Within a few years, 3D printers will be nearly as common as paper printers. So we’d best learn a bit about them. A 3D printer, as the name implies, prints in three dimensions. If you remember the old "dot matrix" printers, or have looked inside an inkjet printer while it’s working, you’ll have seen a physical print head moving back and forth as the paper moves up. That is 2D printing: back and forth, and, up and down, are the two dimentions. Now imagine the paper flattened out and held in place, with the print head moving back and forth as well as left and right - this is how old style mechanical pen plotters moved in 2D. Now imagine the print head can move up and down as well as front to back and left to right, and you’ve got 3D. Change the ink to molten plastic and you’ve got an idea how most consumer 3D printers work. These are called Fused Deposition Modelling or FDM printers. Technically FDM is a trademark, so we’re supposed to call them 'fused filament fabrication' (FFF) printers, an alias that was created due to the trademark. But most documents still call them FDM.
There are also 3D printers that use liquid plastic resin (called stereolithography), molten metal, etc. Other units work by removing material from a solid block, by laser cutting or mechanical cutting. The latter is often abbreviated CNC, for Computer Numerical Control, an acronym used at least as far back as the 1960’s. These pages are only focussing on the FDM style.
The idea is not new; it’s been around for several decades. The main credited inventors are Hideo Kodama of Nagoya (Japan) Municipal Industrial Research Institute and Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation (USA). Hull’s contribution is the design of the STL (STereoLithography) file format that is widely used today. The first widely-known do-it-yourself printers are from the RepRap project (started in 2005). RepRap intends to provide self-replicating printers, i.e., those that can print all their own parts. Since some of the parts need to be metal rather than plastic (for accuracy and for strength), we’re not there yet. Some projects based on RepRap have reached about 75% of the self-replicating goal; they still don’t make the metal parts.
Just as you have to format a document before printing it in 2D, you have to design or model your object before you can 3D-print it. Or, as you can photocopy an existing document, you can 3d-scan an object, clean up the file, and print from that. There are dozens of software tools, both free and open source, that can be used for these operations. One of the longest-running and best-known sites for free downloads of 3D-printable models is thingiverse.com (funded by long-time print manufacturer MakerBot Industries,). one of the original makers of 3D printers), There are many other sites where you can download model files to print, share new designs, modify existing ones, and so on, all for free.
The original RepRap project is still going strong , for those who want to build a printer completely from parts. But it is only for the computer hardware geek, not the average consumer. There are also numerous commercial printers, many of them based on the RepRap software (and sometimes even the hardware). These are usually available fully-assembled, ready-to-print; some are also available in kit form. The Original Prusa in the list below is by one of the contributors to RepRap, Josef Prusa. Because like most of us he did not trademark his own name, many low-cost imitators use the name "Prusa" in their ads. Beware of imitators!
The "ink" is known as "filament" because it comes in long thin shape, usually 1.75 mm in diameter. The most common types are :
PLA (poly lactic acid, biodegradable);
ABS (harder plastic, longer lasting, higher melting point);
PETG (also harder, can be food-safe).
Be sure you get a type that your printer can use!
Some of the pain points in FDM printing include:
Bed leveling - the "bed" or surface that the filament gets melted onto has to be quite level, or the print won’t stick in some areas, and will break off or jam up during printing;
Bed heating - all but the very cheapest printers use a heated bed, so the print can cool down more smoothly and adhere to the bed properly. Getting the temperature right can be an issue.
Filament choice - choosing the right type of filament for the job.
Filament storage - some filaments, especially the most common "PLA", are hygroscopic - they will absort moisture from the air, which can not only swell the filament causing it to jam, but also cause bubbles to form in the molten filament, causing print failures.
I wrote an article on Choosing a 3D Printer.
And one specifically on the Prusa i3.
Here is an older list of machines that I’ve looked at recently (last updated Spring, 2018).
You can read more about 3D printing at Wikipedia.
News site with lots of coverage include:
Several Ontario ones are listed in my spreadsheet above.
In addition to the major online shopping malls, several e-tailers specialize in 3D printers, including https://matterhackers.com/, https://reprapworld.fr and https://www.robotshop.com/en/3d-printers.html.
Numerous companies supply the "ink" or "filament". I am absolutely not going to try to keep a list of filament suppliers up to date. Just do a web search on Google, or Amazon, or even Kijiji Classifieds, for, e.g., "abs filament [name of country]" or "pla filament [name of country]" as a appropriate. Note: Quality is far more important than price, so check the reviews!
There is a ton of information online, some free and some not:
The good and the bad
3D Printers, like any tool, can be used for good or bad. Hammers can drive nails but also break bones. Cell phones can help you stay in touch, but can also be used by kidnappers, drug cartels, and others for nefarious purpose. Guns can kill and guns can defend against killers. 3D printers can repair things, or make things to help you break things. Such is the nature of the human psyche.
And so it is possible to 3D-print a small gun like a handgun or an AR-15 rifle, using ABS plastic, but the gun can only be fired a few times before it breaks. In the U.S.A. and possibly other jurisdictions it is apparently legal for a person to manufacture their own gun in this way. There is at least one company making a 3D milling machine that lets you make the part of the gun that really has to be metal; you can find them on the internet.
Extreme 3D Printing
Several companies are using 3D printing in automotive design and even manufacture.