“What is 3D printing, and why should it matter to me?”
Great question! Since you are reading this on the Internet, I am going to assume you’ve heard of 3D printing in one form or another. In the last several years, 3D printing has become more affordable, reliable, and accessible to the general public. It has also become a buzzword in the tech world and has helped craft a new generation of makers.
Before I get too far ahead of myself—what exactly is 3D printing? 3D printing comes in many shapes and sizes, but for this article I will stick to fused deposition modeling (FDM), also known as fused filament fabrication (FFF). This is the most commonly seen form of 3D printing today. FFF typically uses a spool of filament that is pushed through an extruder onto a build platform, creating a physical object right before your eyes! In more simplistic terms, think of a glue gun. You plug it in and it heats up to an appropriate temperature. When the trigger is pulled, it extrudes the glue stick in a gel form, allowing you to apply it as necessary. A 3D printer is like a very fancy glue gun that is run by a series of computerized motors to create three-dimensional objects from the base up.
FFF 3D printing creates objects, layer by layer, by first slicing a 3D model based on determined layer heights and options in the slicer software. This is commonly referred to as additive manufacturing. Do not let the time-lapse videos fool you—it is a very slow process. Luckily for us, the printer does all of the work in this step, and hours later we return to the printer to see the result!
A (Very) Brief History of 3D Printing
FDM was first invented in the late 1980s and was commercialized by the Minnesota-based company Stratasys in the early 1990s. After patents ran out in the late 2000s, there was a 3D printing boom that allowed the technology to emerge as a viable option for the consumer market. Prior to this point, 3D printers were very expensive to own and operate. After the boom, prices dropped drastically on both printers and printing materials to open the door for desktop 3D printers.
I joined this craze in 2012 when the college department I worked for purchased two MarkerBot Replicator 2s—hot off the press. The Replicator 2 was one of the first breakthrough desktop 3D printers on the market. After months of experiments and testing, we opened them up to students and were amazed at the variety of projects and ideas people came up with.
Let’s jump ahead to today. Decent entry-level 3D printers are available for $210 that print right out of the box, and Instagram is full of eager makers—rapidly printing everything in sight. Websites like MyMiniFactory.com and Thingiverse.com have made it easier for cosplayers and makers to find objects that are already 3D modeled and ready to print, while 3dhubs.com allows users to upload models and have them printed locally. In short, it has never been easier to get into 3D printing than it is today.
The Original Prusa i3 MK2 emerged in 2016 at a price point of $699 for a kit (or $899 fully assembled). This printer from the Czech Republic makes 3D printing a breeze, with advanced features such as nine point auto-leveling and a genuine E3D hotend—if you are staring blankly at your screen wondering what any of that means, I will be going more in-depth in an upcoming article on buying your first 3D printer. The Monoprice Maker Select line offers an entry level price point, while being ready to print almost immediately out of the box. Starting at $210 for the Maker Select Mini or $399 for the larger Maker Select Plus, they can be ordered off of Amazon and be at your door in two days. Welcome to the future.
3D Printing in the Cosplay Community
If you’ve made it this far, you are probably still wondering what 3D printing can do for you. I started off making props the old-fashioned way with wood, foam, sandpaper, and miscellaneous objects formed together to create a finished replica. I still do this—but 3D printing has allowed me to refine this process and create very precise and complex parts to add to the mix. It doesn’t replace handcrafting, but it does allow you to add another dimension with endless possibilities. Don’t worry though, your favorite part (sanding) won’t go away. Post-processing of printed parts and painting techniques is an upcoming series of articles I will be writing for Twin Cities Geek, so stay tuned for more.
If you are interested in joining the 3D printing community and want some further reading, r/3dprinting on Reddit has a monthly thread on current recommended equipment, and guides on getting started with 3D printing. MyMiniFactory has a curated library of free 3D models and examples of everything from art to lamps to cosplay.
If you have any questions, comments, or article topics you would be interested in, I would love to hear them!