Learning about 3D printing

In our second practical class for Enhanced Design Tools we had an introduction to 3D printing. It was fun to see some samples of 3D printed work, as well as learning how to use 3D software and see our designs turned into cute little 3D objects. Here’s a summary of the steps we followed.

Sculptris screenshotDesigning for 3D printing

The first step was to create (or find) a design to print. This meant preparing or sourcing an image in a format suitable for 3D printing. Thingiverse has lots of designs for 3D objects that you can download or use as inspiration.

There are a number of software options for creating 3D designs, such as Fusion 360, SketchUp and Sculptris. Having not used any 3D software before, I decided to start with Sculptris, as it seemed to be a more touchy-feely interface than some of the others!

Using Sculptris is a bit like modelling with clay – you start with a blob and basically pull out bits of it, squeeze or pinch it, smooth it and generally keep playing with it until it resembles the shape you’re after. I decided to create a gecko lizard, and here’s how it looked after about 3 hours playing with Sculptris:

Gecko in 3D

As you can see, the lizard is a bit bumpy and the curves aren’t the smoothest, but at least it resembles a gecko! I realised the underside of the lizard would need to be flatter to enable it to be printed, but couldn’t figure out how to align parts of him to a flat plane, and didn’t have time to perfect it before the 3D print test. From Sculptris, I exported the file in ‘.obj’ format.

Preparing the file to print in 3D

The next step was to install software to process the 3D drawing and turn it into a format suitable for output to a 3D printer. I installed Ultimaker Cura (which prepares files for 3D printing) and adjusted the settings to suit our 3D printer (Wanhao Duplicator i3). I then imported my drawing file. When I first imported it, the lizard was almost invisible – about 2mm long! I had to zoom in to find my tiny lizard, then scale it up to a size suitable for printing – about 6cm long. Because the lizard was not flat at the bottom, and a 3D printer can only print in flat layers, I had to include ‘helpers’ to prop it up.

Part of the set-up process was to check the output time, and adjust the settings as needed to ensure it would not take too long or use too much filament (the thin plastic material used to print the object). The Cura estimate said my tiny lizard would take 22 minutes to print. I saved the ‘gcode’ file from Cura onto an SD card, ready for the printer.

Setting up the printer

This involved checking the X/Y/Z position of the base plate, smearing it lightly with a UHU glue stick (the recommended way to help the filament stick to the surface in a way it can be removed easily) and checking the filament.

It’s printing!

It was exciting seeing the tiny gecko take shape as layer after layer of filament was added. I knew the result would not be great, as the printed supports would detracted from the shape of the lizard, but that was a learning point for next time. Once I am more proficient with Sculptris it should be easier!

Here’s a 10 second video showing the 3D printer in action:

Here’s the resulting print of the lizard:

Close-up showing the raft and helpers printed under the gecko

Learning points

If doing this again, I would try to make the bottom of the lizard flat to avoid needing a raft or supports. This would make a big difference, and reduce the amount of material used. I’d also need to spend more time learning Sculptris so I could smooth out the shapes a lot more.

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