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Getting Started with 3D-Printing

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Welcome to the wonderful world of 3D-printing

There are many resources and texts available on 3D-printing.

Rather than re-tell them all here, we will onboard you with certain top-level concepts, along with links to off-site resources, and then eventually dive in to the specifics of our machines.

A few things to know up front:

  • There is no magic '3D-print' button - It is an art that must be learned.
  • There are also no 'universal settings' for prints - each print will vary, and therefore each print's settings will vary.
  • Settings will further vary machine to machine, and material to material - again, nothing is universal. Embrace the complexity!

Given that complexity, our lab is focused on a few limited options - like a limited buffet - so that you can 'learn the ropes' and then branch out as needed to explore other materials, geometries, resolutions, etc.


Be sure to grab a 3D-Printing trifold adjacent to the makerspace reception desk, or download the PDF here. Read the "What is?" section and get accustomed with the "basic terminology" - as you 'dive in' you'll see these terms more and more, and over time their meaning and purpose will 'click.' Then take a look at the section, "Where to get started?" Go to the URL of the first bullet point, What is 3D printing? by 3Dhubs.com. Again, we don't need to re-tell the world of 3D-printing here when it's already brilliantly told in other places! That guide breaks down 3D-printing into 6 sequential steps - from concept to design to reality. It takes less than 1 hour to read. It's filled with some technical jargon but don't worry about that - you don't need to memorize every acronym or know every process they refer to. Simply know that there are plenty of other places out there sharing this information, in the hopes of expanding your mind to understand 3D-printing! And when you're done reading it, read it again! Read it on your commute, or while you're waiting for a potato to bake. Familiarizing yourself over and over with certain concepts will make them more familiar when you encounter them "IRL" in the lab.

Like a Limited Buffet

You read that guide by 3Dhubs, right?

Regarding Process (part 2) and Materials (part 3), the main takeaway you should be aware of is that our lab is focused on FDM, using PLA - with some support for the SLA process.

Put another way the complete buffet is filled with many process options: SLA, DLP, CDLP, FDM, MJ, NPJ, BJ, EBAM, etc - and the complete buffet is also filled with many materials options: PLA, ABS, Nylon, PETG, TPU, etc. Rather than attempt to understand all those various processes and materials, our lab has a 'limited buffet' of FDM using PLA.

And even with that 'limited buffet' there is a lot to explore & understand.

So FDM is the process, and PLA is the material. Check!

The reason we limit our materials options to PLA is manyfold:

  • It is affordable.
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  • It has a more lenient temperature spectrum:
    • The material itself has a lower melting point than most other materials, and the material doesn't require a heated bed (although having one may be advantageous).
  • It is malleable - after printing, the material can still be manipulated with ease.
  • It is a bio-plastic, and therefore will biodegrade (under the proper conditions). It is derived from corn (see below) & is therefore renewable.
  • PLA is a base, and on top of that base PLA has many attributes: colors, filler, flexibilities, tolerances, etc. 

These properties make PLA a great material for learning! 

undefinedCorn is an abundant food crop, and one of the main 'ingredients' of PLA are the sugars extracted from corn starch. In order to turn the sugars into polymers (aka plastic) citric acid plays a substantial part of the process. Ultimately this gives PLA-based 3D-printing an almost sweet, sugary smell when in operation. That is to say you may smell something sweet during printing, but the finished product will have a plain plastic odor.

Before advancements in PLA production, ABS was the most common material for 3D-printing by makers. ABS is oil-based, and is therefore pungent and requires ventilation for safety reasons. PLA does not require ventilation but it is a best practice to employ when available.