We Are Learning 3D Printing Through Our Personal Experience…
One of the drawbacks of the FDM (FFF) 3D printing method is that the result of your printing is a model that is not totally smooth to the touch, you can see and feel the texture created by the layer by layer printing by extruding the thermoplastic material. The smaller the layer size the less noticeable the texture of the printed 3D model is, but it is till there and some people just want to get a smoother glossy or matte object as a result of their 3D printing. There are multiple solutions for smoothing the surface of your ABS or PLA 3D prints to make them look even better as a final product and not seem so much like they were actually 3D printed. The most commonly used approach seems to be the use of various solvents that can help you get a smoother look of the surface of different 3D prints, but you need to be careful with these as solvents might be dangerous to your health and if not properly handled you can also damage your 3D printed models.
One of the most commonly used methods for smoothing the surface of 3D prints made with ABS material is to use Acetone as it melts the ABS plastic and creates a smoother and glossy looking surface. The there are various ways for the application of Acetone for smoothing ABS prints that may produce varying results, so you might want ot try them all and experiment to see what works best for you and gives you the best results. Some people dip the model in acetone, some apply it on the model with a brush and some use Acetone vapors to melt the ABS plastic and give it a smoother finish. Regardless of what you use however you should be careful with Acetone and try to avoid inhaling and also be careful as Acetone is highly flammable. Another alternative to Acetone that might give you the same results for smoothing ABS prints is Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), also known as Butanone, as some people report successfully using this instead of Acetone. Do note that Acetone and MEK do not seem to work well with PLA filaments like they do with ABS, so do not try them for smoothing PLA 3D prints!
For smoothing the surface of PLA 3D printed objects it seems that so far the best working solvent providing similar effect to Acetone for ABS is Tetrahydrofuran (THF). THF not only works for PLA like Acetone does for ABS, but it also smells similar and might be as dangerous as Acetone to your health if you do not properly handle it, so you should be extra careful when working with any of the solvents mentioned here. It is a wise idea to wear gloves and work in well ventilated area, so you will not be inhaling the fumes of the solvent you are working with, also be very careful when handling any of the mentioned solvents – Acetone, MEK or THF as they are all very flammable. Do note that Acetone is the easiest and most widely available solvent of the mentioned ones and you may have trouble finding or obtaining any of the others mentioned, so do check locally if they are easily accessible.
Another safer for handling alternative that is supposed to work with both ABS and PLA 3D print (as well as many others) is a special product dubbed as high performance 3D print coating called XTC-3D from Smooth-On. It has been getting some attention lately among the 3D printing community, though people are reporting mixed results after trying it out. The product is essentially an epoxy coating consisting of two liquids that are mixed together and then brushed onto any 3D print, the coating is supposed to self-level and wet out uniformly without leaving brush strokes. Working time is 10 minutes and cure time is about 4 hours and after that the XTC-3D should have cured to a hard, impact resistant coating that can be sanded, primed and painted. The problem with the Smooth-On XTC-3D is that it is not widely available, might be easier to obtain in US, but we could not find it available anywhere in Europe or a place to order it from that will deliver here, so that could be a serious problem. Other alternatives include priming and sanding the model and then maybe painting it or painting with PlastiDip rubber like coating directly.
The 3D Printing pens are essentially a new category of devices that has appeared due to the big interest in consumer-oriented low cost 3D printers in the last few years. These devices are essentially a very simplified version of a 3D printer in a hand-held format or a more complex version of a glue gun. With a 3D printing pen you essentially get an extruder that you hold in your hand and move around to print stuff similar to how the extruder is being moved in a 3D printer by the precise mechanism. Obviously with a hand-held extruder and hand movements you cannot achieve any precision that is even remotely close to what a 3D printer can achieve, but that is not the goal here anyway. You can view 3D printing pens as more of an art oriented devices where it is not about achieving a high level of detail or much of a precision, but being able to let your imagination free and literally start drawing three-dimensional physical objects.
The device that has created the whole market and interest in this new set of products is the 3Doodler considered to be the world’s first 3D printing pen, or at least the first such product that went mainstream. This all happened last year when the Kickstarter project for the 3Doodler turned out to be a very successful crowd funding campaign generating huge user interest and a lot of support. Since then the makers of the very affordable and creative “alternative” to traditional 3D printers have announced that they have shipped more than 100000 3Doodler 3D printing pens. So it is no wonder that after the huge success of the 3Doodler a lot of similar products have appeared on the market and a lot more 3D printing pens will probably become available soon if the interest in these devices continues to grow. We already have a Chinese company making an alternative to 3Doodler, the YAYA 3D Printing Pen that appears to be also available under different brand names as the company also operates as OEM and ODM supplier aside from having the product available under their own brand name. Other similar alternatives are the 3D Air Pen also available for sale, the 3D Printer Pen or the upcoming 3D Simo and probably many other similar devices.
What all of the above mentioned 3D printing pens have in common is that they are quite big in size and not very pen-like in terms of size, so you will need some time to get to use to work with them. There however is another interesting project in the works, the LIX pen – a project for a really compact 3D printing pen that will us FDM (or FFF) technology for extruding thermoplastic materials such as PLA or ABS that are used by many 3D printers. The LIX pen also had a successful Kickstarter crowd funding campaign and there is a lot of interest in this device as it really brings the size down providing a 3D printing pen that is not much larger than a traditional ink pen. If you are considering to get a 3D printing pen and are not in a hurry then this one may be worth waiting a big more for them to start taking orders and get one, we are waiting for just that to happen to get one LIX pen to experiment and play with, hopefully the wait will be worth it.
The 3Doodler and all of the other mentioned above 3D printing pen alternatives, already available or soon to be available, as well as some others that we did not mention or maybe even don’t know that exists are all designed to melt thermoplastic material such as ABS or PLA and extrude it with the person using the pen moving it to either draw flat on a piece of paper or in three dimensions with the extruder material. There is however an alternative option available, or to be more precise more like soon to be available, that does not use FDM or FFF technology for printing using thermoplastic filaments such as ABS or PLA, these devices instead will utilize SLA (Stereolithography) technology. This means that instead of melting thermoplastic the 3D printing pens using this alternative technology will use a special cold photopolymer resin that will be extruded and quickly solidified using UV light. Products that will use SLA technology are apparently soon going to be available like for example Polyes Q1 or Creo Pop both of which do look very promising and we may also see other similar products getting announced soon. Using photo sensitive resin that is more like liquid can provide another interesting creative alternative to 3D printing pens melting plastic materials, not to mention that it may also allow for some interesting alternative uses depending what you mix with the filament.
Let us get back to the important question however and it is if the 3D printing pens, regardless of their form or the technology used are really worth it? You should be well aware that a 3D printing pen is not an alternative to a 3D printer, it is a similar in functionality device, however the target users and uses are different. 3D printers are designed to replicate virtual objects with high precision and accuracy and 3D printing pens are more like for the creative or artistic bunch that does care more about the freedom and creativity that these devices give to their users. The fact that 3D printing pens are generally much more attractive in terms of price as compared to even the cheapest 3D printers makes them interesting for a much broader audience, including a lot of people that just like cool gadgets, but have no idea what they will use a 3D printing pen for. The fact that 3D printing pens do not require any special software, knowledge or skills to be used makes them cool gadgets for everyone, however having some skills and knowledge and at least an idea what and why you may be using such a device for will definitely help. Otherwise there is high probability that you will get one cool 3D printing pen, try it out and not get satisfied with the result you get and just put it a drawer and forget about it. Companies saying that you do not need any experience or knowledge to use a 3D printing pen may be misleading people a bit, you may not need it, but you still need to spend some time in order to get used with the product and to be able to make good use of it, but even then if you suck at drawing things in 2D, then you most likely will be disappointed in what you can do with the device in 2D or in 3D. So even if 3D printing pens are very affordable and seem easy to be used they are simply not for everyone, the same as with 3D printers, although the people making and selling these products may claim otherwise. You should be well aware of the fact that with both, even if you lack the needed knowledge or skills to use them and take full advantage of a 3D printing pen or a 3D printer you can quire them by learning… you just need to want to learn.
When we are talking about 3D printing you should know that there are multiple different technologies available, the main difference is in the material and how the layers are built. We are going to quickly cover the three mostly used ones, though there are other technologies also available. Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is an additive manufacturing process or 3D printing technology that uses melting of thermoplastic material by heating and then extruding it to create the object layer by layer. This is the most widespread and affordable technology currently available though it is not the most flexible and precise one at least the more affordable consumer 3D printers, the fact that it is cheaper and easy to use is what has helped it spread a lot.
Stereolithography (SLA) is a 3D printing technology used for producing 3D models layer by layer by curing a photo-reactive resin with a UV laser. This technology is considered more expensive mostly due to the price of the photopolymer and the hardware required to cure it and does require some extra steps after the model is printed before it is usable, however it also produces higher detail level. SLA does also print support structures for more complex geometry models as FDM does.
Selective laser sintering (SLS) is another 3D printeing process similar to FDM that builds three dimensional objects by using a laser to selectively sinter (heat and fuse) a powdered material instead of thermoplastic like in the case of FDM. The main advantage that SLS has is that it does not require support structures to be printed, because the part being printed is surrounded by unsintered powder at all times, making it easier to print more complex geometry.
Apart from FDM, SLA and SLS 3D printing technologies there are quite a few alternatives available that can work with different materials and produce 3D prints from thermoplastics, nylon, photopolymers, different metal alloys and even edible things like sugar. But if you want to get into 3D printing with an affordable solution the fused deposition modeling-based 3D printers are probably the best choice.