Is it Hard to Learn 3D Printing? A Quick Overview

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

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3D printers are not as simple as their 2d counter parts. You will need to spend a good amount of time researching for your printer. 3D printing does have a larger learning curve than using an inkjet or laser printer. The good news is, with dedication you can learn this process too!

3D Printing is not hard to learn if you are willing to invest time in the learning process. You will need to learn several skills; slicing programs, 3D printing materials, printer maintenance, and print troubleshooting.

I will walk you through the process of learning about the various aspects of 3D printing. Learning 3D printing is a great way to improve yourself!

The Steps to Learning 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 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.

Next, we will break down each step in more detail.

Learn About 3D Models

3D Model of an Elf Ranger

3D Model of Elf Ranger Source: Toawi on Thingiverse.com

Most likely if you’re interested in 3D printing you’ve already seen some models online that you want to print. Even if you haven’t found the exact models you probably have a good idea of what you want to print. Maybe you’re a 3D artist and you already have models that you want to print. If you have a CAD background you may want to print models from programs like Fusion, Inventor, or SOLIDWORKS. No matter what category you fall into you will need 3D models to print.

If you don’t have a design background and want to download models to print, there are lots of options on the Internet. One of the largest websites to find free 3D models is Thinigiverse.comThingiverse offers thousands of free models for personal download. Chances are you can find a model that meets your needs on Thingiverse. There are websites where you can buy high quality models. Myminifactory.com is an example of website that has both free and paid content.

If you are interested in designing your own 3D models you will need to find and learn software to do so. This is a huge topic and I will mention a couple options. We will not be diving into the topic of 3D model making in this article.

If you are a 3D artist and want to make organic models you will most likely use Blender or a similar program. Blender is free to download and use so it’s a great starting point. There is a learning curve so you will need to spend a lot of time learning how to get the most out of Blender.

 
Blender 3D modelling Software

If you are looking to make mechanical parts for functional use AutoDesk Fusion Personal is a great resource. Fusion 360 is free for personal use and is a great program for developing 3D parts. I use Fusion 360 for all my design work and I highly recommend it. Like Blender there is a large learning curve with this software. The good news is there are lots of tutorials online for this software. Withing only a few hours you should be able to learn the basics and begin designing simple parts.

3D Object Modeled in AutoDesk Fusion360
Needle File Holder I designed

Learn About Slicing Programs

Now that you have a model you want to print the next step is learning how to prepare it for the printer. You must convert your models from their 3D format on the computer into G-code. Printers cannot read a model that you create or download. The model needs to be converted into commands that the printer can execute. G-code is the most used computer numerical control (CNC) programming language. The G-code created by the slicing program tells the printer where and how to move to print your model. You should take some time to learn about common G-code commands.

There are a few options for slicing programs. Keep in mind that every 3D print user will have their own favorite slicer. You may find people arguing about why one slicer is better than the other. The truth is they all have their pros and cons. You will need to do the research and get experience with the programs to find what works for you. We will start with slicing programs for FDM printers.

Currently, the most popular free slicing programs are Ultimaker CuraRepteier Host, and Prusa Slicer. Each of these programs will allow you to configure a profile for your 3D printer and slice the models. If you are just getting started, I recommend using Cura. It’s free, straight forward, and you can get great results with it. I use Simplify3D which is a commercial slicer. Simplyfy3D is not free but it will allow you to install it on up to two computers. If you are just starting out you do not need to spend money on a commercial slicer. Any of the free versions will work great.

Cura Slicing Program

So, what about a slicer for a resin printer? The most common free software is Chitubox. Chitubox has support for many of the common resin printers on the market. I will note that as of this writing Chitubox is still under heavy development. Prusa Slicer can also slice prints for resin, but it will only export code for the SL1 printer. If you have a budget 3D resin printer your primary option is Chitubox.

Chitubox slicing software for 3D resin printing

The miniatures I tested printed for my article on support removal.

An important point about slicers. The settings you use in your slicer affect the quality of your printsIncorrect slicer settings will lead to poor quality or failed prints. You will need to learn what settings work best for your printer. You can also search online to find pre-made profiles for your printer. These profiles can be imported into your slicer and give you a great starting point.

Learn How to Use Your Printer

This step will take the most time out of all the others. While the principles of 3D printers are similar across manufacturers, each machine has its own quirks. Most likely when you get your printer it will come with some 3d model on the SD so you can print right away. You will learn quite a bit about your printer in the process of assembly and preparing for your first print.

FDM Printers

Creality Ender3 3D Printer

For your first print you will learn to calibrate the Z-height or how to level the bed. You will learn how to prepare your print bed for printing. You will learn how to load and unload filament on your printer. You will learn about different filament types and what works best for you and your printer. You will learn about temperature settings and how they affect filament types. You will learn that no 3D printer is perfect and there will be failed prints. Lots of failed prints.

You will need to learn how to calibrate your printer in order to get the best quality prints. We will not cover calibration here as that is a topic all to itself. As mentioned before things like bed leveling and Z-height calibration are necessary for a successful print. To get the best prints, you will need to learn how to calibrate other aspects of your printer. Belt tension, extruder motor calibration, and stepper motor calibration are a few of the many topics you will learn. The good news is that with a little reading and some videos these topics are easy to learn about. You can read my guide to 3D printer calibration here.

Every printer will need some level of calibration to get the best prints possibleThe amount of calibration depends on the printer and how well they are manufactured and tested. Many printers, especially budget printers, will need upgrades to allow them to make the best quality prints. With a little research you will be able to find the best upgrades and calibrations for your printer!

Resin Printers

Elegoo Mars 3D Printer

The first thing to learn about resin printers is that you need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Resin is toxic and you need to avoid breathing the fumes and getting it on your skin. Always wear an appropriate respirator and nitrile gloves when working with resin!

The second thing to learn is how to setup and level your 3D printer. Be sure to level your entire 3D Printer and not just the build plate! An uneven printer means the resin in your vat will not sit level and can lead to print issues. You will learn how to properly level and adjust the build plate. You will learn how to install the resin vat. You will learn how to fill and remove resin from the printer.

You will learn about cure times and how they affect the print quality. You will learn that different resin types have different qualities when cured. You will learn how to remove supports from your prints. You will learn that there will be failed prints. You will learn how to remove failed prints from the FEP film of the resin vat. You will learn how to properly support your prints, so they don’t fail. You will learn how to store resin safely and properly. You will learn how to post process your prints, so they are ready for use.

Your learning process will be supported by a vast and helpful community of 3D printing enthusiasts. Chances are if you are having a problem with your printer someone has already figured out a solution. Searching the Internet and watching YouTube videos will help you solve most of your problems!

Learning How to Post Process Your Prints

With resin printer you will need to post process the print after it finishes. A resin print is not fully cured after coming out of the printer. You will need to remove the extra resin from the print and then cure it. This process is straight forward and with a little research and experimentation you will find what works best for you.

With FDM printers there is usually less post processing needed. Depending on the print you may need to do some sanding or print smoothing. The amount of post processing depends on what you need from the print. Like resin prints, research and experimentation will help you find the best method.

Learning About Printer Maintenance

Both FDM and resin printers will need maintenance to keep them working. Each printer type has its own unique requirements for maintenance. Resin printers have fewer moving parts, but the resin vats and LCD screens will need to be replaced. FDM printers have more moving parts and will need lubrication and checking for loose parts.

Learning how to perform preventative maintenance and replace worn out parts is not difficult. Almost every printer has a video online with instructions on how to replace the worn-out parts. There are also lots of videos about how to perform preventative maintenance on YouTube.

Over time you will learn what your printer needs and how to keep it running at its best. While you may need to refer to the tutorials and videos at first eventually you will find what works best for you.

Learning about Troubleshooting

One of the greatest skills that 3D printers will teach you is the art of troubleshooting. Every single step of the printing process will require troubleshooting at some point. You may download a model that wasn’t designed correctly and needs to be repaired. There may be an incorrect setting in the slicer that causes your prints to fail. You may find that the SD card stops being recognized by the printer. Your printer will have a failure at some point, and you will need to figure out why. You may find that during post processing your prints keep breaking. There will always be something that you need to troubleshoot in the process.

This may seem like a daunting task at first. If you stick to a basic plan of troubleshooting, you will be able to learn how to fix many of these issues. At first it will be difficult to know where to start. Searching “why did my print fail” will not be specific enough. You will need to learn to identify the type of problem you are having. As you gain experience and learn the terminology of 3D printing this process will become easier. The benefit of learning how to troubleshoot is that the process can be applied to other areas of life! Learning basic troubleshooting skills can save you time and money.

Conclusion

Overall, there is a lot to learn about 3D printing. On the bright side, you don’t have to learn everything at once. In addition, you will be learning while working with your printer. We know that best learning is active learning, where you are involved in the process. It may be frustrating and challenging at times, but if you stick with it, you will learn how to 3D print! If you are looking to buy a 3D printer but are unsure what to get check out my recommended FDM printers here and my recommended resin printers here.