Mar 14, 2015

7 tips when starting 3D Printing

Our tech club at middle school recently had the fortune of receiving a donated new 3D Printer. We're also fortunate enough to have an ambitious 8th grader with some experience 3D Printing at home who took the lead in recommending, ordering and seting up the 3D Printer. After it was all set up (Flashforge, dual Extruder!), of course the printing fun began - and so did the learning.
The minor lessons we learned seemed worth sharing:

1 - Don't rush the printer set up

This one truly is more than just one tip - but too involved to give details here. Let's just say A 3D Printer is not a toaster - you likely won't be able to take it out of the box, turn it on, and just start toasting stuff. There are key things to get right, and if your printer company doesn't explain it well (you shouldn't have bought that particular printer, and) you should go right to YouTube or the web and find people who have done it before. Bed-leveling, Software setup, Printer configurations for the filament you have, filament loading, and especially bed preparation to make sure your models will stick to the bed. This can get pretty complicated - so have an experienced person on hand if at all possible. We found bed adhesion to the be the trickiest part - so be ready to get some painters tape or kapton or hairspray (yes, hairspray).

early modeling is key

2 - Start Modeling Early

Way before you get a printer, try some #3Dmodeling apps and create things that you will eventually print. I use Autodesk 123D Design. Tech Club uses TinkerCad - both very easy. A very large portion of the learning is in the modeling, not just the physical printing. Kids who have any expectation of printing custom objects, parts, kits, etc, will need this skill. The father of the 8th grader who set up the school's printer has a great rule at home - "If you didn't model it yourself, you can't print it". That's a motivational rule I really like for schools.

Small logo keychain - 20 minutes

3 - Print Small Models

There's usually more than one person waiting to print something - and if you print something that takes hours to print,  1) you'll decrease the motivation for those waiting to print. 2) you'll simply reduce the experimentation and learning efficiency. You learn more with every print - so print lots of projects, not fewer large projects, and 3) You'll waste resources - since failures (perhaps common in the early days) will take lots of material and time.

4 - Start Simple (e.g. no dual extrusion)

There are lots of ways to make a project more complex - but save those for later. If you happen to get a dual extruder (we were so lucky!) - it means you can print in two colors - but don't! wait until you get the hang of simple things. If you are tempted to use a sculpting app which takes 360 view of your principal and prints her - don't! save that for week 2 (or week 22). Get the basics down, then advance.

5 - Start with PLA Filament

While I don't have any useful data or facts here - there is the belief that ABS, since it is petroleum-based, gives off bad smelling fumes more than PLA, which is corn-based (and actually smells sweet when it extrudes). Again - no data here - but it seems PLA has less concern than ABS, especially if the printer is in an un-ventilated space.
Some articles I found on this topic range from the not so scary to the worst-thing-since-poison. I think there needs to be more facts here, which leads me to believe a conservative approach is best to start.

6 - Model and Print semi-useful things

Motivation on the part of students and team members - to learn modeling and work through problems - will be much more easily maintained if they can experience real benefits from their efforts. Cute trinkets for your desk will only last a little while - but even a pencil holder or a pegboard hook will
Pegboard hook!
give a greater sense of accomplishment and will even wow the parents.

7 - Document your failures and successes

Start a journal - could be a blog, a spreadsheet, a folder with project write-ups and results - to give the people modeling and printing a place to share what they learn and to constantly build up the knowledge of the team and others. This is also great to teach the scientific method. Ask students to form a hypothesis each time they change something in their project and document the results. You'll be amazed at the amount of experimentation you end up doing.

That's likely just a starter list - and I'll add to it as we learn more.


  1. Good read on tips about 3D printing, which I enjoy : )

  2. Been there and done that :)

  3. Seems like a really great list of things to do (and not to do). Our district is thinking about investing in a 3d printer in the next year or two. I forwarded your article along to our admins. How did you go about getting your printer? Did you budget it or were you awarded a grant? Like many schools today, $ is our big issue...

    1. Check out in Bloomington Illinois Great printer and build your own at Open Source Classroom with Rob Martin

  4. We were lucky enough to have a parent donate the printer. Another great method is - I've seen several teachers do this successfully and have a $1000 printer within a couple of weeks! It is an amazing new method of funding great school projects.