8 Tips from MakerBot for Making Better 3D-Printed Objects for Your Small Business

by Kevin Ackerman, Staples® Contributor

Both an art and a science, 3D printing is actually easy to do, but difficult to master. The experts at MakerBot have seen many objects rendered out of thin air — and out of plastic filament. Here they share some of their favorite 3D printing tips for improving your prints and your processes, whether you’re creating a prototype for your newest product or printing custom giveaways for a trade show.

1. Keep your 3D printer's firmware up to date.

Before you even begin to print, ensuring that your 3D printer’s firmware is up to date will guarantee that you not only have the latest software advancements in rendering objects, but also the newest features. "We've been working really hard at improving print quality and reliability in every release that we give out to the public,” says Joey Neal, vice president of digital products for MakerBot. Updates are typically released every month or so, and some are bigger than others.

2. Always inspect your filament before you print.

Just like paper printers, 3D printers can sometimes jam, only in this case with filament. According to Neal, the number-one cause of a 3D jam is a knot inside the filament container. “Actually take a look at your filament and where it's loaded,” he advises. “Sometimes the spools can knot over time — you would see it, it would be pretty visible.” If you somehow miss a knot, Neal says the easiest way to fix a jam is to unload the filament from the compartment once the printer stops, and remove the knot. Then reload the filament and you should be able to continue printing.

Neal also recommends sticking to the same brand of filament as your printer. “If you buy some other types of filament, they might not have the same type of test procedures or quality, and the variation of their filament size could cause negative impact on print quality and cause jams."

3. Standard resolution is often all you need.

3D prints are the result of time and hard work, so of course people want every output to look its best. But, Erin Arden, a training manager at MakerBot, says that sometimes printing at high resolution is overkill. “Standard resolution is the sweet spot between surface quality and speed,” she says.

Neal agrees. MakerBot spends a lot of time ensuring the standard setting works well. "I print with standard quality all the time,” he says. But if you need a print even sooner, turn on low-quality mode. That will print between 30 percent and 40 percent faster than the standard setting.

4. Pause your job mid-print to swap out different colors.

While many 3D-printed objects are one color, some appear to have multiple colors. This effect can be achieved in a couple different ways. One way is by making two separate interlocking objects — imagine a head with a hat on top, for example. But another way is to pause your job mid-print and swap out your filaments to print a single object in multiple colors. "To some degree, you can program it in to stop for you,” says Arden, adding that the MakerBot mobile app lets users view their prints via a camera attached to the printer, letting them also know how long it will be until they have to swap out their filament.

5. Leave your printer ready to roll.

It’s good to be prepared, especially if you use a mobile app like MakerBot Mobile or MakerBot’s Mobile Thingiverse app. "Always leave a load of filament in and have your build plate clear,” Neal says. When you try to start a print, the app will show you the printer’s video camera feed, ensuring that there's nothing on the build plate. Neal also suggests having someone available where the printer is, in case you need to call and ask them to remove a previous printout from the build plate. "I've run into that a few times,” he says.

6. Create custom print profiles.

There are a lot more options beyond the high-, standard- and low-quality settings, and once you’ve found some that you like, you can save them as custom print profiles for later use. Whether they are settings specific to a particular object you print out regularly or just personal preferences for all of your projects, saving custom print profiles isn’t just a time-saving measure. It can ensure that you have every preference needed for the different types of jobs you do. “Custom profiles are great for folks who definitely have a few months of printing experience under their belt,” Neal says. “They're power-user settings but they go a long way."

7. Create a 3D printing tool kit.

When it comes to physically handling your 3D printout, it’s good to have some tools at the ready. "We encourage 3D printing with rafts on, which is a layer of plastic that prints out and allows for better adhesion (to the printer’s build plate) and better-quality prints,” says Neal, who recommends using a thin spatula to remove the object from the printer. The raft will stay stuck to your object, and he suggests using needle-nosed pliers to gently break the plastic off your print. “Having some lightweight gloves is actually a good thing, because sometimes the plastic is a little bit sharp.” But most importantly, he says to avoid sharp knives when removing raft from your object: “A spatula does a great job and is the recommended tool.”

8. Use finishing techniques to make your design shine.

Most people think that when an object is printed the work is done, but experts know this is just the beginning. Arden has seen a range of finishing techniques applied to objects to make them appear even more authentic. "Anything that's okay to use with normal plastic is also okay to use with the 3D print,” she says. For instance, she’s seen people treat the filament with some marker colors prior to even starting their print job. "It actually lends itself to this very interesting multicolored texture. It almost looks similar to fabric, which is really cool."

Arden has also seen people treat their printed objects with a heat gun. This adds a nice sheen and glossy finish to the object. And of course, people do a range of other things to their objects, like sanding, painting, and using paint pens or markers to draw in details.

No matter how much experience you have with 3D printing, it’s always good to get a few tips from the experts.

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