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Hands on: Trying a 3D printer -- a beginner's tale

Lucas Mearian | Feb. 12, 2014
Learning to use a 3D printer for the first time is not complicated, but learning to do it well comes with a significant learning curve.

The Afinia 3D printer comes with an array of tools to help you cut and pry away the scaffolding material that is used to hold an object in place.

The printer attaches to your computer via a USB cable. The software for running the machine comes on a supplied DVD, or it can be downloaded from the company's website. The software, which works with Windows and Macs, consists of a 3D printing application that allows you to position a computer-aided design (CAD) object inside a virtual box for printing.

Afinia's 3D software is similar to the open-source Slic3r software used by much of the industry to convert a CAD model into printing instructions for a 3D printer. Both applications take the CAD object and slice it into many (in some cases hundreds of) layers, which then become instructions for your printer.

3D printer-ready objects are stored as STL files). STL is a format created by 3D Systems and native to CAD software. It renders surfaces in the CAD design as a mesh of triangles; the number and size of the triangles determine how accurately curved surfaces are printed.

After loading the system software onto my laptop and launching the application, I had to calibrate the printer by printing out a preloaded pattern and measuring it to ensure the printer head and table were correctly positioned.

Making my first 3D objects
I'm not an engineer or graphic designer, so I had no idea how to create a CAD model, but there's really no need to learn. There are plenty of free STL files that can be downloaded from sites such as MakerBot's Thingiverse. These sites have thousands of model designs, including toys like Lego-style building pieces and handy objects such as bottle openers.

This Pteranondon has 30 parts and took three multi-piece print jobs to complete.

Depending on the complexity (the number of layers) of the CAD drawing, an STL file can take a few seconds or several minutes to load onto the printer. For example, a complex, multi-geared model called a brain-gear, which had 712 layers, took about 20 minutes to load. Print time: 30 hours, 4 minutes.

By comparison, an iPhone 5 cover with moving gears on the back that had only 89 layers took just 2 minutes to load; it took 4 hours and 20 minutes to print.

A great feature with this printer is that it has onboard flash memory, which means once the pattern has been sent to the printer, you can disconnect your computer from it and it will complete the printing job. While some other printers do not have this feature, others have SD card slots or even Internet connectivity and LCD displays that enable a user to download the STL files and images — no computer required.


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