3D printing is so zeitgeisty right now that we wouldn’t be surprised if David Cameron gave it a knighthood as a quick vote-grabber.
A short browse around Kickstarter or Indiegogo reveals swarms of 3D printer projects looking for (and mostly receiving) funding, and with good reason; although the first industrial 3D printers were developed in the early ’80s, it’s only now that we’re seeing models that we might be able to afford and use at home.
Couple that to the rise of a new breed of we’ll-do-it-all-for-you 3D printing companies – the likes of Sculpteo and Shapeways – and you have a bona fide sensation. We’ve tried out three of the best printers so start adding a “z” axis to your doodles, sharpen up your .stl files and let’s begin…
3D printing jargon-buster
.STL files A 3D model file, used by free apps such as Google Sketchup as well as pro-level ’ware such as AutoCAD.The printer’s own OS then slices up the STL model into layers for printing.
Build platform The moving surface on which your model is layered. Platform material varies, and some (the UP! being one) are heated to help prevent the ABS warping as it cools.
Extruder The business end of any 3D printer that uses plastic filament. It draws in and melts the plastic straw so it can be squeezed out of the tip like hot, poisonous toothpaste.
Levelling If the build platform is wonky, then so is your model. Our three printers require manual levelling to ensure the extruder is the same distance at all points. Sounds simple, right?
Support Molten plastic doesn’t hang, man, so models with overhangs need support structures printed with them that can be removed once the print is finished.
Plastic types ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) or PLA (Polylactic Acid) are the main 3D printer plastics. ABS is tough, but prone to shrinkage, while weedier PLA is the eco-friendly choice.