Rewind To July 2015, 3D Printing

[M3D printer doing its work.]
[finished piece with attached supports]

[supports removed]
[biggest possible piece with supports removed]
Continuing the tour through my year of loose sails flapping in the wind of my muse…
This Summer saw me spend a while learning the ropes of 3D printing at home. The machines are so affordable nowadays that it was cheaper to buy an entry-level machine than it would have been to take a 3D printing class at the local community college.
The idea was that I would learn to design for the many limitations of the home printing technology, then build a bronze-casting studio to hand cast my creations. I learned a lot in the process. After gaining some experience, I found a big flaw that has sent me in other directions for now – the printing speed. Since each piece needs to be printed individually before it can be cast, I need to factor in the time that it takes to print a piece and make sure that time is paid for. It’s hard for me to believe that customers would pay the kind of prices I’d need to ask based on the long printing times with the current technology. 
This technology is growing so quickly that I’m sure it will change in the next few years and I may revisit this business idea when it does.
STEPS TO PRINTING
The media focuses on the printing aspect, telling us about how “they” are printing bridges, guns, medical appliances, and more. They never talk about the rest of the steps as if you can just say to the machine, “print me a gun, please!” Of course it’s not that easy, and most of the things that the media squawks about aren’t even possible with consumer-level machines. There are a few steps, and learning the options available at each step will increase the likelihood of success.
  1. Design. The item to be printed needs to be designed. knowledge of the limitations and good choices at this step will enable the other steps.
  2. Slicing. The printer can act on a very limited instruction set, essentially “heat up, move left, right, up, down, squirt out plastic.” It’s up to another piece of software, called “the slicer” to translate the 3D design into these simple instructions. The slicing step is critical.
  3. Printing. Finally, the printer is prepared and the instructions are sent to create the finished piece.
SOFTWARE AND HARDWARE DETAILS
DESIGN
I do all of my design in Blender. (blender.org) It’s a full-featured 3D software package, developed and maintained by a huge number of talented folks. When I say “full-featured” I really mean it. This software rivals the big, expensive software used in 3D effects houses. I’m sure that, these days, there are big studios who do some or all of their work in Blender.
SLICING
To slice my blender models, I tried a few programs and finally settled on Simplify 3D. (simplify3D.com) The biggest feature that sold me on it was the fact that I can place and control the support structures by hand. Support structures are necessary because the extruded plastic can’t just be squirted into space and magically hover there. Support structures need to be printed below these parts of the model. Simplify 3D gives me control over how substantial the supports are, how much connection they have to the main model, and more. It takes some experimentation to find the right settings for speed, stability, and ease of removal.
PRINTING
The printer is from a company called M3D. (printm3d.com) It’s quite affordable, less than $300 when I bought it, and a great introduction to the technology. It would not be suitable for production work, but it’s an amazing machine to learn on. Its control software works well out of the box, but the machine can also be driven with other software packages.
I used the M3D printer software out of the box, and found some of the options lacking compared to another printer control software called MicroPrint (https://github.com/tomasf/microprint) During the months that I worked with the printer, M3D got their act together and their control software improved to the point that I could use it, but Tomas really saved my bacon there for the time that some glitch between M3D’s program, the mono framework, and my OS would have left me dead in the water.
CONCLUSION
So that’s what I learned on my Summer Vacation. 3D printing is finicky and difficult to learn, even for someone with a lifetime of computer and 3D design experience. It’s also slow, and produces nothing that can be brought directly to an art market. Next!

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