessels, and skin. These 3D printers can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, in comparison to DIY 3D printers.
What Materials Are Used in 3D Printing?
The materials most often used in 3D printing are different types of plastic polymers. These plastics include some of the following:
- ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene): ABS is one of the first types of plastic used in industrial 3D printers, and it is still an economical favorite among hobbyists for model construction. Lego building blocks are a good example of ABS material out in the wild. ABS is prized in the 3D printing world for its ability to withstand high temperatures as well as its general durability. That said, I would not recommend printing with ABS filament unless you have a well-ventilated area.
- TPE (Thermoplastic elastomers): Thermoplastic elastomers are more commonly known as Flexible filaments, which gives you a pretty strong idea of why this material is valued in 3D printing. The flexibility of the TPE is dependent on its chemical formula, which means that some types of Flexible filaments are more elastic than others by design.
- PLA (Polylactic acid): PLA is an especially popular 3D printing material for DIY printing, with one of its major advantages being the fact that it doesn’t require being heated to high temperatures in order to be formed. Because it is formed out of natural, renewable biomaterials such as sugar cane and corn, it is one of the most environmentally friendly 3D printing materials available.
- HIPS (High impact polystyrene): Rather than a material for 3D printing the object itself, HIPS is a support material that is used to keep a 3D printed object stable until the finishing process is complete when the support material is then dissolved in d-Limonene. HIPS is most commonly paired with ABS 3D printing due to its similar printing properties.
- PETG (Glycol modified polyethylene terephthalate): PETG is a plastic resin with popular applications for use in reusable food and drink containers. The ability of PETG to be either sheet extruded or injection-molded means it is useful in many different kinds of projects. Because of its thermal conductivity, hot liquids can be placed in PETG containers without causing them to deform or warp.
- Nylon (Polyamide): Nylon is one of the toughest and most flexible 3D printing materials, but nylon filament material can be difficult to store due to the fact that it readily absorbs moisture from its ambient environment. This means that nylon is a poor choice for those 3D printers which are being operated in humid environments.
- Carbon fiber: Carbon fiber is both extraordinarily strong and lightweight. This has made it a popular choice for several more exotic 3D printing applications, such as parts on racing vehicles. Carbon fiber can damage 3D printers if it isn’t used correctly, so care should be taken that the appropriate hardware is used to avoid permanent damage to the 3D printer.
- ASA (Acrylic Styrene Acrylonitrile): ASA is very similar to ABS in chemical composition but is most valued in 3D printing processes for its resistance to UV rays. This makes it a good choice in materials that are intended for outdoor exposure. One of the drawbacks of ASA is that it tends to warp under pressure. Due to the presence of styrene, it can emit toxic fumes during the 3D printing process that are dangerous to the printmaker.
- Polycarbonate: Polycarbonate is one of the stronger materials used in 3D printing. This is what makes it appropriate for rough environmental use and engineering applications where the material is expected to be under heavy load or duress. Like nylon, polycarbonate cannot be stored in a humid ambient environment.
- Polypropylene: This plastic is difficult to 3D print due to its propensity for warping and deformity while cooling, but its lightweight structure makes it a good choice for packaging applications. Though it has good heat resistance and durability, its relative expense and low practical strength are pretty heavy drawbacks.
- PVA (Polyvinyl alcohol): PVA is a support material similar to HIPS and is notable in 3D printing processes for its ability to dissolve completely in room temperature water. This makes it a good choice for supporting complex print jobs. PVA is also a decent material for creating disposable mockups or prototypes that aren’t meant for long-term use.
- Metal: Metal is being integrated into 3D printing systems by mixing the metallic powder into polymer bases such as PLA, lending the resulting material the sheen of metal with the malleable properties of plastic. Metal-based fillers are very hard on 3D printing hardware, and specialized nozzles have to be purchased to prevent damage to the machine.
- Wood: Like metal, wood is being integrated into 3D printing systems by synthesizing it with plastics. The resulting material has a wood-like appearance but a resin-like malleability. Using wood fibers in a 3D printer can require a larger nozzle than comes standard on many desktop DIY 3D printers, and the properties of the material as it is applied can cause it to clog the 3D printer over time.
- Human tissue and cells: Human tissues represent the cutting edge of 3D printing technology, with biomedical scientists finding new medical applications for 3D printing processes all the time. Using 3D printers, biomedical engineers have been able to print everything from blood vessels and skin to full functioning organs created from the patient’s own body.
The simpler versions of 3D printers can only print with certain filler materials such as the various kinds of plastics, while more advanced 3D printers incorporate more difficult materials such as metal or biological material. Generally speaking, the more expensive and complicated a 3D printer is, the more advanced materials it can use to generate a 3D printed object.
Things to Consider Before Buying a DIY 3D Printer
3D printing technology is exciting, and those with the funds might be tempted to run out and by a DIY 3D printer kit before even knowing how to run the thing or what would be involved with putting it together. Before you decide to get a 3D printer for your own workshop, here are a few things to think over:
- How familiar are you with 3D printing technology? If your only experience with 3D printing is through an article like this, you might want to stop at your closest marketplace or communal workshop where a 3D printer is available to see how the thing runs and whether you’d actually be interested in having one of your own. Doing a few tests runs on a communal 3D printer can tell you whether it would be worth the financial investment to you or not.
- How often would be you be making 3D printed objects? If you only have the need for one or two 3D printed objects as a hobbyist, you’d probably be better off outsourcing your 3D printing to a 3D printing service such as Sculpteo. But if you are looking to print and sell a product, it might be a smart investment.
- How much money do you have for 3D printing as a hobby? Not only are the printers themselves still a large financial investment—especially if you buy one preassembled—the materials used for more complex forms of 3D printing are not cheap either. It’s an expensive hobby overall, so it’s worth considering how strongly you feel about pursuing it before dropping a bunch of cash on the venture.
- Do you have a decent place to set up a 3D printer? 3D printers aren’t machines that can be quickly collapsed and set back up again, so wherever you decide to put your 3D printer in your home workshop will have to become a workstation dedicated to it. If your garage or workshop is too cramped to give yourself plenty of room to work with a 3D printer, you might be better off using one at a marketplace instead.
- What do you want to make with a 3D printer? This is probably one of the most important things to think about before purchasing a 3D printer. If you’re only buying one to make novelty knick-knacks, the appeal will wear off quickly. If you have plans for practical applications for 3D printed projects, you’ll be more likely to get your money’s worth out of investing in a 3D printer.
- How technically apt are you? This will determine whether you should get a preassembled 3D printer or a DIY 3D printer kit, which can be significantly cheaper. DIY 3D printer kits are the economical choice. However, if you’re not good at putting things together, you might find yourself frustrated trying to get your 3D printer up and running.
A 3D printer, even a relatively cheap one, is not a small investment to make for a workshop. It’s about the equivalent of buying a bench saw or similar high-powered piece of workshop equipment. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you intend to use such a machine for, you should probably hold off buying one of your own until you do have an idea of how you’ll use it.
DIY 3D Printing Kits
If you have some skills with tools and want a 3D printer of your very own, the best way to get one that’s affordable is to purchase a do-it-yourself 3D printer kit. A list of several popular DIY kits and plans can be found on Amazon here.
DIY 3D printer kits come with the parts for a 3D printer already included for assembly. If you want to save even more money in putting together a 3D printer and you don’t mind doing a little footwork, however, you can use a free plan for a 3D printer and purchase used 3D printer parts at online salvage yards such as Fargo 3D Printing’s Junk Yard.
Ultimately when it comes to a 3D printer, the more work you want to put into it, the cheaper you can get it put together. On the other hand, if you’re not especially handy and you just want to jump straight into converting digital files into 3D printed objects, you can purchase preassembled 3D printers for a much higher cost.
Before you commit to purchasing a DIY 3D printing kit, it’s in your best interest to read all of the available features as well as several user reviews to get an idea of whether or not the model you’re looking at has the qualities you need.
3D Printers Are the Wave of the Future
A DIY 3D printer might still be a little far out of pocket for some citizen engineers and scientists, but they’re getting more affordable all the time. You also must consider the fact that so many DIY desktop 3D printers have free plans available online. This means that no matter how broke you are if you really want your own 3D printer, you can probably get one put together on a shoestring budget.
If you decide that a 3D printer is a right investment for your home workshop, there’s sure to be one available in your price range, even if you shopped around and found them too expensive a few years ago.
Make sure you check out our YouTube channel, and if you would like any additional details or have any questions, please leave a comment below. If you liked this article and want to read others click here.