protoTYPING: I Got a 3D Printer? Now What?

There has been no hotter topic in product development over the last half decade than 3D printing. It has helped professional engineers and prototypers to cut design iteration time and bring products to market faster. Fortunately, the technology has been scaled down and there are a plethora of desktop sized units that are available to the shade tree inventor and at-home maker. If?you have bought or received one of these units, after the initial excitement has worn off, you may be wondering what do with it next. I had the same thought before I bought my desktop printer about a year ago, but I have found it immensely useful.

3D systems home printer

3D Printers blend seamlessly into the home office.



Here are some tips and exercises to get your year of 3D printing started right:


Finding Models

Every 3D print job needs a computer-aided design (CAD) file to print from. Some inventors may already have CAD software to create their own models, but many 3D printing newbies may have neither the software nor the inclination to make their own files. There are a variety of free, user-friendly CAD software options for those who seek to learn. Each printer has its own specific software to setup a print job, but by and large, most printers require an .STL (STereoLithography) file to print from. Fortunately, there are many?3D printing open innovation sites that have CAD models in STL format and are?ready to download and print.

Two of the easiest sites to get files from are Thingiverse?from Makerbot and Cubify?from 3D Systems. Each is free to register, and they both have a wide range of user-generated content that includes wearables, toys, art, figurines, and other models. Most of the content is free, but there are select models that require a purchase. Another site I?d recommend is GrabCAD. It is free to join and has a variety of free content, however, many of the files are not native STL files and need to be converted before printing.

3D printable files

Websites like have free downloads for 3D printers


Making it Stick

One of the hardest and most frustrating parts about creating 3D printed models is getting the part to stick to the build platform. Professional fusion deposition modeling (FDM) systems?have fully enclosed build chambers that are heated. This allows each layer to be built at the same temperature, which makes the part geometry more consistent and allows for good adhesion to the build platform. Most consumer level printers, however, are open to ambient room air conditions, which makes it harder to get prints to stick. There are a few ways to fix?this though. Some 3D printers come with a heated build platform and these should be turned on during while printing. There are also mechanical means to help the builds stick to the platform, such as applying masking tape over the build surface area. This gives the build platform a rougher surface texture to help the first layer lock into.

Another common technique is to apply a glue stick or other type of glue to the build platform to promote adhesion. 3D Systems Cube machines come with a Cubestick, which is a gooey glue stick and?works really well on Cubes and other 3D printers.

Cubify Cube Glue

CubeStick and masking tape on the build platform helps keep prints from pulling off the print bed


Try A New Material

The great part about home-based 3D printing is that there is a range of different materials and colors that can be used. The two most common materials are Polyactic Acid (PLA) and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS). PLA is a biodegrade plastic that is great for 3D printing. It has a low melt temperature, flows really well and is forgiving to print with. ABS is a proper engineering plastic that is commonly used for injection-molded parts. It has a higher melt temperature than PLA, is very tough and can be harder to print with.

Many desktop 3D printers can be setup to accept either type of plastic, but be sure to consult the user manual to make sure. In general, PLA is better if you are a casual printer and are more interested in printing wearables and decorative models. If you need increased toughness, ABS is superior. A nice feature of ABS is that it can be brushed with acetone (the main ingredient in nail polish), which lightly melts the surface. This smoothes the exterior and can help make models water tight. It is good to test acetone on a sample part as it can bleach out the color on some dyed ABS filaments.

Acetone ABS discoloration

Color break on an 3D printed ABS orchid pot treated with acetone

Of course, 3D printer filament comes in a whole spectrum of colors, but there are many other types of filament that expand the capability of 3D printers. There are 3D printing filaments like NinjaFlex?that is a special blend of flexible plastic that be used to create bendable models and are compatible with most printers. Zen Toolworks has an electrically conductive filament which is ABS blended with carbon and other materials. There are also some filaments that change color with changes in temperature like Afinia’s grey to white color change ABS. 3D printer materials are evolving at a rapid pace?this is only the tip of the iceberg of available specialty materials.


Make a Prototype

Printing other’s designs is fun, but the real power of owning a 3D printer is creating custom parts for your own prototypes. Creating a prototype for your Edison Nation idea submission is by no means required, but is something we sometimes recommend. The key to unlocking this functionality is to get a piece of CAD software to draw your own parts. The Edison Nation design team primarily uses SolidWorks CAD software, but it is a professional package and the price will most likely be outside the means of individual inventors. There are plenty of free or low cost CAD software packages available. One of my favorites is Cubify Invent from 3D Systems. It is only $49 and it has most of the core functionality of high end CAD software. There are other programs like Autodesk 123D, Tinkercad and FreeCAD that will allow you to model your own parts or creations.

No matter which package you choose, count on spending at least a few hours to get familiar with the software before being able to draw your own parts. More complex designs may require additional time. Once you learn the basics of 3D modeling, you can starting creating custom parts to help take your inventions to the next level.

3D printer prototype

A 3D printed prototype shock tower for my aftermarket R/C company, Vectorworks

Desktop 3D printing is a powerful technology, but many consumers wonder what to do with?it?once they have their printers up and running. There are plenty of websites to download existing CAD models, but once you learn the basics, there are some good 3D modeling packages that are free or low cost to make your own designs. There are also tons of great material colors and technologies to help take your 3D printed parts to the next level. 3D printing is an integral part of the design process at Edison Nation, and?could be an integral part of yours as well.



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1 Comment protoTYPING: I Got a 3D Printer? Now What?

  1. wilbert pritchett

    Hello, I’m would love to get more information about this outstanding technology, as i am an inventor and would love to see if it is viable to build my prototype! can you send me more eg, projected cost rage maybe some video footage seeing it in action etc. thanks!1

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