How to Use a 3D Printer?

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. A 3D printer builds a tangible object by depositing material, usually plastic or metal, in layers based on a 3D model. Learning how to properly use a 3D printer takes some time, but can open up new creative possibilities.

How to Use a 3D Printer?

Understanding the Basic 3D Printing Process

The basic process behind 3D printing involves creating a digital 3D model, slicing it into layers, and then printing it layer-by-layer. Here are the main steps:

  • Design a Model: Create a 3D model using CAD software or 3D scanning. The model needs to be a watertight mesh to print properly.
  • Slice the Model: Special software slices the 3D model into layers that can be recreated by the printer. This generates the printer’s code.
  • Transfer File to Printer: Transfer the sliced file from the computer to the 3D printer via USB stick, Wi-Fi, or wired connection.
  • Load Filament: ABS and PLA are the most common thermoplastics used in 3D printing. Load the appropriate plastic filament into the printer.
  • Level the Print Bed: The print bed needs to be properly leveled so the first layer adheres correctly. Most printers have a bed leveling procedure.
  • Start Print: Select the file to print and start the printing process. The 3D printer will then build the object layer-by-layer.
  • Remove Object: Once printing is finished, remove the object from the print bed. Carefully detach any supports and clean up the piece.

Key Components of a 3D Printer

There are several key components that make up a basic 3D printer:

  • Extruder: Responsible for feeding and melting the plastic filament, and extruding it precisely onto the print bed.
  • Hot End: The nozzle area of the extruder that heats and melts the filament so it can be deposited.
  • Print Bed: The surface where the object is printed layer-by-layer. Usually heated to prevent warping.
  • Motors: Precise stepper motors move the extruder and print bed to lay down plastic in the x, y and z planes.
  • Controller Board: The electronics that drive the motors, heaters, and other components based on signals from the microprocessor.
  • Firmware: Low-level software that communicates instructions from the slicer program to the printer controller board and motors.

Getting familiar with each component is helpful for basic troubleshooting and maintenance. While individual printers differ, these core parts work together in every 3D printer.

Selecting the Right Printing Material

Choosing the appropriate printing material for your needs is important, as different thermoplastics have varying properties. Here are some of the most common materials used:

  • PLA: Polylactic acid is affordable and easy to print. It has a low melting point and limited heat resistance but can make detailed prints.
  • ABS: Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is durable and impact-resistant. More difficult to print than PLA due to higher temperatures.
  • PETG: Modified form of polyethylene terephthalate that combines strength and flexibility for mechanical parts. Resists chemicals and heat better than other plastics.
  • Nylon: Exceptionally strong synthetic material that withstands high temperatures and resists abrasion. Challenging to print without an enclosure.
  • Flexible Filaments: Materials like thermoplastic urethane (TPU) allow rubber-like flexibility combined with durability. Perfect for wearables or cases.

Consider factors like environmental resistance, heat tolerance, and material strength that are important for your specific application when selecting a 3D printing material.

Optimizing Prints with Proper Slicer Settings

Adjusting slicer settings properly helps improve the quality of 3D printed parts and prevent common printing issues. Here are some key settings to optimize:

  • Nozzle Temperature: Set based on type of filament (190°C – 230°C for most). Higher temps improve adhesion, but too high can cause oozing.
  • Bed Temperature: Important for first layer adhesion. 50°C-60°C works for PLA, up to 110°C for other materials.
  • Layer Height: Typical range from 0.05mm (high detail) to 0.2mm (faster prints). Low values increase precision but also print time.
  • Number of Shells: Wall thickness of the final print. 2-3 shells are enough for most prints. Increase for sturdy parts.
  • Infill Percentage: Interior density inside the outer shells, from 20% – 100%. Higher infill increases strength and rigidity but also print time.
  • Print Speed: 60mm/s is a standard starting point but can be faster. Faster rate decreases print time but quality may suffer.

Test different slicer profiles to find an optimal setup of parameters for your specific 3D printer and material brand. Adjusting these settings helps troubleshoot print quality issues.

Post-Processing 3D Printed Parts

After models are successfully 3D printed, some additional post-processing steps help clean them up and improve aesthetics:

Support Removal: Carefully remove any scaffold-like support structures with pliers. These help print overhangs and can be tricky to detach without damage.

Sanding: Smoothing out layer ridges with fine grit sandpaper helps hides print layers. Can also use chemical vapor processes for smoothing.

Filling: For PLA and ABS prints, use acrylic filler compound to fill tiny crevices and holes before painting or priming.

Priming/Painting: Most raw plastic has visible print layers. Priming fills in cracks and prepares the surface to be painted for a smooth, consistent finish.

Post-processing takes a bit more time and effort but the results are worth it. These techniques drastically enhance the appearance of the final 3D printed part.

Maintaining Your 3D Printer

Like any piece of machinery, a 3D printer functions best when maintained properly. Here is optimal 3D printer care:

  • Replace Nozzle: The printer nozzle wears out over time. Replace a visibly damaged or clogged nozzle to ensure print quality.
  • Clean Build Plate: Wiping the print bed down with isopropyl alcohol keeps the printing surface in optimal condition between prints.
  • Check Belt Tension: Loose belts can cause layer shifting or inaccuracies. Check for proper tightness and tension on x-axis and y-axis timing belts.
  • Lubricate Rods: Keep smooth rods lubricated with a small amount of machine oil to reduce friction for the print head and bed.
  • Update Firmware: Keep firmware up to date for the latest features, bug fixes and performance enhancements.

Don’t neglect basic cleaning and component care with your 3D printer. Well-maintained machines have better uptime and reliability during prints.

Basic 3D Printing Troubleshooting Tips

Beginners often run into a few common issues when first learning 3D printing. Try these basic troubleshooting tips:

Warping/Detaching: Increase bed temperature and use a brim or raft to improve first layer adhesion if the print detaches. Cooling fans can also cause warping.

Stringing: Reduce nozzle temperature and enable retraction in the slicer to remedy oozing plastic and stringing between print moves.

Clogged Nozzle: Carefully clean out the nozzle opening with needles and remove filament residues causing clogs.

Layer Shifts: Ensure tight belt tension and that no cables are snagging during print head movements to prevent shifts.

Under-Extrusion: Check for a gap between nozzle and Bowden tube causing reduced plastic flow. May also be nozzle at too low temperature or print speed set too fast.

Don’t get discouraged! It takes some trial and error to refine the printing process and resolve quality issues. Persistence pays off.

Safety Tips When Operating 3D Printers

Maintaining safe habits when using a 3D printer helps prevent injury:

  • Never reach inside a running 3D printer. Wait until motion completely stops before inserting hands into the printer area.
  • Hot ends and print beds pose burn hazards. Allow them to fully cool before handling them directly or replacing print sheets.
  • Operate printers only in well-ventilated spaces to prevent buildup of ultrafine particles from melted plastic.
  • Ensure long hair and loose clothing stay clear of printer gears and other moving components.
  • Supervise children when allowing them to operate 3D printers to prevent unsafe handling.

By exercising caution around high temperatures, motors, and moving parts inherent in 3D printers, users of all ages can safely unleash their creativity with this exciting technology.


Learning the complete 3D printing workflow – from digital design to configuring slicer settings to troubleshooting print issues – helps unleash creativity into physical objects. With some guidance on best practices, new users can quickly grasp the basics and become proficient. Understanding components, safely handling printers, and regular maintenance keeps a 3D printer running smoothly for years. 3D printing removes barriers and provides problem-solvers, crafters, and artists alike an affordable tool to manifest their ideas out to the real world. This compelling technology will only advance further, and mastering it now sets any creator or maker up for success.

Key Takeaways

  • The key aspects of 3D printing involve designing a digital 3D model file, slicing it into layers for printing, transferring it to the printer, loading filament, leveling the print bed, starting the print job, and finally removing the completed object.
  • Components like the extruder hot end, print bed, stepper motors, control board, and firmware all work together in precise coordination for 3D printing magic to happen.
  • Choosing the optimal plastic filament type for an application, like impact-resistant ABS or flexible TPU material, allows prints to match functional requirements.
  • Settings in the slicer software greatly affect final print quality. Calibrating parameters like temperatures, layer height, shells, infill, and print speeds optimizes output.
  • Post-processing 3D printed parts via support removal, sanding, filling and painting enhances aesthetics closer to a manufactured object.
  • Preventive maintenance steps like nozzle replacement, lubricating rods, and updating firmware improves reliability and function for a 3D printer over time.
  • Common issues first-time users face include warping, stringing, clogged nozzles, layer shifts, and under-extrusion but are easily addressed.
  • Being aware of basic safety practices, like not reaching into a running machine or allowing ventilation of potential fumes, protects operators.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What size 3D printer is best for beginners?
    For first-time buyers, compact desktop 3D printers in the 200 x 200 x 200 mm build volume size offer an ideal starting point without occupying too much space.

  2. How accurate are consumer 3D printers compared to industrial machines?
    Hobbyist 3D printers can reliably achieve layer resolutions around 0.1mm while industrial printers exceed this at 0.01mm precision for highly-accurate applications like medical devices and aerospace parts.

  3. Do I need any special software to start 3D printing?
    You’ll need a CAD modeling program like Fusion 360 or Tinkercad to design objects as well as a slicer program like Cura or PrusaSlicer to prep files for printing. Many free options exist!

  4. What projects can I create with a basic consumer 3D printer?
    Popular starter projects include custom phone cases, decorative figurines, basic machine parts, adapters and holders, organizers, and fasteners or clips. Lots of possibilities once you learn design skills!

  5. How hot does the extruder nozzle get when printing?
    Nozzle operating temps range from 180 degrees Celsius up to 250+ degrees when printing more advanced filaments like carbon fiber or polycarbonate materials. Definitely hot enough to deliver nasty burns if touched.

  6. Do I need to manually level the print bed or is that automated now?
    Most printers require some degree of manual bed tramming before starting a print. Automated bed leveling only compensates for minor inconsistencies and cannot perfectly flat for the first layer.

  7. How many different materials can a single 3D printer use?
    Desktop printers designed for flexible filament typically accommodate both standard filaments like PLA and ABS as well as exotic filaments like TPU, PETG, wood or metal composites, glow in the dark, magnetic, and dissolvable support material.

  8. Is 3D printing food safe?
    A few specialty food-safe machines extrude condiments, baked goods, or chocolate but typical thermoplastics in desktop printers have not been approved food-grade material. Eating regular PLA or ABS prints is not advisable.

  9. Can a 3D printer be used outdoors?
    ABS plastic prints hold up better than PLA for outdoor use but still degrade over time from UV exposure. For long-lasting outdoor applications, vapor smoothing then painting prints helps withstand weathering.

  10. What software is best for complete beginners to start designing 3D prints?
    Beginners benefit most from approachable programs like Tinkercad or Fusion 360 that offer an intuitive interface plus extensive tutorials and community support to learn the modeling tools.

  11. Is it safe to 3D print around my kids?
    With supervision, printing safely around children is fine. Key considerations are keeping tiny fingers clear of hot components, wearing protective gear like gloves and goggles when handling hot ends or chemicals, and operating printers only in rooms with adequate ventilation.

  12. How accurate are print time estimates?
    Print time estimates depend greatly on the specific 3D printer make and model but tend to be decent ballparks within 30-60 minutes for full prints. Scaled down test prints calibrate time estimates further.

  13. Can a 3D printer print food for my family?
    Although the technology exists, typical hobbyist 3D printers cannot safely produce real food. Research specialty food-grade machines using cookie dough, cheese, or chocolate specifically approved for culinary printing before ingesting prints.

  14. Do all 3D printers require filament or can some use pellets?
    Higher-end industrial 3D printers accommodate bulk plastic pellets but the vast majority of starter desktop machines exclusively use wound filament spools. Filament capabilities offer ease of use for beginners.

  15. Can any 3D printer print metal parts?
    Fused filament fabrication printers cannot print metal. Supplemental laser sintering machines alongside metal-infused filaments simulate a metallic look but only industrial-scale metal printers using lasers or electron beams achieve solid dense metal parts.

  16. How do I know what size printed parts my build platform can handle?
    A printer’s specifications always indicate maximum build volume dimensions in mm or inches. Part orientation ultimately determines the largest hypothetical print dimensions possible within the build envelope. Tall, narrow parts fit differently than short, wide squared parts.

  17. Is there training required to operate a 3D printer?
    No formal training is necessary. Read the user manual thoroughly, watch online tutorials for your specific model, review operating checklists, practice leveling the bed, loading filament, and starting test prints. Use online forums to troubleshoot issues with community assistance.

  18. Can a 3D printer enhance a STEM classroom curriculum for students?
    Absolutely! Designing objects then having students hold their tangible creations revolutionizes design thinking and scientific learning. Combined with electronics, 3D printers enable coding, robotics, and fantastic project-based learning to equip students with real-world technology skills.

  19. How do I know if a 3D printer is right for me?
    Evaluate if you have creative ideas to design unique objects, patience to learn modeling software, interest to understand the technology, and plans to print useful functional items or decorative models. If producing physical objects from digital files appeals to you for any hobby from cosplay, miniatures, mechanical parts, cases, toys, tools, or more, then a 3D printer unleashes new exciting possibilities.

  20. What should I look for when buying a budget 3D printer?
    Seek a reputable brand known for quality, check for an all-metal frame and gears, modular/upgradeable parts, at least 100 micron resolution, and a 150 x 150 x 150 mm build area. Review what filaments it accommodates. Favor printers with warranties and US-based technical support in case issues arise. Remember cost of materials over time offsets bargain equipment upfront that may underperform or need excessive repairs later.

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