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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.

On the left you can see the first layer of the iPhone cover being printed. On the right, the completed cover. Removing the scaffolding material often caused pieces to break; of three attempts, this was the best cover I was able to produce. And no, the gears didn't turn.

When I printed an iPhone 5 cover with moving gears on its back, I spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to remove the bits and pieces of scaffolding material intricately woven into every nook of the cover. By the time I was done, I'd snapped off four of the seven gears and was able to get only one gear to actually turn.

Not all models translate into printable objects depending on the printer you're using. In some cases, the printer struggled to configure some object, and ultimately failed to reproduce the CAD drawings.

For example, one of the more intricate models I attempted to create was the Starship Enterprise (the one Captain Kirk commanded in the 1960s TV show). When I first downloaded the CAD file, the model was about 14 in. high. The printer's software told me it would take about 20 hours to build.

An attempt to print a model of the Starship Enterprise failed miserably.

I scaled the Enterprise model down, first to 80% of the original and finally to 60%, in order to speed up the process and use less material. The software told me the smaller model would only take two hours and 40 minutes to build. Unfortunately, the design didn't translate to a smaller size, and the print job wound up being a tangled mess of threads with no real form.

I had more success with a model of the Empire State Building. The model had 806 layers and took two hours and 13 minutes to build. I liked it so much, I built two of them.

I also built two copies of the Eiffel Tower — a process that taught me that sometimes objects print OK, but removing the required scaffolding ultimately ruins them. When I attempted to cut the scaffolding away, the more fragile parts of the structure snapped off with both the models I printed.

My favorite objects to print were Lego-style building pieces. I decided to build a car, and started printing wheels, axles and part of a car body. But unfortunately, the perf board had filled with polymer and so the edges of the plastic models curled up — effectively ruining the last of my Lego-style print jobs.

Models of the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building. The Empire State Building came out the best of all because it was the simplest and required little scaffolding. The spire and pieces of the truss frames are missing on the Eiffel Tower; they broke away when I tried to remove scaffolding material.


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