Connectivity Options for your 3D Printer
Depending on the model of the 3D printer you got you may have multiple options to print on the device, either connected to a computer and being controlled from it or working standalone from a 3D file you send to the device in some way. Usually the higher the price of the device, the more options you have available to choose from. What you should have in mind is that different connectivity options may require specific things and may not always be the best choice for your needs.

Starting from the lowest end, in terms of price, consumer 3D Printers you usually get only the option to connect the device to a computer and control it from the 3D printing software. There is no standalone mode available, so while working you will always need to have a computer connected to it. Not a wise idea to use a laptop that you may be taking away with you, the best choice would be a desktop computer or small and compact one that does need a lot of processing power. Using a direct USB cable connection should also give you the opportunity to monitor and control the device manually from the printing software at any point (only if the software supports it). This functionality might be useful especially with DIY setups where monitoring the printer operating parameters can help you find possible issues and things that you might be able to work on to improve.

The mid-range consumer 3D printers do get some extras, apart from the USB cable connection, they usually also come with either a flash card reader or a separate USB port for USB flash drives. This allows you to have the printer operate independently, not needing to be connected to a computer all the time or at all as you can load the models with a flash card or a drive directly to the device itself. This functionality can be quite convenient at times and I often prefer to print this way instead with a cable connection. This way I also know I have one more backup of my 3D models on an external drive, though it is always best to have an additional backup of your work on a separate device than your computer and/or the flash memory you may be using with a 3D printer (flash cards and USB drives do break as well, especially when you use them more often).

Some of the higher-end consumer 3D printers may also come with cable LAN or even WiFi option for connectivity to the device, this can be especially useful if you are getting a device for multiple users like in an office, not as much at home though. The availability of network connectivity may also come with another useful feature and that is a camera that can show you while the printer is working, so you can monitor the 3D printing process even remotely for example. In the previous articles I have mentioned already that it is not a good idea to leave a 3D printer unattended while working, but if you have a monitoring camera you might feel safer as long as you don’t forget to check the video feed from time to time.

It is a good idea to check what connectivity options will the device you have or even better are planning to get as having more than just the USB cable connection can be useful. So just don’t overlook that part of the 3D printer specifications.

The Typical 3D Printing Workflow

Normally the 3D printing process goes in a few steps like:

1. You create a 3D model or fine one to 3D print
2. You open the 3D model in the 3D printer software (slicer)
3. You check if everything looks good in the initial visualization
4. You set the printing parameters and generate a Preview of what the printed result should look like
5. You inspect for possible issues in the Preview as often you may find here some not seen on the initial view of the 3D model
6. If everything is looking fine you send the data to the 3D printer to start printing
7. You wait for the device to finish the print process and remove the finished physical object
8. At this point you may do some postprocessing work to make the printed object look better

So far in the series of articles about 3D Printing I have covered most of the steps in the workflow you normally follow, though for some I’m going to be talking in the upcoming parts of the articles. Especially important are the steps where you need to inspect the print preview for possible issues and if there are any to get back and correct them by editing the 3D model you want to print. Another very important thing can be the post processing step where you for example sand and paint or threat the surface of the 3D printed object with different things in order to improve the quality and finished look of your prints. These two will be the topic of the next part of the series, so stay tuned.

Now, if you are 3D printing something for personal use the above steps may be enough for you. However once you actually get a 3D printer and start using it you may want to offer 3D printing as a service, even without turning that into a business. You can register on 3D Hubs and start offering your 3D printing services to other users that may want to try and get something 3D printed without actually having to buy a 3D printer yet. You will find a great community and may even get to know other 3D printer owners around you, the service is connecting people all around the world, so no matter where you live you might find somebody else with passion about 3D printers close to you.

Alternatively, for people that actually make their own 3D designs, there are services where you can upload your designs and start selling them to people that may want to buy the finished 3D printed product. This is another good opportunity to extend your 3D printing hobby to something more than 3D printing at home things for yourself. Examples of such services are Shapeways and i.Materialise, though there are others as well. What is even better with these services is that you can also make something yourself in the form of a 3D model, test print it on your 3D printer at home and get it professionally 3D printed on a high-end machine with better quality and a wide range of materials that you cannot use on your consumer 3D printer. An example of this would be to design some jewelry, test print it on your device and actually start selling your own products that will be 3D printed from metal, including precious metals as well.

So as you can see getting a 3D printer with the idea of trying it out and playing around at home or in the office can just be the first step to many opportunities, you just need to be willing to take the jump into the unknown. Making the first step and continuing to learn and improve your skills as you go can really turn into an exciting journey into new technologies and new opportunities…

Alternative 3D Printer Software (Slicer)
The 3D printer software you get with your device or the so called Slicer (the software that turns 3D models of objects into a layer by layer data fed to the 3D printer) is usually great for you to get started. It might be even fine for users that don’t want to play around and experiment with different printing materials or upgrade and modify their printer, but as you continue to learn and try different things you will most likely start to see flaws and lack of useful features in what you have available.

I know as it has happened with me soon after I got my first 3D printer – the MakerBot Replicator 2. The software that ships with the printer – MakerBot Desktop, was nice and user friendly, so I was quick to learn to use it and that is a great thing for a newbie into 3D printing. However I started noticing things that could actually be better such as the speed of slicing more complex 3D models (it took forever) or getting more control over the printing parameters besides the really basic stuff. Now, have in mind that this was probably more than 2 years ago, so meanwhile these have been a lot of improvements and the latest version is faster and offers some more advanced parameters of the printing process to be tweaked.

Back in time, about 2 years ago I started looking for alternative 3D printing software to the default one for my 3D printer and I have found one that a lot of people were recommending. It was a commercial program called Simplify3D that other users of the Replicator 2 and other devices were recommending as being much better and offering a lot of extra useful features for more advanced users. I was a bit skeptical at first, especially considering the price tag of the software and it not having a trial version, though I still risked it and bought a license. Two years later and I’m still mostly using the Simplify3D software instead of any other official 3D printing software and am really happy that I made the decision to get a license back then. It has really saved me a lot of trouble and failed prints, especially when using more exotic filaments or I have to print larger and more complex 3D models. So I definitely recommend the Simplify3D software as an upgrade over the stock 3D printer software as long as your device is compatible with it.

For the 3D Printer Compatibility List of the Simplify3D software…

There are a couple of things that I like the most about this alternative slicer. First it has a really fast 3D model slicer engine that turns a virtual 3D model into a layer by layer information for the 3D printer. Back when I first got it was multiple times faster than the MakerBot Desktop slicer, so it really saved me a lot of time just for being significantly faster. Now it may not be that much faster, but it probably still has one of the fastest slicing engines out there and that essentially save you time, time otherwise spent waiting for the software to do its job. When preparing a 3D model for printing you may want to try playing around with different printing settings and that means that you need to generate the Preview multiple times to check how the options you tweaked may affect the final result. So even saving you a couple of seconds for each preview can make a big difference and normally you get more time saved. Furthermore the 3D model preview and Print Preview of this software do look better and more useful than what the standard software for the Replicator still provides you with. In the 3D printing series of articles I have actually shared a number of screenshots from both the Replicator 2 Desktop software as well as the Simplify3D software.

Another very useful feature I like is the flexibility of the support structure generation that is available in the Simplify3D software. You have some control over the automatic process of generation of support structures (I have described in detail what these are and what they are used for in an earlier post of the series). What is much more important and useful here however is the ability to actually manually add or remove support material and that is huge advantage and I mean really huge. The automatic generation process not always does great and you may need to apply some extra structures or remove some of the added ones, but in most standard 3D printer software products you just don’t have the option to do that. So if you want to use support material you can only rely on the automatically generated one, or not use support structures at all, but with Simplify3D you have the much needed additional control.

Other useful feature is the one that can help you identify potential problems in the 3D model you want to 3D print, the software even has some built in tools that can sometimes help you automatically resolve potential problems. These features do work decently, though they are not the best I’ve seen and there are other automated tools that may help you better, though at least you can know that there is a potential problem that may result in issues with quality or even unsuccessful print. These features need some more work, but even at the moment they can be useful as again a lot of the standard 3D printing software does not even offer such functionality. I’ll be talking abut these potential issues with the 3D models additionally and in more details in the future, so you might want to read about them as well in the next post from the series.

There are other useful extras also available such as much and I really mean much more control over the printing parameters and the ability to tweak just about everything you want such as printing speeds, use different infill patterns and settings, change layer or extruder settings if you are using a custom printing nozzle for example (with larger or smaller hole), much finer control over the support structures, rafts and some other useful structures that can be printed to help you get better results, operating temperatures of the printing head(s) and the heated build plate (if available), even add custom code that the printer can execute if you want to. So again, I do recommend that you check the Simplify3D software and consider getting it if your device is supported, it is really useful and will improve your experience and capabilities when using your 3D printer.

What is a 3D Scanner

A 3D Scanner is a device that is used to analyze and measure the physical characteristics such as shape and color of a real world object, based on the information collected using different techniques it can then reconstructs a digital 3D model of the physical object that was scanned.

For 3D scanning something you essentially use a specialized piece of hardware, either hand-held or stationary, to recreate a digital copy of a real object that you can then later on 3D print thus turning it back into a real physical thing. There are many different techniques employed by 3D scanners in order to get the required data for the shape of an object. Some 3D scanners do provide only a 3D model of the shape of the scanned object, while others might also include additional data such as the actual colors in the form of a texture as well. Do note that 3D scanners are not used only for 3D printing, they are helpful in many areas where you might want to digitize a real world object and make a realistically looking 3D model such as in movies for example.

Normal consumers usually don’t have access to 3D printers that can print in full color (these are much more expensive), but instead mostly use a single color filament, so a 3D scanner that provides color information as well is not very needed. What is very attractive in the idea for a 3D scanner to new 3D printer users is the fact that such a device would be able to essentially “clone” real world things and then 3D print copies as much as they want. The reality however is harsher and things are not always as easy as they may seem, or as 3D scanner manufacturers may want you to believe.

Many believe that using a 3D scanner is easier way to make a 3D model of something real and then quickly just 3D print it than having to design the model themselves. I have already talked about the need for some, even basic 3D modeling skills, for properly taking advantage of the capabilities of a 3D Printer at home. Even if you don’t have these yet, you can start learning and quickly get up to speed with a simpler program like SketchUp. A 3D scanner may save you some time, especially in getting a 3D model of more complex structures, however you will most likely still have to do some additional work to get a good result before actually being able to 3D print something useful or looking a lot like the original that you have scanned.

Affordable Consumer 3D Scanners
Just like a regular newbie when I got my first MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer and was making my first steps into the world of 3D printing I also got interested in 3D scanners. Obviously the first thing I did was to go to the website of the company that made my 3D printer and look if they are also offering 3D scanners. They of course did offer the MakerBot Digitizer, though at that time I thought that it was a bit too expensive, right after purchasing the 3D printer. The prices of 3D printers two years ago were higher and there weren’t that many options available as there are today, the same goes for 3D scanners. I see that the MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner is still available for sale at a reduced price, currently $799 USD.

Though in the end I did not purchase that one, mostly because of the higher price and the fact that was limited in functionality… it only offers you a small table for scanning small object. I wanted to go for something that would allow me to scan larger things, so I went for a handheld scanner instead – the Cubify Sense, now 3D Systems Sense. This model seemed like the better choice at that time for me and was available at a better price, so not a bad model for trying out the technology without investing too much into it, right? It ended up being a good choice in the end as it allowed me to try 3D scanning first hand without paying too much and then just getting not very happy by the results I got. Frankly said, I did not research a lot about 3D scanners, unlike for 3D printers, before actually going for a device, so I was a bit unprepared what to expect. That is why you should manage your expectations better and just know that you are most likely not going to get much in terms of details and quality from a consumer grade 3D scanner.

When I’m talking about a consumer grade 3D scanner I mean devices that are not intended for professional use and are pretty much with a price range up to about $1000 or maybe not more than $2000 USD. These devices are simply not going to be able to provide you with very good resolution and thus the detail level will suffer, their software is also probably not as advanced as with the many professional solutions available for higher-end 3D scanners, so that means you will need to spend more time cleaning and refining the 3D model data that you will get after the scan is over. Even repeating the scanning process is often required in order for you to try to get better results than the first try you did. In the end when you finally get to the 3D printing part and the resolution of the printing does also take away some of the detail you might not be very happy with the final result.

Surely the consumer 3D scanners are fun and nice to play with, you just have to know that you should not expect too much from them. You will not be getting 1:1 copies of the things you scan, although the general shape will be there, the finer details most likely won’t be scanned properly. Of course you can always go through the extra step in refining the more basic 3D model you get from a scan with the help of a serious 3D modeling tool to add the missing detail or even enhance so of the not so good results you achieved with the scanning process. That however would require an extensive knowledge of 3D modeling techniques and thus is not something that most normal users will know how to do. So the thing you are probably going to do is to rely on the tools for cleaning up a bit and enhancing the results from the scan that software you got with the device will allow you to use.

Professional and Expensive 3D Scanners
If you want to take a look at what a high-end professional 3D scanners is capable of and how much it costs to get good results you can check Artec – one of the leaders in professional hand-held 3D scanners. They most basic model starts at about 10000 USD/EUR price level and the more precise and feature rich models can go up a multiple times. Artec is the company that a while ago actually did a 3D scan of President Obama using their 3D scanners, so you might be interested in reading about it if you have missed it.

Of course there are other companies producing high-end 3D scanners for professional use that are able to deliver good results in terms of higher quality and level of detail, the common thing about them is that they are all pretty expensive. This makes the entry barrier for a regular consumer unreasonably high, so what is left for us is a not so good consumer model that is actually affordable or not to go for a 3D scanner at all in this stage. Unlike the 3D printers market where the last few years we have seen a lot of development in the consumer segment, 3D scanners have still yet to live their consumer revolution moment.

One of the reasons that high-end 3D scanners are expensive, besides the business-only orientation and limited number of products made and sold, is also related to copyright infringement. Being able to precisely scan a real world object and then replicate it with very high accuracy is scaring big names in the business, just like I’m sure the consumer 3D printer boom a few years ago also did. The truth is that there are already many alternative ways to get even better accuracy in copying and replicating something, so there is nothing going to stop you if that is your original goal…

So Should You Get a 3D Scanner Now or Wait
Time to answer the big question now: should you get a 3D scanner or not to go along with your 3D printer? Unfortunately there is not a definitive answer like a yes or no. If you are going for a consumer 3D scanner make sure you don’t spend too much and don’t have too high expectations for the quality and level of details. If you are going for a professional model then you are most likely going to need it for work, like if you have a 3D printing business and want to provide a 3D scanning services to customers for example and thus the high cost may be justified.

As a regular user getting starting in the world of 3D printing it will be much better to focus on learning how to 3D model things, a skill that will be useful not only for making things to 3D print. A 3D scanner may seem like a shortcut, but with an affordable consumer level device you will quickly change your mind on its usability for replicating physical objects. Especially when talking about more complex things or ones with a lot of fine details, you might be able to design these from scratch with much better accuracy and quality than having them scanned. That of course will require some time learning and improving your 3D modeling skills, but that is one thing that you simply need to do at one point if you are seriously interested in 3D printing anyway.

Important tip: Do a proper research of the model of a 3D scanner that you might want to get – read user opinions and reviews, try the scanner software if available for free download before buying the device, download some 3D models scanned with it (preferably made be users and not official by the company making the device) and try 3D printing them. Regardless if you have selected an affordable consumer 3D scanner or a professional level solution, do your research before and not after you buy it!

If you want to explore a bit more about what kind of quality you can get from a professional high-end 3D scanner you can visit the link below. Artec does provide some 3D scans made with their products and they are also available in STL format, so you can open them with your 3D printing software and even print them if you wish. Just don’t forget that this is what you can expect to get with a professional level 3D scanner and not a consumer grade one!

To Explore and Download Some 3D models with Professional 3D Scanner (STL files)…

Alternatively you might want to check what a consumer grade 3D scanner like the MakerBot Digitizer I have mentioned earlier can do, there are a lot of user made scans available on Thingiverse that you can check and download in STL format and open with your 3D printing software as well or also print on your 3D printer.

3D scans made with MakerBot Digitizer made by users and available for download…

Do You Need to Get Better Quality or Have Faster 3D Printing Speed
3D printing is often a process where you may need to choose if you either need something printed fast or with higher quality. The larger the object you want to 3D print and the higher the quality you want, the more time it will take for the 3D printer to finish the job. Larger maximum quality prints can easily take from a few hours to even a day, though most of the time you will most likely be printing smaller objects and with not so high quality, so that they will need from a couple of minutes to an hour or two.

In-house 3D printing is often also used for the so called process “rapid prototyping” as it allows a product design to be printed in relatively short time, and then have it inspected and maybe tested. If there are some corrections required they can be done to the model and then have a new print with the applied change and so on. With a 3D printer available at your disposal corrections can be made and applied much faster than having to send the 3D model somewhere to be made physically and sent back to you.

Because rapid prototyping (as the name implies) and because it actually makes for a much faster prototyping of something with help of a 3D printer, while you are designing it, than it would take otherwise, some people believe that 3D printers are very fast. Yes, they can be fast for small objects, but still printing larger and more complex designs with higher quality does take quite a lot of time. So be prepared to wait and it is not a wise idea to just leave your 3D printer unattended while it is printing something for hours, especially when you are just starting. When you get more experience and you are sure there should be no potential problems you might be more confident, though still it is wise not to leave the printer do something while there is nobody around for long periods of time.

There are three general levels of detail when talking about the most common FDM/FFF consumer 3D printers, these depend on the thickness of the layers that will be used to build the physical object from the 3D model you have. These are with a thickness of 0.1mm, 0.2mm and 0.3mm (other values might also be available) and the thicker each layer is, the faster the 3D print will be ready as you will need less layers of thermoplastic material to make it. However the thinker the layer height you use, the lower the resolution and the detail level of the final object will be. As I’ve already told you – faster speed or higher quality, you can’t have both at the same time.

To get an idea on how the final 3D printed object will look like with the settings you have chosen in the 3D printing software (the slicer) you can just hit the Preview button and the program will try to estimate how long it will take to print it as well as will provide you with good estimate how the resulting object will look like. The numbers you get are a rough estimate of course, thought they are usually close to the actual ones, so you can use them as a pretty accurate reference. If you need something printed faster, you can just change the settings and Preview again to see if your changes were enough to speed up the process. Even though the resolution is pretty much the most influential parameter that can result in faster or slower printing time, other parameters such as the use of raft or support material as well as the infill percentage can also affect the time needed.

Different 3D printer software may give you different previews of how the 3D printed object will look like, but these usually don’t look as good as the final object will, mostly because you often zoom while in Preview mode. They can still be useful for inspecting how the resulting physical model should look like and if there might be some issues printing it as the preview very closely represents how and where the printing head of the device will move to create the 3D print.

This is the step where you can also find if there are some potential issues with the 3D model you have, it has some problems such as non-manifold edges or flipped surfaces these will cause problems in the print preview even though everything might seem fine on the initial 3D model preview in the software. I’ll be talking about the issues in the 3D models you use as a source for 3D printing an object in some of the next part of the series as well as provide some useful tips on how to avoid and fix these.

A useful tip for new users in getting to know what their 3D printer is capable of is to choose a relatively simple 3D model of something and print three copies from it, each with a different layer height or resolution/quality. This will give you a very good idea on what to expect from the device when used with different layer height both in terms of quality and in terms of time required for the print. Again the finer the resolution, the more time it takes as the 3D Printer needs to lay double or triple the number of layers it would usually need for the lowest level. Higher resolution makes for better print quality as the lines of each layer are thinner and not as noticeable as when using thicker layers.

When you learn what to expect from your device in terms of printing quality and speed with different settings after you use it for a bit, then it will be easier to select the right level of detail you may need. For the moment however going for the medium level is usually a good starting point for novice users as you get a good balance between speed and quality. Though often you might need to use a lower quality initially just to get more things printed in less time as you are experimenting with different things learning about your 3D printer, this is also fine.

How to Define or Change the Strength of a 3D Printed Object
If you remember in one of the earlier posts of the series I have explained the basic parameters you set for the printing of the model, one of these is the so called Number of Shells, or Outline/Perimeter Shells or just Shells or something along the lines. So I’ll just quote myself on that first and then continue to actually show you what it actually means and how you can control the process.

Number of Shells represents the number of outer shells or walls that you are going to have on a 3D printed object before the inside part starts. The outer shells are fully solid while the inside part can be solid or semi-hollow based on the Infill percentage you have set. Normally the default value of 2 or 3 should be enough and you won’t have to change it.

Here you can see a print preview of an example object that is set to print with 10 Number of Shells. This is pretty much pointless and way too overkill, but just as an example on how this setting affects the actual object that you are going to get 3D printed. As you can see there are 10 solid layers on the outside wall of the object and after them starts the infill material structure that is semi solid. This way you are going to get a very thick wall making the 3D printed object very strong and tough on the outside.

This is a bit overkill as using just two or three layers as an outside wall should be enough in pretty much most of the cases. If you go for a thicker outside wall you are going to use more filament material and the printing time required will be increased, so you should do that only when you really need much stronger outside walls. The infill structure inside should be more than enough to provide additional strength and help with the support of the top layers instead of having a hollow insides of the object.

How Much Filament to Use When 3D Printing Something
There are multiple factors in play that ultimately decide how much material is needed for the priming of a 3D model and you have control over these with the settings you can change for the printing process itself. Normally the larger the 3D print is going to be, the more material will need to be used, but that may not always be the case. The main factor that can influence that is the Infill parameter, again going to quote myself here.

Infill is a percentage value that represents how solid a 3D printed model should be. Going for 100% means that the inside of the 3D printed object will be completely solid, going for 20% for example will result in having a semi-hollow structure inside that will be reinforced with hexagonal or square patterns. Most 3D prints are just fine with between 10% and 20% percent infill as it is enough to provide good strength while also reducing the needed material and the extra print time that a fully solid insides will require.

The Infill material or the internal structure of a 3D printed object has two main roles – to provide additional structural strength and to act as an inside support material. Because of these two important roles you cannot just go with a hollow insides of a model, or to be more precise you should not do it unless for a specific reason. You can remove all of the infill material by just setting a 0% Infill or if you want completely solid model inside you can just go for 100%. Either of the two extremes is rarely used as they can cause some issues, or it will take too much time and extra material, so most of the time you will be just fine with a small percentage of infill like 10% to 20%.

On the comparison image above we have a Preview of how the same simple object will look inside if printed with just 10% or with 50%. Using just 10% should still be able to provide decent additional strength while still acting as a decent support material for the upper layers and it would take just about 16 minutes (at maximum quality) to print with about 3.7 grams of material used. Using 50% is already going a bit overkill, unless you really need it, and will require 21 minutes for printing (5 more) as well as more than double the amount of filament with about 7.7 grams needed. It is up to you do change the Infill setting as you like or need, just don’t go too high or too low without a reasons and most of the time you will be just fine with the recommended small range for that parameter.

How to Calculate the Filament Cost of a 3D Print
Ok, so you have just 3D printed something cool, but how much in materials did it cost you? You can easily do the calculation of the cost for the material used thanks to the 3D printing software telling you an estimate on how much filament it will need when in the Preview mode (you probably noticed that on one of the above images). Again it might not be 100% accurate, but should be very close to the actual amount used. For better accuracy you can just measure the weight of the 3D printed object yourself using digital scales for example. You would also need to know the cost of the filament material you have used for the print, so it is a good idea to remember how much you paid and what was the weight of the spool you bought. Below you can see an example calculation:

Price of 1 kg spool of filament – 30 USD or EUR
1 kg = 1000 grams, so 1 gram costs 0.03 cents
Filament used for the 3D print 7 grams
Total cost in filament 7 grams times 0.03 cents equals 21 cents cost

Of course this is a simple calculation of the cost of the filament you need for a specific 3D print, smaller things are actually quite cheap to print, though larger builds may end up much more expensive. For the total cost of the print you need to also take into account the electricity used for the time it took printing and also the amortization cost of the 3D printer itself. To the total cost will be a bit higher than what you have spent for the filament along, but again it will not be that much especially for smaller 3D prints that do not require a lot of time to print and don’t use a lot of filament.

Since you already know how to calculate the cost of the filament needed for a 3D print before you actually even started printing the 3d model you have prepared and you know how to vary the amount of the filament needed via the different printing parameters you should be able to also influence the final cost. This is important if you actually want to start a small business for printing some 3D stuff for example, or just to properly manage your cost and plan when to stock on more filament spools.