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Digital Creativity: a Practical Guide

3D printing

A practical guide to getting digitally creative and using digital tools and technologies to explore work, ideas, and research.

3D printing

Have 3D models you want to turn into physical objects? 3D printing is the way to go, allowing you to turn digital into physical.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing refers to a range of techniques and technologies that allow you to use digital models to 'print' in real life, for example by creating layers of material that build up into an object.

Similarly to the kind of digital printing you might be more used to, using printers full of paper and ink, 3D printers require the use of certain kinds of material and then you need to set up the correct settings on the printer or a computer to ensure the print will occur as you want. And just like ink-on-paper printing, there's lots that can be fiddly to get right!

Some 3D printed items including letters that spell YorCreate, a boat, a flexible dinosaur, and a shark clip

If you're looking to get started with 3D printing at the University of York, YorCreate in the library has 3D printers available for use.

We have guide pages for the two types of 3D printers in YorCreate, Ultimaker and Flashforge:

Fused filament fabrication (sticking layers together)

On this guide we will be focusing on a kind of 3D printing called fused filament fabrication or FFF for short. This is a kind of additive manufacturing, as it is about adding material to create things rather than removing material. Essentially, layers of material are heated up and deposited on top of each other so the layers stick together, forming an overall object made of (probably) many layers.

These are the kind of 3D printers found at YorCreate in the Library at the University of York, and also a common kind for people to have at home, as you can get desktop sized 3D printers that use FFF technology.

Materials used for 3D printing

There a range of materials used for 3D printing. Plastic is often the most common, but there are other types too like resins or powders. The two most commonly used types of plastic for 3D printing are PLA, or Poly Lactic Acid, which is a biodegragable material made from renewable materials like cornstarch and has a low melting point, and ABS, or Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is often used for things that need to be strong and rigid (Lego bricks are made of ABS).

In YorCreate in the Library we have PLA available to print with, typically Tough PLA. This comes in a range of colours, but you can supply your own too if you have specific needs. If you want to use different materials, please get in touch.

Slicing software for 3D printing

Once you have a 3D model that you want to print, you can't just send it to the 3D printer. First, you need to tell the 3D printer what kind of settings it needs to use; basically, you need to set up how big the layers that are printed will be, and other details like how much filling the object has and if it has any supports to help it print correctly.

To do this, you need a piece of slicing software. 'Slicing' refers to the layers, or slices, that the 3D model needs to be turned into - each layer is an instruction to the 3D printer of a bit of the print job. Slicing software allows you to import in a 3D model, choose the settings you need, and then slice the model, which gives an estimate of how long it'll take to print and creates a file you can then transfer to the 3D printer with these settings embedded.

There is a range of slicing software out there. Most models of 3D printers tend to have their own default slicing software you can download and use, or you can find general use tools too. In YorCreate at the University of York we have Ultimaker and FlashForge printers, with which you can use Ultimaker Cura and FlashPrint slicing software respectively. If you're new to 3D printing, it is worth using the matching slicing software at first to get used to the 3D printing process before exploring other slicing options.

Some of the Ultimaker printers in YorCreate can be used to print in two different colours. This requires a slightly different slicing process.

Mesh repair

You may have a 3D model file that is not suitable for 3D printing because it has gaps in the "mesh" (the outside) or other kinds of errors. Sometimes slicing software can do some basic repairs to try and make your print more likely to success, or you may have to identify what the errors are and fix them before you can slice your model.

One thing you might need to look for is any holes or non-watertight areas in your model, known as a non-manifold mesh check. Lots of 3D modelling tools can do this for you and help try to fill these holes. There are also specific features that can check if the triangles that make up your model are in the right direction and aren't duplicated or orphaned (i.e. not attached to any other part of the model). You can repair 3D models within 3D modelling tools like Blender or Fusion 360, or you can often find other free tools that might help like Meshmixer.

3D Printing 101

Take a look at our 3D printing 101 video, which covers some help on getting started and how 3D printers work:

What kinds of things can you 3D print?

You might be wondering what you can 3D print. There's two parts to this question: what kinds of things work well as 3D prints and what files to do you need to actually 3D print something?

What kinds of objects can you create with 3D printing?

You can make a huge range of objects using 3D printing methods - the limit is really your imagination! However, if you're looking for what you can specifically make with what kind of 3D printing and material you have available, it can be worth looking online at guides to different kinds of 3D printing and what you can make, particularly in terms of materials and accuracy.

3D printing has often been used for prototyping: creating prototypes of final items. It is a quick way of creating something ot check what it would look like physically. It is also used for final products and sample models.

Websites like Thingiverse on which people share their 3D models, often for 3D printing, can be a good way to explore what kinds of things people have made. Usually, models will include details on what kinds of materials, 3D printers, and settings were used to print the object, so you can get a sense of how it was done. You can always experiment with different materials and settings than these, but be prepared that you might not end up with what you expect!

The 3D printers available in YorCreate in the University of York library allow you to do fused filament fabrication using plastic material like PLA. This is good for making plastic models for a range of purposes. For example, you might print objects at a different scale to normal: making small models of buildings or large models of molecules.

What files do you need for 3D printing?

In order to send something to a 3D printer to print, you need to use a 3D model and import this into a piece of slicing software, which will export a file that is compatible with the 3D printer and tells the 3D printer which settings to use.

There are a range of file types you might see for 3D models, like .stl or .obj. You just need to ensure that the 3D model file you have is compatible with the slicing software you need to use to tell the 3D printer what to do.

My 3D print's gone wrong!

Did you set off a 3D print and it didn't work out as you expected? Don't worry, this happens to everyone!

The first thing to do is to check you followed the right instructions to set up your print correctly, especially if your print didn't start at all. Our guides for the Ultimaker and Flashforge printers in YorCreate may be helpful if you're using those, or look online for help guidance for the 3D printer you used.

If your print failed right at the start, you might want to try clearing the build plate in the 3D printer and starting your print again, to see if it works this time or fails at the same point.

If your print fails at a particular point in your print, try searching online for what happened (e.g. are the layers not adhering to each other, did the print collapse in some way) to see if you can find suggestions of which settings to tweak or if it is your model that might need adjusting.

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