Editor's Note: This month at the tech.book(store) we've assembled a selection of our newest and most popular books on 3D printing and additive manufacturing including equiptment guides, how-to and design resources and titles exploring the incredible impact this new technology is expected to have on industry. We've also assembled a selction of 3D Printers, 3D printing accessories and cool products produced by 3D printers available on Amazon.com. To see more visit
By James Floyd Kelly,
One of my favorite activities to do these days is to go out to nearby schools (I live in Atlanta, GA) and demonstrate 3D printers to kids. There's always a mix of kids who understand the technology and kids who have never seen or heard of 3D printing. But by the end of the demonstration, they're all fired up to learn more about this new technology.
But 3D printing isn't just for kids. Parents need to understand 3D printing, whether it's for a school report or because they've purchased one and need to get it up and running. Teachers need to understand 3D printing because of the inevitable questions and for the hands-on opportunities it will open up in a classroom full of kids. And any adult who wishes to keep up with the speed of this high-tech world (and all the new innovations that will be springing up over the coming decades) will find that understanding 3D printers allows them to leap-frog to other technologies that are making their way into just about every work environment.
When it comes to 3D printing, a lot of folks want to know more... but don't know where to start. Decades ago I asked my dad how to change the oil in my first car. My dad answered the question in two ways. First, he explained to me the process in words. Second, he took me out in the garage and explained it again, but this time we put the car up on blocks, removed the oil filter, drained the oil, put in a new filter, and refilled the oil. Both methods answered the question, but the hands-on exercise cemented the "book knowledge" that my dad first gave me.
I believe 3D printing can benefit from a similar approach. There's no point in sitting a person down in front of a 3D printer and saying "go for it." Without the understanding of what this device is and all its moving parts... without knowledge of the special software needed to make it work... you might as well be sitting in front of a large rock. Instead, what this person needs is an explanation of what a 3D printer is and an overview of how to make or obtain one and, of course, how to use it.
What is a 3D Printer?
There are dozens and dozens of books out there that attempt to answer this question -- I've written a few myself. If you know what an inkjet printer is, then you're halfway to understanding the idea behind a 3D Printer.
An inkjet printer puts down a small bit of colored ink on a specific point on a piece of paper. More ink is provided, sometimes in various other colors. In the end, you end up with text or an image on the piece of paper that consists of thousands and thousands of teeny-tiny droplets of ink sprayed onto the paper. This ink creates a two-dimensional word or picture that exists on the piece of paper -- you can pick it up, show it around, and even make copies of it. But in the end it's just ink on a piece of paper; it's the precise placement of the ink (and the sheer volume of it) using the special motors and electronics inside the inkjet printer that allows your computer to make use of the inkjet cartridge(s).
So how does this relate to a 3D printer? Well, a 3D printer uses something other than ink. Instead of an ink cartridge, the 3D printer uses a thin thread of solid plastic (called filament) that it feeds down into a mechanism that melts the plastic into a liquid form. Just as motors move around the inkjet nozzle over the paper, the 3D printer has its own type of nozzle (called a Hot End) that is moved over the worksurface via motors. As the melted plastic is forced out of the Hot End nozzle and the nozzle moves over a work surface, a layer of soft plastic is laid down in the shape of an object such as a square and it cools and hardens. Layer is added to layer and over many many passes (and the Hot End is raised up via another motor), and in time a three dimensional object begins to appear. In the case of a series of square layers being placed one on top of another, you end up with a rectangle or cube-like object when the print job is done.
In essence, a 3D printer creates a physical object on the workspace, layer by layer, until the finished object cools and can be handled safely. This final object is made from plastic instead of ink (although there are other materials that can be used by specialty 3D printers).
Get Your Own 3D Printer
Just a few years ago, the only real way to obtain a 3D printer was to build your own or pay large amounts of money ($10k or higher) for one. Building your own came with risks, especially if you werent technically-inclined, but it was really the only way to save money if you wanted one of these devices.
Today, however, 3D printers have entered the mainstream. You can purchase what is called an "out of the box" solution that means the 3D printer is already assembled and ready to go... just hook it up to your computer and follow the included instructions to get it working. Expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $3000 for a pre-built 3D printer. Higher priced 3D printers typically offer more features such as multi-color printing or the ability to print larger 3D objects.
The other option is to purchase a kit that typically comes with all the nuts, bolts, and electronics necessary to assemble your own 3D printer. These kits don't require you to sift through dozens of online specialty websites looking for just the right parts, but they still do require a comfort level with working with basic tools such as screwdrivers, wire strippers, and possibly wiring up some simple electronic gizmos. You can often save $100 to $500 by building your own 3D printer from a kit rather than purchase a pre-assembled 3D printer.
Using A 3D Printer
With special software (called CAD, or Computer Aided Design), users can create 3D objects on their computers and then print them as needed with a 3D printer. Users of 3D printers create all sorts of objects with these powerful tools -- visit www.thingiverse.com to see just what kinds of objects have been created for use with a 3D printer.
If you want to create your own 3D objects, you'll want to get familiar with a free CAD application like Tinkercad.com or one of the various free options from www.123dapp.com and Autodesk. Keep in mind that designing 3D objects is a skill that develops over time, so don't expect miracles at first. New 3D printer users will often download existing 3D objects (called models) from sites like Thingiverse.com as they learn and stretch their wings designing their own models with CAD applications.
Where to Start
I wrote a book titled 3D Printing: Build Your Own 3D Printer and Print Your Own 3D Objects that provides a simple explanation of 3D printer technologies and how they work. My goal was to create a book for parents, teachers, and kids that would be easy to understand and follow. I show how to build an inexpensive $300 3D Printer from a kit (called the Printrbot Simple) and then I show how to use Tinkercad.com to create some simple models that can be printed with a 3D printer. From finding a printer to building one to creating a 3D model to printing it all out, my hope is that this book will provide novice 3D printer users with all the information they need to make an informed decision and to get started fast in this fun and important technology.
James F. Kelly has degrees in both Industrial Engineering and English He is an avid tinkerer and maker who enjoys taking complex technology and finding a way to demystify it for non-technical readers. 3D printing and 3D modeling is one of Kelly's primary hobbies. He has found that Tinkercad is non-intimidating and is one of the best methods to gain proficiency with CAD. Kelly has written more than 20 books on a variety of technical subjects, including 3D printing, LEGO Mindstorms, iPad and more.