#TTT: 3D Printing Basics

As one of the main features of the DIGILab, our 3D printer is a tool enabling us to create real physical forms of designs and ideas. While 3D printing has become more popular over the years, many people still are unsure of how it actually works.

In basic terms, 3D printers have two main components: the extruder and the build plate. The extruder is where the filament is fed through, and it places the material on the build plate.

The extruder heats the filament at a very high temperature (can be upwards of 260 degrees celsius), melting it into a softer, more malleable state. This allows the printer to essentially place layers of filament along the build plate, which is heated as well (often between 60-90 degrees celsius). The layers of filament are laid on top of one another in the shape of the desired object.

PLA filament is layered to create objects with width, depth, and height.

The materials of the filaments can be anything from plastic to metal. The DIGILab uses PLA and ABS, both of which are plastics.

Users can create designs themselves or find existing ones on websites such as Thingiverse, and download the .stl file of the design. If they prefer to start from scratch, or modify an existing design, they can use websites such as Tinkercad, which like Thingiverse, is free to use. After the user is satisfied with their design, they can load the .stl file into a printing software. The DIGILab uses Cura, a free program that connects with your 3D printer. After importing the file to Cura and adjusting the print settings, you can begin printing.

However, before you begin, you should keep a few things in mind. First is the type of material you are using. Even similar materials such as PLA and ABS have different settings that should be used. ABS requires higher temperatures than PLA. One way to keep the temperature high is by placing your printer in a glass box, to contain the heat.

There are other adjustments you can make before printing, such as setting the height of each layer, and the speed of the extruder. Another involves the build plate – some people choose to cover their plate with masking tape or specifically made printer bed covers, while others print directly onto the plate. Outside materials, such as hairspray, can also be used to help objects stick to the bed during printing.

The most important thing to remember with 3D printing is to keep trying. Your first few builds may not turn out how you hoped, but with time you’ll get exactly what you want. Keep printing, make adjustments, and find what materials, settings, and styles work best for you. And if you need any help, drop by the DIGILab or contact us at dec@longwood.edu or 434-395-4332.

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