3D Printing Myths

 In 30 days of education

“So if I want to 3D print this cup I can just take a picture with my phone and then the printer can print it, right?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this sentiment over the last couple years. Sadly the answer is no. A 3D printer cannot take a 2D image and make a 3D object out of it. But what this question and others like it tells me that there’s still a lot of misconceptions out there about how 3D printing works and what it can do.

So let’s break it down a little bit.

 Wait, so it’s a printer that makes an actual, physical thing? That’s not possible.

At this point in the blog, you most likely know very well that 3D printing is a reality in this wonderfully modern age we live in, but I have had to convince someone that 3D printing was a real thing and not just a sci-fi invention – in 2016. Once you get into the 3D printing community, it’s easy to take for granted that this technology is something that is still very unbelievable for many. Until you’ve seen a 3D printer in action, it lives in this mysterious realm that doesn’t fully make sense.

But yes, 3D printing is real. And 3D printers have actually been around since the 1980s. The first 3D printers used stereolithography, rather than fused filament fabrication (FFF) like most of the consumer 3D printers available today. It wasn’t until 2007 that 3D printers broached the $10,000 mark and started hitting the news more regularly. By 2013, most people had heard of 3D printers and by 2016, many people have at least seen a 3D printer in action at one point. For a more in-depth history on the technology, check out this great article. For more info on how it works, check out our posts earlier in this series on Choosing the Right 3D Printer and Setting Up Your Slicing Settings, which explain some of the technical aspects of FFF printing.

Where does the 3D printer get the info so it knows what to build?

The printer knows what to print because someone has created the object within a simulation of 3D space within their computer. The objects created are models. This software used is known as Computer Aided Design or CAD software and the process of creating the models is 3D modeling. 3D modeling objects from scratch is the technique used most often.
However, there are also ways to scan real-world objects and bring them into the computer and then prepare them for 3D printing. 3D scanners work by collecting still images from all sides of an object and processing them into a 3D model. Free and consumer-level scanners are still relatively mediocre at this, but scans can provide a good reference or starting point for a final model. And, depending on what you want scanned, can actually create a pretty impressive product. They just have their limitations, most often in accuracy, object size, and object texture. For more information on free software options available, check out our earlier post here and for more information on how to go about creating your own models, visit our post on Modeling 101.

3D model of a cow in progress Scan data of our 3D modeler and a print of the scan

And these printers, they work about the same speed as a desktop (2D) printer right?

Not exactly. Since objects have to be created, it takes a while. Here are some of our kits with how long they take to print on a Dremel 3D20 IdeaBuilder printer with our default settings.

Alphabet Coins Kit
3hr 35min
Prints in 2 separate builds

Loaded Coins Kit
0hr 30min
Prints in 2 separate builds
(each coin prints individually for density control.)

Ball Bearing Catapult Kit
1hr 43min
Prints in 4 separate builds
(each projectile prints individually for variable density)

Cells: Plant Kit
5hr 20min
Prints in 3 separate builds

So, I can create anything, right? Sky’s the limit?

Eh. Not really. 3D printing has its limitations. Especially consumer-level FFF printers, which we’ll focus on in this section. Let’s look at a few of these limitations:

Material – You can only create objects of certain materials. This depends on your particular printer and the types of filament with which it is compatible. Later in this series, we’ll be doing a breakdown of the different types of filament available and what they’re useful for. Material options have been expanding rapidly in the last few years, with the introduction of hybrid filaments that mix plastic with wood or metal or carbon fiber to create different aesthetics or durability, etc. There are even printers now printing in conductive filament so you can 3D print working circuits. Which means, as time progresses, this limitation will become less and less limiting.

Basic plastic filament in various colors A print which needed to be more stable

Design – This is the biggest one. Because 3D printers build objects up one layer at a time, certain designs are just far more likely to fail than others. Complex designs with lots of interconnecting, moving parts are going to be much more challenging to get to work well. These consumer-level printers cannot achieve the level of accuracy of traditional manufacturing, so you’ll always run into a few issues. For instance, printing any sort of threaded screw is very difficult to achieve at a small size on a consumer-grade printer. And one of the interesting things is that each printer takes the same 3D file and prints it slightly differently. Some color inside the lines so to speak, while others print right on top of the lines. Making it very tricky to get a perfect fit every time with every printer. Another thing to consider when designing is that the object isn’t too small or thin. 3D printers are building the models one layer at a time, which means thin, tall objects are going to get wobbly while printing, possibly get dragged around by the extruder and quite possibly fall over while printing. This happens regularly with supports. It’s important to design the object to be stable while printing.

Sturdiness – And speaking of stability, 3D printing will always have weaknesses. Because it prints things in horizontal layers, there is always going to be a weak direction, where the object is prone to splitting between layers. This won’t happen with normal usage, but if you’re trying to create something perfectly airtight or watertight, or really sturdy because a force is going to be applied to it, you may run into the issue of no matter how much infill you add to it to make it more solid, it still cannot hold up to the stress you’re putting on it. This, too, varies between printer brands and types of filament. Some create watertight barriers with ease, while others struggle with it. It’s just something to consider and test when using your 3D printer.

Friction – Back to those annoying horizontal layers, they will create a certain amount of friction when interacting with other objects. This is why we use ball-bearings for all of our low-friction needs. For more information on integrating everyday objects to overcome some of the limitations of 3D printing, check out our blog post on that topic here. In general, creating low-friction connections with 3D printed parts isn’t something we’ve had much success with. Of course, you can always post-process your prints after they’re created to smooth them out. People will sand down their models, apply chemical solutions, or add things like grease or oil to reduce friction. This will help. But if that’s not your thing, sometimes it’s best to go with a professionally manufactured alternative. Another way to limit this is to print on your printer’s most detailed print setting. Setting a low layer resolution/thickness will create a smoother finish off the bat but will take longer to print.Phew! Don’t worry. That’s all – for now. It’s a lot to take in. Which is why we’re glad to say we’ve taken all this into consideration when designing our models. We design ours to work with even basic FFF printers. And we do all the hard work for you so you don’t have to worry about it. That’s the benefit of working with MyStemKits – every single kit we offer has been printed and tested numerous times on multiple printers to ensure it works consistently.

Have any other questions you’d like answered about 3D printing or misconceptions you’ve heard?
Share below in the comments and we’ll be glad to help debunk any other myths!

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