Hands on: Trying a 3D printer -- a beginner's tale

Learning to use a 3D printer for the first time is not complicated, but learning to do it well comes with a significant learning curve

Getting a 3D printer in your office is a little like putting an exotic fish tank on your desk -- just about everyone drops by to find out what it's all about.

For some, the curiosity quickly wears off once they come to understand how a 3D printer works. For others, everything you print continues to be an opportunity to marvel at a robotic mechanism that extrudes threads of hot plastic in hair-thin layers until an object emerges from the bottom up.

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Over the past few months, I've had my first chance to experiment with a 3D printer -- and experienced quite a few ups and downs. I printed more than a dozen objects, from models of Porsches and the Eiffel Tower to multi-part objects that snapped together, including a cool whistle and a Pteranodon (a large, prehistoric, flying reptile).

But not everything went as I'd planned.

Afinia's H-Series 3D Printer

My test printer was the H-Series 3D Printer from Afinia, a 2009 startup on a mission to distribute 3D printers to classrooms around the country. (Although 3D Systems and MakerBot, which is owned by commercial-grade 3D printing company Stratasys, lead the market for consumer-grade 3D printers, they didn't have a review model readily available.)

Some 70 percent of Afinia's printers are sold to middle schools. It's a wonderful way to acclimate kids to the technology of the future. And 3D printing is definitely the technology of the future. It will change manufacturing by allowing product designers to make changes to prototypes on the fly and then print them out.

It will also allow consumers to create their own products and replacement parts for everything from power drills and coffeemakers to eyeglass frames. Some 3D companies such as 3D Systems even believe the technology will someday sit alongside microwaves on kitchen counters, printing out meals and desserts.

How it works

Afinia's H-Series model retails for $1,600, so it's no toy, even though it doesn't look very substantial when you pull it out of the box. It's what is called an open-framed printer -- other vendors enclose the printing area behind metal and glass, while this has an L-shaped frame with the printer head on the upper back and a printer platform on the lower bed. The printer measures 9.64 x 10.23 x 13.78 in. and weighs about 11 lb.

The Afinia printer uses fused deposition modeling (FSM) to create objects. During printing, thermoplastic filament is extruded through a hair-thin nozzle that heats to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 Celsius). The melted plastic is laid down in a precise pattern, building an object from the bottom up, one layer at a time.

Other 3D printing technologies include selective laser sintering (SLS) and stereolithography. SLS uses lasers to melt successive layers of powdered polymers; as each layer is melted into a pattern, more powder is applied over it and melted. Stereolithography is a technology that uses lasers to harden a photocurable resin. A mechanical positioning system directs a laser onto a tray of liquid resin and traces out each layer of an object.

Consumer-grade 3D printers typically use one of two kinds of thermoplastic filament to build the final product: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is derived from sugar and tends to have a more pleasant smell than ABS, which gives off a "plastic" smell. (I didn't find the smell of ABS to be unpleasant, but then again, I like the smell of gasoline too.)

While some printers can work with both types of filament, some only work with one. Afinia's printer, for example, only uses ABS.

The plastic filament is 1.75 millimeters wide and comes in 15 colors (my test system came with white). A single 2.2-lb. spool costs about $32 and will typically print dozens of objects. The exact number it will print depends, of course, on the size of the objects.

All printers include a base plate to which the heated, extruded plastic adheres. Some, like the one I used, have heated platforms, which keeps the plastic warm during the printing process, ensuring that the plastic doesn't warp or roll up at the edges, as can happen if it cools unevenly.

Many 3D printers use a "perf" or perforated board that is attached to the printer platform with clips before beginning a job. The many tiny holes in a perf board allow the thermoplastic to adhere firmly to the platform during printing. Once a print job is completed, the perf board, with the finished model on it, can be easily removed from the printer; the model can then be separated from the perf board.

Afinia supplies three perf boards with its printer. The boards only last so long, as the holes eventually fill with excess polymer. Afinia sells perf boards for $24 each. But you can find them significantly cheaper at retail outlets such as Newegg.com.

Software and setup

The initial unboxing and setup took me less than 20 minutes. The printer ships mostly assembled. You need only remove a few clips that hold the robotic mechanisms in place, attach the spool of polymer filament, and you're ready to begin learning how to 3D print.

One resource that I loved with this particular printer was the video instructions that came along with the operating system on the provided DVD. An instruction booklet is one thing, but having a video explaining the process of calibrating the printer and loading a CAD image makes it idiot proof. There are four instructional videos, which go from setup to printing.

The printer attaches to your computer via a USB cable. The software for running the machine comes on a supplied DVD, or it can be downloaded from the company's website. The software, which works with Windows and Macs, consists of a 3D printing application that allows you to position a computer-aided design (CAD) object inside a virtual box for printing.

Afinia's 3D software is similar to the open-source Slic3r software used by much of the industry to convert a CAD model into printing instructions for a 3D printer. Both applications take the CAD object and slice it into many (in some cases hundreds of) layers, which then become instructions for your printer.

3D printer-ready objects are stored as STL files). STL is a format created by 3D Systems and native to CAD software. It renders surfaces in the CAD design as a mesh of triangles; the number and size of the triangles determine how accurately curved surfaces are printed.

After loading the system software onto my laptop and launching the application, I had to calibrate the printer by printing out a preloaded pattern and measuring it to ensure the printer head and table were correctly positioned.

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.

Finishing up

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.

The first object I printed was the Porsche 911 model car. The car measured 1.75 x 3.83 x 1.25 in. It had an elaborate honeycomb of support structures on the sides and the bottom that took me more than 20 minutes to cut away using the X-Acto blades and wire snips. There were several moments when I came close to slicing my fingers open with an errant swipe of the blade.

When I printed an iPhone 5 cover with moving gears on its back, I spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to remove the bits and pieces of scaffolding material intricately woven into every nook of the cover. By the time I was done, I'd snapped off four of the seven gears and was able to get only one gear to actually turn.

Not all models translate into printable objects depending on the printer you're using. In some cases, the printer struggled to configure some object, and ultimately failed to reproduce the CAD drawings.

For example, one of the more intricate models I attempted to create was the Starship Enterprise (the one Captain Kirk commanded in the 1960s TV show). When I first downloaded the CAD file, the model was about 14 in. high. The printer's software told me it would take about 20 hours to build.

I scaled the Enterprise model down, first to 80 percent of the original and finally to 60 percent, in order to speed up the process and use less material. The software told me the smaller model would only take two hours and 40 minutes to build. Unfortunately, the design didn't translate to a smaller size, and the print job wound up being a tangled mess of threads with no real form.

I had more success with a model of the Empire State Building. The model had 806 layers and took two hours and 13 minutes to build. I liked it so much, I built two of them.

I also built two copies of the Eiffel Tower -- a process that taught me that sometimes objects print OK, but removing the required scaffolding ultimately ruins them. When I attempted to cut the scaffolding away, the more fragile parts of the structure snapped off with both the models I printed.

My favorite objects to print were Lego-style building pieces. I decided to build a car, and started printing wheels, axles and part of a car body. But unfortunately, the perf board had filled with polymer and so the edges of the plastic models curled up -- effectively ruining the last of my Lego-style print jobs.

Overall, learning to use a 3D printer was challenging. There may be some who intuitively understand how to manipulate objects using the software, but as a neophyte to the technology, I was not one of them.

Bottom line: Look before you buy

While the Alfinia H-Series 3D printer lists for about $1,600, there are less expensive printers on the way. For example, MakerBot's upcoming entry-level Replicator Mini will retail for $1,375, and 3D Systems' entry-level Cube personal printer starts at about $1,300.

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