Since it gives computer users the ability to produce tangible objects in a variety of materials and colors right from their desktop, 3D printing seems as if it would be technically complicated (or just magical). But in reality, it's not all that different from printing in two dimensions on paper.
To produce a printed page, all computer users need is a document, a computer and access to a printer — and, of course, ink and paper. Likewise, printing in 3D only requires three similar things. Sure, the technologies differ, but that's the basic gist, as these three steps explain.
Step 1: Develop a Concept
If you were to open a document file on your computer, hit some random keys on your keyboard and press Print, you'd have a paper printout — though it wouldn't make much sense. With 3D printing, you can't make a shape that easily, not even a poor one, so it's worth beginning the process by putting some thought into your object.
Start by knowing what you'd like to print in three dimensions. If you don't have an idea or concept, there are plenty of free suggestions online to get you started. Web sites like Thingiverse.com offer a library of pre-designed objects that you can print with any 3D printer to gain experience. Or you can be inspired by people who are already using 3D printing technology.
Phoenix-based sculptor Kevin Caron uses 3D printing to refine his artwork before making full-sized versions. "Mostly what I'm doing is proof of concept designs. You know, will it stand up, does it look right and are the proportions correct on it?" he says.
And Chris Considine, CEO and founder of Los Angeles?based CXC Simulations, uses 3D printing to prototype custom-designed parts for racing simulators that are so realistic, they are used by professional race car drivers. "We need 3D orienting to see if the part feels exactly how we want it to feel," he says." We went through about 30 versions before we found the one that was perfect for us. Other than 3D printing, there's truly no way you could have done that without building it over and over again."
Step 2: Hop on a Computer
Once you know what you want to produce, it's time to sit down at a computer and make it happen. 3D prints are most commonly generated from an STL or .stl file. Standing for "stereolithography" (what 3D printing was named when it was first invented), this file format is to 3D printing what the .doc file is to document output.
To open and manipulate an STL file, you'll need computer-aided design (CAD) software. For decades, these programs have been used by everyone from architects to product designers, so there are many kinds of CAD software available.
SketchUp is a free modeling program designed to be straightforward and allow anyone to create three-dimensional renderings, whether simple or complicated. Likewise, Tinkercad keeps the design process easy by providing just three simple tools. It also runs in a Web browser and offers step-by-step design lessons to demonstrate how easy 3D printing can be.
Meanwhile, programs like AutoCAD are favored by many experienced professionals, having been used in the design and prototyping of millions of products throughout the years.
To run these programs, you don't need a particularly powerful computer. Caron uses an HP desktop machine to create his digital sculptures. "It's not a big screaming gaming computer by any means," he says. "It's just a small office computer and it handles the CAD program just fine."
Step 3: Get Access to a 3D Printer
Most people assume they need to own a 3D printer to produce digitally rendered objects, but that isn't true. Sure, owning a desktop 3D printer can put your designs within arm's reach. But driving across town to pick up your objects at a Staples 3D printing service location or having them delivered by mail can be just as convenient for some businesses.
For example, Caron owns a CubeXª commercial 3D printer. With the ability to print objects up to the size of a basketball, this device produces designs in plastic and in more than 4,000 different colors. He's also used print-on-demand services to produce sculptures that he couldn't make on his office's machine.
"They're breathtaking when you see them," he says of the two acrylic sculptures. "The detail that I could view on the computer came out in the print — it just blew me away." Caron is planning to scale his designs down and turn them into jewelry to sell. "I've gotten one back in a polished glass and it's stunning. You can't tell it from gold other than by the weight."
If you are interested in using 3D printing but need help with these steps, visit one of our stores that offers 3D printing services (currently in Los Angeles and New York City). There, we can help you with all the steps, from getting in touch with designers to actual 3D printing. You can even get in our 3D printing photo booth and have your face put on a figurine.
Go from Concept to Reality
Some businesses would argue that 3D printing, whether it's done in the office or at an outside service, is worth its weight in gold. "I can go from concept in my head to holding the part in sometimes as quickly as an hour," says Considine. "It's a very powerful thing for an engineer to have. It's liberating."