What is a 3D printer, and how does it work?

  3D printers have become one of the peripherals on everyone’s lips recently. Their enormous usefulness in many fields has made them an essential accessory in many areas. That is why we thought they deserve an article so that you can know how they work and how to use them with your PC in the best possible way.

  3D printers started to be used for industrial needs, especially for making parts for rapid prototyping. This technology made creating unique features within a more complex model possible without developing special molds that required further machine development. This process delayed the rollout of new products.

  The first 3D printers were large and expensive to use, but over time, thanks to technological improvements, the cost of 3D printing decreased until it became possible to have them at home. As for the quality of the materials has been improving, and now we have many filaments to create all kinds of models easily. This has allowed small businesses to manufacture their 3D objects for various uses.

  What types of 3D printers can we find?

  There are different types of 3D printers, but we will focus on FSM printers, which use thermoplastics to work and are the most common in homes. These types of printers use PLA and ABS plastic filaments, although they have also come to use wood filaments, cork, and even coffee.

  SLA printers are based on resins; their finishes are much better and allow better prototyping. Nowadays, SLA printers are widely used because they do not require color, especially by miniatures and modeling enthusiasts, who usually paint the models they use.

  SLA printers are usually closed by the toxic gases the resin generates when heated. So they are much less safe and are not recommended for inexperienced hands.

  Composition and operation of an FDM printer

  The printing process in a 3D printer is as follows:

  •   The thermoplastic filament is loaded into the printer and fed into the extruder. Inside it is heated until it melts. The extruder is very similar in operation to a hot melt glue gun.
  •   The extruder is connected to a three-dimensional system that allows it to move in three axes—left to right, up and down, and near and far.
  •   The printer prints the object in layers, using the suitable filament for each layer. It will often be necessary to change it in the middle of printing.
  •   The printing process is slow, as it is necessary to wait for the material to solidify, so some 3D printers usually have a small fan connected to the extruder.
  •   To strengthen the physical model, some printers tend to overfill parts of the object.

  The printer will print layer by layer until the object is finished, a process that depends on the printer used can take hours.

  How to get the models for our printer?

  The first thing you will need is a computer-aided design or CAD program that allows you to model in 3D the object; you can opt for the one you like and with which you feel more comfortable. We have cases like Blender, the famous AutoCAD used by architects, and even Rhinoceros, which is highly popular among jewelry designers. However, you can also opt for Autodesk’s easy but simple TinkerCAD. All of them are valid so that you can create your objects, and if you are interested, you can share them on the network with other users so that they can print them.

  Another method used is 3D scanners; these cameras use infrared CCDs or spare time to measure the distance of each object concerning the camera to have a volumetric model of the thing. It is a technique widely used in medicine to have 3D images. Still, because it is not based on polygons, voxels require the transformation of the model to a polygonal or triangle-based model to be able to be manipulated later in a CAD program.

  File formats for 3D printers

  Whichever method we use, the most commonly used file formats in 3D printing are as follows:

  •   3D Manufacturing Format (3MF): this is an XML-based format and the standard of the 3MF consortium. It stores not only shape data but also color and material data.
  •   Additive Manufacturing File (AMF): another XML format with similar characteristics to 3MF since it also stores shape, material, and color information.
  •   Object file format (OBJ): is used as a compatible image format among several 3D editors, but it is not yet compatible with 3MF.

  These formats are not enough to be able to print an object on a 3D printer, but it is necessary to use Slicer programs, which we will talk about next.

  What is Slicing for 3D printing?

  3D printers print objects in layers, printing each one on top of the other in a process where the actual model gets higher and higher. Unlike other methods of printing objects, we are not talking about casting an object in a mold or sculpting it on a stone.

  This makes it necessary to use software that takes the original model and converts it into a file format where each layer that makes up the object to be printed is defined. We call this process Slicing and this type of application Slicers.

  They not only transform the model into a series of layers that the 3D printer can use but, in many cases, allow us to adjust the height of each layer, the density of filling, and even create supports for the 3D structure to support itself if necessary in the middle of printing. So this type of software is also part of the creative process to obtain the best possible piece.

  How do I communicate my 3D printer with the PC?

  In the same way as other printers, you can use a USB connection, an SD card to store the files to print, and even Wi-Fi. So its installation is the same as any other peripheral.

  But as with conventional printers, 3D printers require software to control 3D printing; we recommend Pronterface, which allows us to control the different aspects directly and comfortably. Besides being compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.

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