Before I go on with explanation of Raft and Support and why and how you can or need to use them I’ll have to go for a sample 3D model meant for 3D printing that has the right design for my specific needs. As going only with some short text explanation might be hard if you are novice to 3D printing, so instead I’m going to show you how and when you can take advantage of these feature as well as why they can be helpful if you are having trouble 3D printing some things.

The good example I’ll be using is a new 3D model of a 3D printable espresso coffee cup you see on the image above. A Word of Caution: It is not a wise idea to 3D print models such as cups for hot drinks from thermoplastic materials and then use them to hold something with a high temperature such as tea, coffee, or even water!

What is Raft and How to Use it
The use or not of Raft is one of the basic 3D printing options that you have available as I already explained in the previous Blog post from the 3D printing series of articles I’m working on.

Raft is a special additional base that is being 3D printed below your actual 3D model. It is being generated automatically for you if you activate the feature. You may need to use it if your 3D model has a very small base and is having issues sticking to the build plate for example. It could also help with larger 3D prints where one of the edges of a larger base of the model starts peeling off the build plate, you would of course need to restart the print.

I bet that as a novice user you don’t see any potential problem in 3D printing this espresso coffee cup on your new 3D printer, but as you gain some actual experience printing things you will start to notice these just by taking a quick look at the 3D model. It is not necessary that you might have issues printing the 3D cup, but there is the potential for issues on some 3D printers. I’m saying on some 3D printers and talking mostly about FDM/FFM-based devices, because these ate the most commonly used devices by home users. On a high-end business class 3D printer that may use other materials such as ceramics or metal you are much less likely to have a problem because of the different way of doing things there.

So back to the potential problem that the use of Raft may resolve with this 3D printable coffee cup used as an example. The base of the cup has very little contact surface with the build plate of the printer. If the first layer of the print does not stick very well to the printing base you might experience unsuccessful print soon after the model starts to get printed. This can happen as the print head moving around and building layer by layer can apply some pressure on some of the sides of the model and cause it to detach from the build plate if it is not sticking well. This may never happen of course and the 3D model may still finish printing without an issue even with the small contact area it has with the build plate.

By activating the Raft option in the 3D printing settings what you will be getting is the 3D model you want printed to rise by a few millimeters and some automatically generated structure will be added below it. That structure is the so called Raft that will expand the contact surface with the build plate (base) between the 3D printer and the 3D model you are printing. Don’t worry, the extra material added at the bottom of the cup is not that much and it is easier to remove from the base and from the 3D printed cup or whatever model you are using.

The side effect when using an additional Raft is that the base of the cup may not be as even and flat as it would be if it is directly attached to the build plate without the additional Raft. This you can still easily fix with some sanding of the base of the 3D model, but it does require additional attention. Of course this may vary from printer to printer and from model to model that you print, so it is not an always needed additional step to perform.

Another issue that using a Raft may help you with is when you are printing a larger 3D object and one of the edges starts detaching from the build plate as the model is being printed. You can still get the model to finish printing if it has a larger contact surface to the base of the 3D printer, but it will be slightly deformed at the problematic edge. Activating a Raft is such a case can be helpful, though may not always resolve the issue as it may be caused by a serious problem with the leveling of the build plate. That however is another different issue that I’ll be discussing about at a later time and not in this post.

What is Support and How to Use it
So let us get to the other thing that I need to explain with example, the use of Support and why you need it when talking about consumer grade 3D printers. But first let us remember the explanation from the previous Blog post:

Support is additional structure that also gets automatically generated and added to your 3d model in areas that need some additional material to assist in properly printing them. There is no way a 3D printer can print a part of a 3D model that just hangs in the air and has nothing to hold it to the base of the printing surface, this is where the additional support material comes to help and resolve the issue by allowing you to print the model. After the print is ready you can just remove the extra support material that was used.

So time for another look at the 3D model of the cup in the 3D printing software, in this case the software is MakerBot Desktop used by the 3D printers from MakerBot like the Replicator 2 that I’m using. Reading the description above and looking at the model you should quickly realize that the cup handle is mostly there in thin air with no connection to the build plate. This means that when the 3D printer reaches the lowest part of the handle it will just start to extrude material in thin air and the 3D print will essentially fail with an incomplete cup. That is if you don’t add Support material to assist in connecting the parts that hang in thin air to the base of the 3D printing surface or other parts of the 3D model.

If you activate the use of Support then the slicer (printer software) should calculate automatically where it needs to add them and will apply them where needed – you will see them added in the preview window before starting to print. The software for 3D printers is usually pretty smart and does a good job at adding Support material when needed, but sometimes it may fail to do its job properly and unfortunately not all slicers also come with the option for the user to add manually additional support structures or to remove existing ones.

As you can see on the above image the slicer for the Replicator 2 3D printer did a pretty good job on adding Support for the handle, only as much as really required. It also has added some support material to other areas of the 3D coffee cup – some at the base and some even on the steemit logo on the side. Some of these areas could do just fine even without support material, but the handle of the cup cannot simply be properly printed on an FDM/FFF 3D printer without the use of Support material. Unfortunately the MakerBot Desktop software is one of these slicers that does not yet have an option to allow the manual addition or removal of support structures, so you are stuck with what the automated algorithm does.

When is Support material usually a must have for proper printing? The answer of that question is a bit harder as you will learn yourself as you gain experience printing different things. As already mentioned in the case of the cup handle it is a must have, but some of the other parts where Support structures were added may just do fine even without the extra material. They could either print just fine or with some tiny defects that should not affect much the general appearance and usability, there are some simple rules that can be helpful however.

The use of Support structures is a must when you have elements of an object that are horizontal and/or point at a downward angle like in the case of the cup handle without them having contact with the base (they need to be printed in thin air and there is no way that will happen). If something is horizontal and in thin air, but is just a few millimeters short like the steemit logo on the cup you might up getting lucky even without support structures and getting either a good print or slightly not so good at the bottom.

If you have a part of the 3D model that is at steeper angle, not pointing down, but up instead like the upper half of the cup handle next to the main body of the cup you should be able to do fine without support material in most cases. If the angle is upward, but just a few degrees from the horizontal level you might be lucky without Support structures if it is just a few millimeters long, but if it is longer it will still require Support material.

Why You Need Both Raft and Support for the Example Cup
If you want to have a successful 3D print of the coffee cup that I have used as an example for this Blog post about 3D printing you will have to use both Raft and Support. I hope that by this moment you have understood what exactly each of these two functions does and when and why you need to use it. If you still have some doubts, don’t worry, you will quickly get the hang of it when you print some 3D models successfully with and without Raft and Support structures and when you get some failed prints and you analyze what went wrong.

Now for the coffee cup and why you need to use both for a successful print. Normally the cup might have been just fine for 3D printing without Raft if it did not require the use of Support material for the handle. When you activate the generation of Support material the base of the cup gets some extra contact surface to the build plate thanks to the extra support structures added. However the support for the handle is very thin and as a result there might be issues with it sticking to the build plate and remaining stuck to it as the printer goes up layer by layer building up the cup. The potential issues that can be caused by the small contact surface of the support material can be avoided with the addition of a Raft. So in the end you will need both Raft and Support activated to get a good and successful print of the 3D model of the coffee cup, don’t worry, you should be able to easily remove the extra material added by the two additional options.

So you have just received your first 3D printer and are wondering what you should do now as soon as you open it up and install it. Baby steps, baby steps. Don’t be in a hurry, you will get there eventually, you will need to start from somewhere like for example actually 3D printing something yourself on your new and shiny 3D Printer, but what?

Start by 3D Printing Some Stuff
Some people start by 3D printing some of the sample 3D models that they got along with their 3D printer, you can do the same thing or maybe try printing something else. Either way the very first 3D printed object you have is something that you would want to keep and later on show to friends what was the first thing you made with your new gadget.

Alternatively if you want to start with something more complex and risk having your first 3D print turning either no so successful or unsuccessful you might try to print a Star Wars Yoda bust for example. A popular choice for many people among the first things that they make with their 3D printers, even though it is a larger and more complex object that may cause some printing, even I have printed it soon after I got my first 3D printer.

You want to try printing something else or to just browse around and find other interesting things to try 3D printing now that your first 3D print is ready. No problem, as there are many places where users share and provide the 3D models ready for 3D printing for everyone to download and try. Furthermore many of the generic 3D models designed by people can be converted and 3D printed without too much trouble, so this seriously extends the choices. Though we aware that is a specific 3D model has not been made for 3D printing or at least optimized for you might be in for some headaches trying to make a physical object out the of the virtual 3D one… especially if you are a new user.

Thingiverse is a very good starting point to find a lot of user made 3D models designed mostly for 3D printing and there are many more other such websites out there. Just use the search functionality on the website and you will be surprised by the number of results you get on various keywords, there are a lot of things available there and they are free (check the usage licenses under each model). Of course there are also websites where people sell their own designs ready for 3D printing and there are also services that offer visitors to choose a 3D model and have it 3D printed and delivered to them. I’ll leave these for a later time however as now there are more important things to focus in your journey to get to know your new 3D printer.

Try to Make Some Simple 3D Models Yourself
Not everybody knows how to model things in 3D space, in fact very little people with that knowledge go and get themselves a 3D printer. Sure it is fun for a while when you have an enormous resources with 3D models ready for 3D printing that are waiting for you to download and try. At some point however you start thinking that you can make small and simple things on your 3D printer if only you know how to model them in 3D.

The thing that nobody tells you about 3D printers is that it will be good if you know how to do 3D modeling, companies just want to sell you their hardware and leave the rest to you. They say it is easy to use and problem free, so go ahead buy it and enjoy it… and then you start learning the hard way that things are not exactly as they were marketed. So actually buying a 3D printer is the first step you do in a long learning process ahead of you and learning to make 3D models yourself is an essential part of that process.

The good thing is that it is actually not that hard to learn the basics if you start with a simpler and more user friendly tool such as SketchUp (available in a free version as well), so no need to buy any software either. You might’ve heard about the software as Google SketchUp as it was owned by Google a while ago, but not anymore, now it is Trimble SketchUp.

What SketchUp does is provide you with a basic 3D workspace and a few more basic tools that you can use to start designing not so complex 3D models yourself. The software comes with access to the so called 3D Warehouse, essentially big library of free 3D models designed for SketchUp that you can download and use and also export for 3D printing. There are also numerous plugins available for the software that can extend its basic functionality, in fact you will need to install one just to be able to import and export STL files (the most commonly used file format by 3D printers for 3D printable models).

It is learn and experiment with this tool, reading some basic tutorials about it can also be helpful if you are completely new to this. I’ll be talking about SketchUp more in a future post as there is more needed to be done for properly using the software for 3D printing. I’m just mentioning it for now, so that you can give it a try if interested and maybe even play a bit with it. It does have a free version that is fully functional, though it may lack some more advanced features, but you probably won’t need these initially anyway.

Learning the Basic 3D Printing Parameters
There are a couple of important printing parameters that you have control of that can greatly affect how things are being printed on your 3D printer. I’ll try to cover the most basic ones now, because not using them properly can lead to you getting trouble printing properly some or even all objects that you try. As you continue your learning you will also find out that there are a lot more advanced printing parameters that you can also play around with or tweak to get better results or to make a successful 3D print of something normally harder to print.

The above screenshot is from the standard 3D printing software (slicer) for the Makerbot Replicator 2 3D printer, other devices may have different visualization of the basic 3D printing parameters, but they should essentially be the same. The of course could be some difference in the exact names used, though you should still be able to guess as to what they are referring from the list below.

Layer Height or Quality is the most important setting as it chooses what level of printing quality you are going to get. With it you change how thin or thick each of the printed layers that build up the physical 3D model will be. A lower the number means thinner layer and better quality, but also more time needed to print, a higher number means lower quality as fewer layers will be needed, but also faster printing time. Common settings are 0.3 mm, 0.2 mm or 0.1 mm for the layer height, though these values may vary from one 3D printer to another.

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.

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.

Extruder Temperature is the operating temperature at which the printing head needs to heat up while the 3D printer is extruding the printing material (filament). Depending on the type of filament you are using you may have to change this temperature, for the more common PLA materials 230 degrees Celsius is usually fine. If the temperature of the extruder is too low it may not be able to melt well the thermoplastic material that is used to build your physical representation of the 3D model and it can jam the print head. If the temperature is too high the printed thermoplastic material may deform and the resulting print may turn out to be unusable or with very low quality.

Raft is a special additional base that is being 3D printed below your actual 3D model. It is being generated automatically for you if you activate the feature. You may need to use it if your 3D model has a very small base and is having issues sticking to the build plate for example. It could also help with larger 3D prints where one of the edges of a larger base of the model starts peeling off the build plate, you would of course need to restart the print.

Support is additional structure that also gets automatically generated and added to your 3d model in areas that need some additional material to assist in properly printing them. There is no way a 3D printer can print a part of a 3D model that just hangs in the air and has nothing to hold it to the base of the printing surface, this is where the additional support material comes to help and resolve the issue by allowing you to print the model. After the print is ready you can just remove the extra support material that was used.

You may have some trouble understanding how some of these settings work at the moment, but as soon as you start playing with them you will be able to see how they affect the printing process. I’ll also be further covering them in another post with examples and some tips, so the above was just to give you an idea what each of these printing parameters does.

Are You Ready to Learn Even More
The fun things are just about yet to be discovered and you need to be ready to learn a lot of new things about 3D printing and 3D printers as you start trying to print different models or build your own. You will need to learn about different filaments, how to get better quality prints, how to avoid failed prints, and so on and so on…

3D printing is one of the emerging technologies in the last few years that has attracted a lot of user attention as 3D printers are getting more affordable, easier to be used and more flexible in what they can do. It is no wonder that people are fascinated by the idea of being able to turn a virtual 3D model of something into a real physical object with the help of a 3D printer. No wonder as just several years ago seeing things like that were just common for sci-fi movies, but not for the real world.

It is not that 3D printing is some new super advanced technology that is just our from a science fiction movie, it is not, in fact it has been available for years. So why a technology that is so interesting and offering new capabilities was not heavily promoted before as it is now? It is quite simple actually, only a few companies holding the patents for 3D printing, selling expensive high-end products to the business only. Just in the recent years 3D printing has been targeted at consumers and end users seeing the potential for growth of that market.

So the good thing at the moment is that it is full of companies that want to sell you their 3D printer, you have really enormous choice of options available to choose from. Different printing technologies, different sizes and speeds, different materials used and supported, single or multiple color prints and so on. There are so many that it makes it hard for you to actually make a choice for a 3Dprinter to get started in 3D printing at home or in the office. This is precisely why I’m going to try and give you some tips to help you choose a 3D printer based on my experience, so far and the right and wrong choices I’ve made along the way.

What is a 3D printer
The 3D printer is essentially a device that builds real world physical objects based on the 3D data of a virtual model provided by the user. You need to have a 3D model of something and the 3D printer will retranslate that three dimensional data in a real physical model made out of some sort of material. There are multiple different 3D printing technologies available and different materials are being used, but they all rely on pretty much the same basic principle.

You design something as a 3-dimensional object or use an already made 3D model, feed it to the printer software, so that it can slice it and then the device starts to recreate the virtual object into a physical one. Slicing the virtual 3D object means that it is cut in layers and the 3D printer lays the material it uses layer by layer until the finished model appears. This is called additive manufacturing process as the material is being added to build the model and not removed from a solid block of material for example as a means to recreate the 3D model.

Depending on the technology used the material that the 3D printer uses as a source to build the physical representation of the virtual three dimensional model can vary. It can be plastic, liquid, metal, food, concrete and many others. Different technologies also use different methods of connecting together the layers that build up the physical model – melting plastic thread with heat, using UV light to cure liquid resin, relying on lasers to melt fine plastic powder and so on.

The Main 3D Printing Technologies
With 3D printing there are many different technologies with the main differences between being the material they use and how the material is fused together to form the resulting physical 3D print. There are three main 3D printing technologies used nowadays and my focus will be mostly on one of them as it is the most affordable, yet still flexible enough to get you started in the world of 3D printing and after that you may move to other more complex and expensive options if you decide.

Fused deposition modeling (FDM) or Fused filament fabrication (FFF) as it is also know is the most common and affordable 3D printing technology used nowadays. It uses a thick plastic “wire” that is essentially a thermoplastic material that gets heated to a high temperature to get melted and is then extruded layer by layer building the physical 3D model. This is the technology I’ll be focusing on and making suggestions on where to start by choosing the right 3D printer based on FDM/FFF technology and entering the world of 3D printing.

Stereolithography (SLA) is another 3D printing technology that uses photosensitive liquid resin as a material and it cures it (solidifies it) with the help of a UV light source. It is an additive manufacturing process as well as it still cures the liquid resin layer by layer as it builds the physical 3D model. It is a more expensive technology as it requires special photopolymer to be used as a material and also the hardware required to cure it make it more expensive compared to using thermoplastic material. The main advantage here is that you can get higher detail levels, though that usually means more printing time is also required

Selective laser sintering (SLS) is the most expensive of the three main technologies and as the name implies this technology uses a laser to heat and fuse a fine powder to form the resulting 3D object, again layer by layer. The biggest plus of this technology is that it does not require you to use support material like the other two mentioned above, because the part being printed is surrounded by the unused powder acting as a support structure. The biggest minus is that the fine powder material is even more expensive and the 3D printers that use this technology are bulkier and pricier.

How to Choose Your First FDM/FFF 3D Printer
Are you more of a DIY person or not. You can either go for a 3D printer that you get in parts and you need to build yourself, or for a device that is built and ready to be used out of the box. Going for the DIY approach can save you some money, especially if you already have a friend with a 3D printer that can actually make some of the needed parts for you. Assembling your first 3D printed by your own can be a bit challenging, but also can be a great learning experience for you if you want to get to know how everything works. It is also good for people that love to experiment, tweak and improve things all the time and you can actually continue doing that after you build the printer by 3D printing future upgrades yourself… how cool is that!

What build size do you need. The physical size of the 3D printer is not as important as what is the maximum size of 3D objects that you can 3D print with it. When choosing a device getting one with larger build size will ensure that you will be able to print bigger 3D models in the future. But bigger print size usually also means a more expensive device, so you may have to compromise in order to fit your budget. Alternatively you can start with a very small build size printer as there are some really affordable such products and then later on just buy a larger model if you need it. Increasing the build size of a device yourself is usually also an option, but it is relatively complex task as it requires rebuilding a lot of the device, so definitely not for everyone.

Heated build pate or not. Not every 3D printer comes with the same features available to the user and while on some devices it is possible to upgrade and add extra features, on others it might not be an option. Having a print base that can be heated up is a useful feature, but not found on all 3D printers as it is not essential to have it to be able to 3D print stuff. Heating up the base where the 3D model is being built on allows you to get better adhesion of the printing material and while some materials can be printed just fine on cold bases (PLA) others like ABS do require you to have a heated build plate in order for them to stick properly on the base. Using some more exotic filaments besides the common PLA or ABS can also require you to have a heated build plate and while on some 3D printers it can be added as an upgrade it is best if you get it right from the start should you decide you will need the feature.

Single or Dual Printing Heads. Having more than one extruder on your 3D printer can add more flexibility and give you more interesting options, but it also makes the device more complex and expensive. Using two print heads instead of just one gives you the easy option of using two different colored filaments at the same time (dual color prints) or using a different second material for support structures – one that can dissolve when soaked in liquid for example to make removing of the support material even easier. Having two printing heads however results in getting less usable build space when compared to a single extruder 3D printer with the same size.

3D Printer Software and 3rd Party Compatibility. One of the often overlooked things about 3D printers is the software they come with or the so called slicer as this is the product you will be using for turning a 3D model to code that the device can understand and recreate in a physical form. So having good software that does the slicing well and fast, as well as offering not only the basic settings, but also more advanced ones right from the start is important. Even if the standard software is not that good you can look for alternatives that support your device, and it is good to do the research of r3rd party compatible software before making the final choice for a 3D printer.

Spare Parts and Upgrade Options. 3D printers, just like with everything else, do wear off and break when you use them, so it is important to know that besides the warranty of the device you also have the option to buy spare parts and upgrades for it. Sending a 3D printer for service repair is Ok, but usually takes some time for the device to be fixed and get back to you and some of the things you might be able to fix yourself in a couple of minutes and continue 3D printing. The nozzles on the 3D printing head that extrude the filament are one of the things that can wear off with time (especially if you use more abrasive materials), so you may need to replace them. A motor may fail, a belt can break, and some mechanical switch may stop working properly and so on. Also having the option to replace something with a better and more robust upgrade can be nice on some devices and it can improve reliability and sometimes even printing quality.

Is there a large user community available. Sometimes 3D printing can be frustrating and it is always good to find answers to your problems or questions already available and published by another owner of the same device. Going for the latest cool looking and well marketed 3D printer that just came out may not always be a good idea. If there is a large user base of the device you go for and a community formed around it you can even look for advice from other users if this is indeed the right model for you or not. Look for reviews and opinions from people that have used the device for a while and not only at shallow quick review of the product based on brief experience with it.

What Device or Brand to Go For
Ok, time to talk a bit about actual brands and models that can be a good starting point in you finding the best solution out there for your specific needs and requirements. I won’t go into much detail about each of the mentioned brands and devices as this post has already gotten quite large and there are just way to many 3D printers to cover them all in detail. So only a few quick mentions to get you started…

Entry Level Small Models. TinyBoy, M3D printer, UP3D, XYZ Printing and a couple of others offer more affordable smaller devices that can be a good first step without too much of an investment.

For the DIY Crowd – RepRap and Printbot offer interesting models that you can either build yourself or get pre-assembled, they are not the only ones, but they have a large community that can be quite helpful.

Popular Brands. There are number of big names that offer good quality products at decent prices, but they are not the most affordable options for sure – Zortrax, Ultimaker, MakerBot, Leapfrog, be3D and others.

Chinese Clones or Alternatives. There are number of Chinese companies that stared basing their initial designs on open designs like the fist MakerBot Replicator and then continued improving or building new models. Among these are CTC, Wanhao, Flashforge and other names. They may be able to provide you with a more affordable yet good starting point device, though often there are some worries about the reliability and quality of these cheaper devices.

These of course are just some names to get you started in your research, not all of the above brands offer the perfect products, they have some issues or limitations… sometimes even the price is not right for what they deliver you. Taking into considerations the advice and tips and your needs and expectations you should be able to make a more informed choice now.

Do note that this is just the first of a series of Blog publications that I’m already working on the topic of 3D printing and printers. They are focused on getting to know the basic things around 3D printing, so they should be useful for people that are planning to get a 3D printer or recently got one. Later on I may continue with some tips that can be helpful and useful not only for novice, but also for more advanced users that have some experience in 3D printing already.