A Journey of a Thousand Miles...

We all have to start somewhere. So you’ve just bought your first 3D printer and you’re very excited. You’ve read all the magazines, you’ve seen the reviews, you’ve heard about all the amazing things which 3D printing can do these days; building bridges, creating intricate sculptures in chocolate, creating bio-scaffolds for stem-cells to grow on, replacing lost limbs/fingers/beaks/etc. So after all that you picked the best 3D printer you can afford, ordered it, waited eagerly for it to arrive……. and now it’s sitting on your desk, expectantly.

Now what?

Not everyone who buys a 3D printer is a professional designer, or an engineer or biologist or any of these other professionals who always seem to know exactly what they want to do with it.  Many of us are just ordinary, everyday techno-nerds who have seen this amazing technology and thought ‘cool!’.  But this isn’t an XBox or a new smartphone or anything which is instinctive to use. A 3D printer is a complicated piece of equipment which, although it is capable of unlocking deep wells of pure creativity, needs you to know at least basically what you’re doing.

In this article I want to relate to you, the new 3D printer owner, my personal journey into the world of 3D printing and hopefully pass on some sage advice at the same time. I’ve been a traditional graphic designer for the last twenty-nine years (yes, I know; call me grandad) and a confirmed techno-nerd for…. ohhh… my entire life. I actually remember when I was very little having a book about the Amazing Technology of the Future; moon bases by the late 80s (yeah, that didn’t happen), nuclear-power making energy so cheap they wouldn’t even bother charging for it (yeah, that didn’t happen either), and a wild and crazy article at the back of the book about a machine which people would have in their homes where a laser scans across a tank of photopolymer resin and MAKES OBJECTS IN 3D!!

Well, as the song says, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. That describes perfectly one type of modern STR 3D printer.

I first heard about 3D printers many years ago and of course I was very interested, but they were horrendously expensive and really only for the aforementioned professionals, people who had many thousands of pounds to burn and knew exactly what they were doing. I eventually came to know my way around a DTP setup thanks to my work, but I never seriously considered moving from 2D into the 3D world. But then several things changed for me.

I’ve been a lifelong sufferer from depression, and those who also suffer from it know exactly what it can do to you. Around 2013 I hit a particularly bad patch, and thus I was looking around for something, anything, to distract me and to give me something to pour my energy into so I wouldn’t continue to spiral down and down. While I was looking around I happened to chance on a website which sold hardware and software for educational and non-profit organisations, and who also sold to private customers. They sold robotics, music production equipment, video editing suites….. and 3D printers. The printer they sold was a cheap hobby machine, nowhere NEAR professional grade, but it was enough to start off with.

My inner nerd, at this point, started jumping up and down, squealing and pointing.

ADVICE 1 - Get the best you can afford, but don’t buy a multi-thousand pound techno-marvel with all the bells and the whistles. A decent-quality basic machine is the way to go. Walk before you can run, boys and girls…

I took the plunge, parted with my hard-earned cash and the next day (my birthday, 2013) a humungous box arrived. I excitedly took it home, cleared off a space on my desk, set up the machine according to the instructions and initiated one of the test-prints contained in the printer’s memory. For the next hour and a half I sat there, enthralled by this amazing technomancy, as a whole new object was created before my very eyes. Okay so it was only a pen-holder, but that was enough for me. I was hooked. I wanted MORE. I started looking around on the internet and was immediately struck with the HUGE range of 3D printer files which were downloadable for free from so many websites (first site I found among them being, funnily enough, MyMiniFactory). I was soon downloading designs left and right, burning through filament like it as going out of fashion and my desk was filling up with more and more cool things. I considered making my own designs but, truth be told, I was somewhat intimidated. These designs I was downloading were all so AMAZING, I couldn’t ever match up to anything like that.

ADVICE 2 - Don’t be afraid of the wind. You’ve spent all this money on this machine, don’t be afraid to use it for your own purposes. Yes, the vast majority of the designs you’ll find on all these sites are just amazing (I mean, just LOOK around MMF if you want to see what I mean!) but don’t let that intimidate you. We all have to start somewhere and I guarantee to you that every single one of these fantastic designers have been exactly where you are now; looking at a screen and thinking ‘you’re kidding…?’.

I decided, therefore, to get hold of some software and see what I could do about making my own designs. Since I’d spent so many years using vector-graphics DTP setups like QuarkXPress, Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW etc my first instinct was to go for CAD (Computer Aided Design) software; my family has a very long background in engineering and construction and although I’ve never been one of the hands-on members I’ve always had more of a technical approach than an artistic one. I found some really amazing CAD software which would do everything which I wanted to do and I thought “Yes!”. Then I saw the price-tag and thought ‘Hell no’

ADVICE 3 - Same as with the printer, don’t spend a fortune on design software unless you REALLY REALLY know what you’re doing. The more expensive packages are usually geared towards those high-end professionals we were talking about earlier, and all I can say is…… there ain’t no ‘Beginner Mode’. You can find perfectly good software for making 3D printer files which is cheap but effective (I still to this day use TurboCAD, which when I bought it was under £80) and there are also packages which are free; Blender is an open-source 3D modelling program which is downloadable from the internet completely free of charge, and it is capable of producing some truly astounding work. For me though, since I was coming from the technical background, it was a little too far from my area of expertise. Whatever you get though, do NOT be intimidated by the range of options; you’ll see massive banks of icons which do all manner of amazing and arcane things, but when you’re just starting out you won’t need to memorise them all. Use the ones you know how to use and just learn from there.

My first design was, funnily enough, a phone holder. I’m a confirmed Apple-tart (please don’t hate me, Android users) and needed a new desktop stand for my iPhone so I thought, ‘well, why not?’. I measured up the dimensions of the phone, drew a clumsy. boxy design and fed it into the maw of the printer. A few hours later my phone holder was finished printing, so I took it from the print-bed, stood it on my desk and dropped my phone into it. It got about a quarter of the way in and then stopped; the support material was still inside and I’d forgotten to take it out.

ADVICE 4 - You’ll need extra tools, but again there’s no need to spend a fortune. Most printers will come with a small toolkit (cleaning brushes, scrapers to remove items from the print-bed etc), and some of the more high-end machines (such as the Zortrax M200, which I use now and daily give thanks to the Gods of 3D Printing for bestowing upon us) come with much more; knives, allen keys, safety goggles, safety gloves and so on and so forth. All you’ll really need from the start aside from the basic kit provided is a sharp knife (a craft-knife like a X-Acto Blade or a scalpel) a ruler (I use a steel-rule, mainly because it is a lot clearer and also more hard-wearing) and some form of abrasive material for cleaning up sharp edges and smoothing off areas where support material has been removed. Again you don’t have to use large sheets of sandpaper; I buy packs of emery-boards from my local supermarket and they’re perfectly useable for most 3D printing applications. Possibly also a set of needle-files (which you can get a perfectly good set of on Amazon for under a tenner). I also recommend, if you want to make practical items (like phone holders), buying a vernier gauge to measure the thickness of things. It’s a lot easier to read than a ruler, and again you can pick them up really quite cheaply. Also for supplies like superglue, epoxy resin and so on, the Pound-Shop is your best friend. They very often sell these things in bulk, very cheaply.

So my first design was complete, I’d actually remembered to remove the support material (finally), my phone was sitting on my desk in its lovely new holder and I was feeling very pleased with myself (and if you wand to see it then it's in my Library under 'iPhone 5 Desktop Holder). Then I thought, ‘well what if I change it like this….?’. New ideas started popping into my head (that’s the way my brain works, it switches from ‘not interested’ to ‘obsessed’ very quickly) and minutes later TurboCAD was open and I was diving back into the world of the phone holder.

ADVICE 5 - Don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s what 3D printers were originally created for; rapid prototyping. You get an idea, you make something you think will work, you test it, you refine the design, you test it again…… and so on. Not all of your designs will work the first time; there will be things you didn’t anticipate, you may be working to tolerances which are too broad or too fine and things may not fit together properly, and the urge usually is just to give up. Don’t do that. This is YOUR DESIGN, no-one else in the world has done exactly what you’ve done, and if you don’t get discouraged and just persevere you can have the satisfaction of looking at something you’ve created and thinking ‘yeah, that’s MY work’.

Essentially that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. My next area of design-exploration was items to help with my musical career. I’ve been the singer in several covers bands and yes, there’s always a time when you need the words. I decided to use my iPhone as an autocue, but all the phone holders I found for sale online where hideously expensive and none of them was exactly what I was looking for. 3D printing again sprang to the rescue.

ADVICE 6 - Inspiration can come from ANYWHERE. If you want to be designer, even if you only do it for your own enjoyment, you’ll find that 3D printing can be used in just about any area of your life. You need a phone holder? You can make one. You need a special bracket to mount something on? You can make something which will do the job perfectly rather than relying on what someone else has made. Even if you want to go the route of being purely decorative you still don’t have to be limited by it. My most extensive range of designs (as you’ll see from my Library) are all decorative coasters, but they can also be used as magnetic signs, name plaques and whatever else someone wants to use them for. If you have passions in life, use them; you can make accessories for game controllers, you can make mountings for GoPro cameras for recording your snowboarding holiday, you can make miniature watering cans if you love to grow Bonsai trees….. The possibilities are truly endless. If anything the roadblock I’ve run into, since I decided to take the plunge and go professional as a designer, is trying to explain to people exactly what 3D printing can do for them. As I’ve already said, it can apply to EVERY area of your life, and there’s always new possibilities being born. Make sure you have a notepad, even if it’s just a note on your phone, so you can jot down new design ideas when they pop into your head. I guarantee they’ll soon be coming thick and fast. You might even get some from your dreams; I certainly have!

If you’re reading this with a newly unboxed 3D printer sitting on your desk, welcome to the first day of the rest of your life. To quote the great Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’ve taken your first steps into a much larger world. The last advice I can offer, and this is an important one, is that you should never, ever be afraid to ask for help. As I’ve already said, you may look at someone’s work on MMF (or on other sites) and think it’s way out of your league but as I’ve also already said, one day we were exactly where you are now. We don’t bite, we’re a friendly bunch, and we’re always happy to give advice and help you out. That’s why I wrote all this; to let you know we’re all here if you need us.

Welcome. It’s nice to meet you.

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