Many designers can warmly recall the first time they physically held the final printed version of something they lovingly slaved over for hours, or better yet, encountered it in the wild unexpectedly, seeing their concepts and pixels made real.
It’s no surprise then that 3D printing has captured the attention and imagination of the design community, taking those pixels (and paths, polygons, meshes et al.) and turning them into physical objects. From replacement parts for hardware to custom phone cases and clever, decorative trinkets, the possibilities are limitless.
Such one-off fabrication was once the exclusive purview of high-end prototyping companies, but the expiry of several key patents in the last decade has opened the gates to a variety of economic 3D printing options for the layperson, and even more so for the designer who already knows how to create something out of nothing in the 2D world.
3D printing works by means of “additive manufacturing,” which builds up layer upon layer of printed material to form a solid object. When producing small quantities of finished items the process is faster, more flexible and less expensive than traditional injection moulding used for commercial plastic goods—in the same way you would probably choose digital print over lithography for small print runs.
Materials vary depending on the technology used. ABS filament and nylon plastic are two of the most common materials available, but more exotic options ranging from metals and concrete to chocolate and even organic tissue are being explored and experimented with for a wide variety of applications.
Creating Your File
While there are various online libraries of free and paid 3D designs, customizing them or making your own from scratch is going to require software that can produce a 3D file format such as an .STL (a stereolithography file). There are a lot of options out there, ranging from rudimentary applications that will feel familiar to anyone already working with vector-based design tools, to high-end professional suites that have a steeper learning curve but greater control. We’ve focused here on a few of the simpler ones to get you started.
An excellent introductory program for those new to 3D modelling, Tinkercad is a browser-based web application that has a series of multi-step lessons teaching users how to build and manipulate objects directly inside the app. It also has a large library of “things” that others have built that you can load, modify and customize. Since it’s entirely web based, your saved projects are available anywhere you have an Internet connection. Tinkercad is integrated with several services, allowing you to directly submit your objects for printing.
Autodesk 123D Design
Available on multiple platforms, Autodesk’s 123D Design gets more technical than Tinkercad, allowing a greater degree of control and precision. A series of video tutorials on 123Dapp.com help you get started with the process. Autodesk has a whole suite of related specialized tools under the 123D brand such as Creature, which is focused on creating, not surprisingly, creatures and other such characters in 3D; or Meshmixer, which lets you combine multiple 3D objects into one. Basic access to the Autodesk tools is free for personal use.
Of course, if you’re just looking to dabble, why not use a program you already have? Photoshop gained a range of new and updated 3D manipulation tools with the release of Creative Cloud. The 3D menu allows you to add 3D layers to your file, adding a Z-axis to the program’s traditional X and Y. Most impressively, Adobe has incorporated a range of options allowing you to submit your designs directly to a 3D print service like Shapeways and Sculpteo, or print directly to your own 3D printer.
Making Your File Reality
Once you’re happy with your design it’s time to get physical! There are three avenues for this:
From casual maker-culture hubs to professional industrial prototypers, a wide range of 3D printing service bureaus are now available. They may not be the cheapest printing option, but you will have the benefit of experienced professionals dealing with your order. Some even have automated file review processes that can provide suggestions or alterations to your files based on the type of material you’re looking to use.
Maker Co-op Labs & Publicly Accessible Printers
If you want to get a little more hands-on but aren’t ready to shell out for your own 3D printer yet, maker co-op labs and other community-based organizations may be the answer you’re looking for. Prerequisites to use the equipment will vary from location to location, most requiring a training course on basic care and maintenance before you can get started.
Many schools and public institutions have recognized the power and possibilities in co-operative 3D print centres, like the Digital Innovation Hubs run by the Toronto Public Library system, and the Nova Scotia Community Access Program, which has an impressive 16 3D printers being set up across the province. Buy (or Make!) Your Own Printer The market for 3D printers is quite diverse, with various technologies, sizes and configurations available. Companies like MakerBot specialize in home and small office desktop units, while Stratasys has everything up to large commercial production machines. Features and functions vary, with most entry-level units in the $1200 to $2600 range.
If you have the inclination and are really into DIY, there are a dizzying number of open-source project plans available online to build your own 3D printer out of component parts. One of the most popular is found at RepRap.org. Version 1.0, fittingly nicknamed “Darwin,” can produce over 50% of its own parts, so once you have your own setup you could start manufacturing copies of it for friends. Several sites sell full RepRap parts kits for less than $1000.
Have you used 3D printing to make your ideas into objects? Share photos of your creations on Facebook.com/DesignedgeCanada!
Lee Eldridge, associate editor, is also the director of Interactive Solutions at the
C.J. Group of Companies in Toronto.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.