How to Get Started with FDM 3D Printing – A Quick Guide

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

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I often get asked how someone can get started with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printing. They want to know how to get into the hobby without wasting a lot of time or money. In this guide we will talk about how you can get started 3D printing.

To get started 3D printing you will need several items; a 3D printer, filament, a computer, 3d models to print, some basic tools, a willingness to learn, and patience.  

In this article we will examine each of those items in detail and how exactly you can get started with 3D printing. We will talk about the do’s and don’ts for getting started to help save you time and money. My goal is to help you understand what is required for 3D printing, so you know what to expect, and how to succeed and enjoy the hobby. So, let’s get started!

How do FDM Printers Work?

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a method where thermal plastics are melted and then extruded according to a patter.  In a nutshell, an FDM printer works by melting thermoplastic and extruding the plastic over a build surface called a print bed or build plate. The printer draws all the shapes that make up one layer of the print and then the print head raises and repeats the process. The printer continues extruding layer by layer until it completes the object.

The specifics of how an FDM printer works will differ slightly between printers but the general process is the same for all FDM printers.

  1. Thermoplastic filament is fed into the printer and down into the printer’s nozzle.
  2. The print nozzle is heated to a temperature appropriate for the type of filament being used.
  3. The printer is designed to allow movement in the X, Y, and Z dimensions for the print head to deposit the plastic in the print area.
  4. As the material melts it is pushed out or extruded from the print nozzle as the print head moves around the X and Y dimensions tracing out the path designated by the slicing software.
  5. The extruded plastic cools and become bonded to the layer beneath.
  6. The printer will print a layer and then the printer will move the print head up 1 layer to begin printing the next layer.
  7. The printer repeats this process for each layer until the model is fully printed.

What Printer Should I get?

This is usually the first question someone asks when they want to get into 3D printing. The answer to this question is it depends on why you want to get a 3D printer. Are you looking to print large objects where minute details are not critical? Or perhaps you want to print highly detailed models for tabletop gaming? What you plan to do with the printer will impact the style of printer you buy. For larger prints an FDM printer is the way to go and if you want highly detailed prints a resin printer is for you.

The Cost of Buying Cheap

Don’t buy the absolute cheapest FDM printer, it will cost you more headache and money in the long run. Cheap 3D printers tend to be lower quality than reasonably priced printers. These printers are usually cheap because they lack the quality control of better printers. You will need to spend much more time calibrating your printer to get decent prints. You will also need to spend money on upgrades to make the print quality better. Let’s look at an example.

We are going to look at the total cost of upgrading an Anet A8 printer, arguably the least expensive FDM printer out there right now. The base price of the Anet is around $160 and it comes as a kit that you need to assemble yourself. We will group the upgrades based on their function. First, we’ll start with reliability and safety.

Anet A8 Budget 3D Printer

The Anet A8 – Courtesy of anet3d.com

In the A8 community there is concern about overheating and fire hazards with the printer. To reduce the overheating and fire risk adding a MOSFET to the A8 is one of the most important upgrades you’ll make. The A8 does not ship with a power switch. You need to unplug the power cord in order to turn off the printer. Adding a power switch improves the safety and convenience of the printer. There are some A8 users who feel that the power supply that ships with the unit is underpowered. Upgrading to a bigger power supply can add an extra layer of safety to the printer.

The net upgrades will help with the quality of your print. The factory belts that come with the A8 are cheap and easily stretched. Upgrading fiberglass reinforced belts will result in less backlash of the printer head allowing for better print quality. Replacing the bearings with Igus DryLin bearings will improve the print quality of the printer and reduce the noise it makes! If you are curious about how much noise 3D printers make read my article here.

Adding a heated glass bed to the A8 will greatly improve your bed adhesion and have a longer lifespan than the stock bed. An auto leveling sensor is another great upgrade that will help with bed adhesion. Using an auto leveling sensor will allow the first print layer to be uniform across the entire build plate.

If you want to print other materials besides PLA or just want a more consistent experience printing PLA, upgrading the extruder is the next step. An E3D Titan extruder offers a huge upgrade over the stock extruder of the A8. This upgrade will be one of the most expensive that you make. If you upgrade the extruder, I recommend upgrading the hot end as well. The E3D v6 all metal hot end can improve reliability when printing high temperatures.

Upgrade Cost
MOSFET $8 average
Power Switch $8
Power Supply $20
Fiberglass Reinforced Belts $10
Igus DryLin Bearings $13
Glass Bed $14
Auto Leveling Sensor $17
E3D Titan Extruder $63
E3D V6 Hot End $58
Total Cost of Upgrades $211

After buying the printer and adding all the upgrades you are now looking at a total cost of $380 for the printer. At that price point you could certainly buy a better or larger printer.

How Much for a Good Beginner’s Printer?

So what price range should I be looking at? Most printers in the $200 – $400 range are excellent starter printers that will have good print quality out of the box. If you’re not sure about 3D printing and want to try it out this is a good price range for a first 3D printer. You can certainly spend more on a 3D printer to get rock solid quality and amazing prints out of the box. For around $1,000 you can buy the Prusa i3 Mk3s which will offer amazing quality. However, most people don’t want to spend that much on their first printer.

Personally, I recommend the Creality Ender3 (Click here for price on Amazon) for a beginner. The quality is good and the price is fair for a first printer. You can learn more about the Ender3 on my recommended FDM printers page.

What Kind of Filament Should I use?

FDM printers use thermoplastic commonly referred to as filament as the printing medium. There are many kinds of filaments available on the market with different properties and physical characteristics. The easiest filament to get started with is Polylactic Acid or PLA. This material is a favorite among hobbyists as it is low cost and easy to print with. Here is a list of some common filaments.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a common filament type known for being tough and impact resistant. Typically, ABS is printed at a nozzle temperature of 240°C – 270°C and is good for parts that will be subjected to heat.

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is one of the favorite filaments of the 3D printing community. It is a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from renewable sources such as cornstarch, sugar cane, and potato starch. PLA requires a much lower nozzle temperature than ABS printing between 180°C and 220°C.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is often used for mechanical parts that require flexibility and impact resistance. PET offers more flexibility than ABS while maintaining flexibility. PETG is printed at temperature like ABS between 220°C and 250°C.

Glycol modified Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETG) is a variant of PET filament that increases the materials durability and impact resistance. Unlike PET this material will not readily absorb water. PETG is also considered food save and can be used for cups, plates, and food containers. It prints at the same temperature range as PET.

PolyEthylene coTrimethylene Terephthalate (PETT) is another modified version of PET. PETT is considered food safe and is approved by the FDA. It prints slightly cooler than PETG between 210°C and 230°C.

Polyamide (Nylon) filament is a synthetic polymer typically used in industrial applications. Nylon is strong, durable, and flexible. Printed between 220°C – 250°C nylon is perfect for industrial parts such as gears, bearings, and mechanical components. The downside to nylon is that it emits toxic fumes when printing. This is important to know as nylon does not produce and odor when it prints but it is toxic and should be used in a well-ventilated area.

Wood filament is made with recycled wood and polymer binding. It is typically used for more decorative applications as it is one of the weaker printing materials. Wood filament is printed in the same nozzle temperature range as PLA at 195°C-220°C.

Having used Matter Hacker’s filaments for years I highly recommend their PLA. The filament is high quality and offered at a competitive price. A budget alternative that I have recently begun using is Overture PLA Filament (Amazon Link). I have used the mate version of their PLA and find that it is great value for the price.

What Do I Need a Computer for?

In order to 3D print there are a couple steps you need to take before actually pressing print. The first step is to find a model that you would like to print. There are many freely available 3D models that you can download from online. Most models will be saved as an STL file. In order to download the models and the software for 3D printing your computer will need high-speed Internet access.

If you want to create your own 3D models using Blender or a CAD program such as AutoDesk Fusion360 you will need a computer to run the software. After you create the model or part in your CAD program you will need to save it as an STL and import it into your slicer.

Regardless of the method used to get your 3D models you will need to import them into your slicer to process. Ultimaker Cura is a popular free slicing program that you can download and install on your computer. You will need to generate a profile for your printer so Cura can generate G-Code that will work on your printer. Luckily, most software slicers come with a large collection of printer profiles that you can import. As you get more experience with your printer you will want to tweak the settings in your slicer to get the best prints.

Once you have sliced the model you will need to transfer the G-Code file from your computer to the printer. The most common method is to copy the G-Code to an SD card and insert it into the printer. The printer will read the G-Code file on the SD card and use the file to print your model. 

After working with the printer for a while you may find areas where the prints need improvement. Most users will want to calibrate their printer to get the best print quality. Calibration will require you to connect your computer to the printer via USB cable so you can send G-Code commands directly to the printer. These commands will be saved to the printer’s firmware affecting how the printer performs certain functions.

You may need to upgrade or reflash the firmware on your printer for various reasons. In order to flash the firmware on your printer you will need to connect the printer to your computer with a USB cable as you did for calibration. The steps to flashing firmware will vary from printer to printer but you will still need a computer to connect to the printer for this process.

What Kind of Computer Do I Need?

First off you will need a PC or Mac running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. Chromebooks will not work as you can’t install the software needed to a Chromebook.

As we look at the specifications in the following section there will be two terms I use, minimum specifications, and recommended specifications. While a computer that meets the minimum specifications may run the software it will be slow. You should aim for your computer to meet or exceed the recommended specifications.

In order to check your computer specifications on a Windows PC press the windows key and Pause/Break Key at the same time. This will bring up the system information dialog box. In that Window you will see your Processor type/speed and installed RAM. On a MAC Click the apple menu and select “About this MAC.” Your system information will show in the overview window.

Modeling Software

Let’s start with modeling software for those of you who may want to venture down this road. Blender is a good choice of software if you plan to model organic shapes such as sculpts or miniatures.

Blender 3D modelling Software
The following lists the specifications for a computer to run Blender:

Blender Minimum Specifications:

  • 64-bit dual core 2Ghz CPU with SSE2 support
  • 4 GB RAM
  • 1280×768 display
  • Mouse, trackpad or pen+tablet
  • Graphics card with 1 GB RAM, OpenGL 3.3

Blender Recommended Specifications:

  • 64-bit quad core CPU
  • 16 GB RAM
  • Full HD display
  • Three button mouse or pen + tablet
  • Graphics card with 4 GB RAM

Blender Optimal Specifications:

  • 64-bit eight core CPU
  • 32 GB RAM
  • Full HD displays
  • Three button mouse and pen + tablet
  • Graphics card with +12 GB RAM

The good news for blender is most computers from the past five years will meet or exceed the minimum specifications.

Let’s look at Autodesk Fusion360 a popular CAD program. Fusion360 is the choice if you plan to make functional prints that need precise measurements and tolerances.

3D Object Modeled in AutoDesk Fusion360
Fusion360 Minimum Requirements:
  • 64-bit processor, 4 cores, 1.7 GHz Intel Core i3, AMD Ryzen 3 or greater
  • 4 GB of RAM (integrated graphics recommend 6 GB or more)
  • Graphics card – Supported for DirectX 11 or greater. Dedicated GPU with 1 GB or more of VRAM. Integrated graphics with 6 GB or more of RAM
  • Display Resolution: 1366 x 768 (1920 x 1080 or greater at 100% scale strongly recommended)
  • Internet: 2.5 Mbps or faster download; 500 Kbps or faster upload. You must have an Internet connection to use Fusion360.

Fusion360 Recommended for complex modeling:

  • CPU – 3 GHz or greater, 6 or more cores
  • Memory – 8 GB RAM or greater
  • Graphics – Dedicated GPU with 4GB or more VRAM. DirectX 12 supported.

Fusion360 has some higher system requirements than Blender. I can say from experience I am able to run Fusion360 on a Laptop that is about 7 years old. It doesn’t run as smoothly as it does on my newer PCs, but it can still be done.

Slicing Program Requirements

Let’s talk about requirements for the all-important slicing programs. We will review requirements for Cura a popular slicer for FDM printing.

Cura Slicing Program
Cura Minimum system requirements
  • OpenGL 2 compatible graphics card, OpenGL 4.1 for 3D layer view
  • Display resolution 1024 x 768
  • Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64
  • 550 MB available hard disk space
  • 4GB RAM memory

Cura Recommended system requirements

  • OpenGL 4.1 compatible graphics card for 3D layer view
  • Display resolution 1920 x 1080
  • Intel Core i3 or AMD Athlon 64
  • 600 MB available hard disk space
  • 8GB RAM memory

Cura will run on older computers, like Fusion360 I tested it on an old Laptop I have. It still runs fine, although it can take much longer to slice a complex file than a newer computer.

Hard Drive Space

For hard drives the bigger the better. However, not all hard drives are created equal. A major speed advantage can be gained by installing and using a Solid-State Hard Drive (SSD). Because SSDs have no moving parts they are much faster than their mechanical counterparts. The main drawback to SSDs is that they are more expensive than mechanical drives. If you are looking to buy a new computer, I highly recommend getting a PC with an SSD.

If you already have a PC and need more space to store your STLs  I recommend an SSD USB 3.0 external hard drive like this SanDisk (Amazon link).

If you already have a PC or Mac that is only a few years old, you should have no problem running the software needed for 3D printing. As I stated previously, I can run all the above programs on an old laptop. If you have an older PC chances are you can still run the software needed. All the software discussed in this section is free to download and use so you can test it on your computer. If you are worried about your computer running the software needed download and test it first!

Overall, if your computer is less than 5 years old you shouldn’t have any issues with the software needed for 3D printing.

If you are looking to purchase a new laptop I recommend this ASUS ROG Strix G512 (Amazon Link) as it exceeds the necessary requirements. It will also serve you well for several years.

What Software Do I need?

We covered most of the software and specifications in the previous section. At a minimum you will need a PC with Internet access to download STLs and a slicer such as Cura. If you want to create your own models and parts you will need programs like Blender or Fusion360.

Finally, if you want an easy way to store or view your STLs I recommend installing an extension for Windows called Papas-Best STL Thumbnails. This extension will automatically show you a model view of your STL right in Windows Explorer.

Papas Best STL viewer software
Another option for STL viewing is STL Vault. This program is in alpha while I am writing this article and so far, it looks like a great resource for searching and viewing your 3D models. A feature I like about this program is the ability to rotate a model for viewing without the need to open your slicer.
STL Vault STL viewing software

How do I find Models to Print?

If you aren’t planning to create your own models the best way to find models to print is through sites like Thingiverse.com. You can find thousands of free to download 3D print files. There are other websites that offer free and paid STLs such as cults3d.com. If you are looking for models for tabletop gaming there are many artists on Patreon that create and distribute new models each month. Unless you have an extremely specific applications, chances are you can find a model to fit your needs.

How do I Store all my 3D Files?

How you store your STL files is a matter of preference. I recommend creating a folder on your computer for your 3D models and then creating sub folders inside of the main folder to keep them sorted. As mentioned in the software section I highly recommend two additional programs to help with your STL library. Papas Best STL Viewer and STL Vault. The ability to see your models without the need to open them in a slicer is a huge time saver. Trust me, you will eventually end up with gigabytes of STLs and keeping them organized will be a necessity!

If you are downloading lots of models you will need ample hard drive space in order to store them all. Currently my collection takes up 44GB of storage space and it grows daily. I do go through the collection from time to time and remove models that I no longer need or have interest in printing. In addition to the storage space requirement I recommend backing up your STL files. If you have a hard drive failure you may not be able to find all the models again.

The easiest method for backing up is to get a USB hard drive and copy your collection to the hard drive. I recommend an SSD USB 3.0 external hard drive like this SanDisk (Amazon link). Be sure to update the collection every week or daily if you’re doing a lot of downloading. Do not work directly off this hard drive! Do all your editing and slicing from your computers main drive and backup to the external hard drive!

If you have a hard drive failure your STLs will be waiting for you. I would also highly suggest using a cloud storage service for backup of ALL your important files! As an IT instructor and consultant, I can’t begin to explain how costly hard drive failure is when you don’t have proper backups!

Is it Hard to Learn 3D Printing?

You will need to know what types of objects you want to print. This will determine what type of printer and what materials you should use. For example, if you want to 3D print terrain for table-top games, you’ll want a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printer. These printers use filament and are more cost effective at making larger prints.

If you are more interested in small fine detailed models or parts you will want to get a resin printer. These printers work by exposing a liquid vat of resin to UV light which hardens the resin. These printers have greater detail than FDM printers but cost more to operate.

Once you have an idea of the things you would like to print you can decide on the printer you would like to get. Many people in the hobby end up with both types of printers. People also often end up with many different printers of the same time.

As you wait for the printer to arrive you can begin to research your new printer. Begin by looking up how-to articles and YouTube videos on your exact model of 3D printer. Once the printer arrives you will loosely follow the steps below on your 3D printing journey:

  1. Learn about 3D models. How to make them or how to find and download them.
  2. Learn how to use a slicing program to prepare your model for the printer
  3. Learn how to transfer your model from the slicer to the printer
  4. Learn how to use print on your 3D printer
  5. Learn how to post process your prints
  6. Learn about maintenance on your printer
  7. You will learn about troubleshooting at every step of the process.

I say loosely because each person will learn differently. You may be more interested in learning about the software to design 3D prints. Maybe you enjoy the hands-on work with the printer and dive deep into configuration of your printer. No matter what order you choose you will eventually need to learn all the above items.

So How Do I Get Started?

 

 

 

 

  1. Research and purchase a good beginner friendly FDM printer.
  2. Purchase a 1kg spool of PLA filament.
  3. Ensure your computer meets the minimum specifications outlined in this guide
  4. Download and install a slicer such as Ultimaker Cura.
  5. Find and download models you want to print.
  6. Setup your 3D printer according to the instructions.
  7. Run a test print on your printer to check the quality.
  8. Calibrate your 3D printer for optimal performance.
  9. Enjoy your new hobby!