Making my first 3D objects
I'm not an engineer or graphic designer, so I had no idea how to create a CAD model, but there's really no need to learn. There are plenty of free STL files that can be downloaded from sites such as MakerBot's Thingiverse. These sites have thousands of model designs, including toys like Lego-style building pieces and handy objects such as bottle openers.
Depending on the complexity (the number of layers) of the CAD drawing, an STL file can take a few seconds or several minutes to load onto the printer. For example, a complex, multi-geared model called a brain-gear, which had 712 layers, took about 20 minutes to load. Print time: 30 hours, 4 minutes.
By comparison, an iPhone 5 cover with moving gears on the back that had only 89 layers took just 2 minutes to load; it took 4 hours and 20 minutes to print.
A great feature with this printer is that it has onboard flash memory, which means once the pattern has been sent to the printer, you can disconnect your computer from it and it will complete the printing job. While some other printers do not have this feature, others have SD card slots or even Internet connectivity and LCD displays that enable a user to download the STL files and images -- no computer required.
Many 3D printers allow users to adjust how many layers make up the outer shell and how much filler is used inside. It can range from solid and loose to hollow with bigger gaps, depending on how much filler is used. (Thermoplastic filler adds solidity to models with thinner or more fragile structures.) Each setting affects the print time.
The less material used, the faster an item will print. For example, when I chose the "hollow" setting for a Porsche 911 model, the print time dropped from three to about two hours. But not all models can withstand the hollow setting and need more filler for support.
You can also adjust the print speed by choosing "normal," "fast" or "fine." The slower you print, the better quality the outcome.
Watching it work
While 3D printing will change the world of manufacturing, both in the factory and the home, the experience of actually printing an object can be a lot like watching paint dry. A small model, like my Porsche 911, takes more than three hours to print, wafer-thin layer by wafer-thin layer.
To be sure, the first two or three times the 3D printer begins melting and extruding its spool of weed-whacker string across the platform, you're glued to the systematic movements of the robotic mechanisms as they glide back and forth to construct a toy or model.
On my first print job, my cubicle was packed with co-workers, all brimming with excitement at finally getting a real-world glimpse into what 3D printing was really all about.
By the fourth job, no one even bothered pausing at my desk, and I barely glanced over at the printer as it exuded technology inches from my shoulder.
Printing an object is easy. Cutting away the scaffolding material is arduous labor most of the time.
The Afinia printer comes with an array of tools (an X-Acto knife, snipping pliers, tweezers and a sharpened putty knife) to help you cut and pry away the scaffolding material that is used to hold an object in place as it's being printed. Without the scaffolding, many objects would droop where their walls are thin. You also get a pair of workman's gloves because you're dealing with objects printed on a heated platform.
The honeycomb-like structures that makeup the inner and outer scaffolding can be thick or thin, complex or simple depending on the object's size and the amount of detail it requires.