How do I print things in 3D ?

A 3D printer connects to a computer like a normal printer, but instead of printing 2 dimensional images on paper, it can print 3 dimensional objects in plastic. It achieves this by slowly laying down very thin layers of plastic, and then builds up the layers to create the object. You can create virtually any object on a 3D printer as long as you have a 3D drawing of it. To print a 3D object you will need a 3D printer, a 3D drawing file of your object, usually a .STL (STereoLithography) file, a piece of software called a "slicer", and some 3D printer filament (the "ink" for 3D printers).

The STL file can downloaded from one of the many free web sites available on the internet, such as thingiverse.com or youmagine.com, or produced by 3D designer software such as Microsofts free 3D Builder. An STL file is basically a file which describes what your object looks like.

In order to print your 3D object your drawing (STL) file needs to be converted into G-code. G-code is a language in which people tell computerised machine tools such as 3D printers how to make something. The "how" is defined by instructions on where to move, how fast to move, and what path to follow. Slicer software such as Cura or Slic3r, will convert your drawing into a form which tells your 3D printer how to lay down each thin layer of plastic. As the name suggests it slices up your object into very thin slices for your printer to print. You can configure various options in the slicer software to suit both your specific 3D printer, the filament you are using and the object you are printing.

You will need to tell your slicer software, the size of your 3D print bed and the nozzle size of your printer (the bit that lays the plastic down). You will also need to tell it what temperature to print at depending on your filament, usually about 190-210C for PLA and about 230-250C for ABS. You can also set your print bed temperature for those printers that have them, this is usually not required for PLA and about 60-100C for ABS.

Depending on the shape of your object you may also need to set other parameters, for example if your object has a very small base, you may need to set a Brim, this lays down a thin first layer, larger than the actual object, to help it stick better to the print bed. If your object has overhangs (parts of it that overhang the base or float in mid air) you may also need to set a Support Type, this builds extra "scaffolding" to support those areas while it is printing, which can later be removed with a knife.

Once your slicer software is configured you can either print directly to your printer via USB or wireless, or download your .GCODE file to a memory card which can be inserted into the printer. Printers nowadays are still quite slow, and it can take up to an hour even for a small object, so it's usually recommended to print from a file on a SD card inserted in to your machine. Sometimes it doesn't always print out how you wanted it first time and you may have to tweak your slicer software to perfect your print. Check out or FAQ section for how to solve printing problems.