I used a 3D printer for the first time. Here’s what I learned

In seventh grade shop class, the teacher gave a friend and me total control of an injection molding machine. We poured in pellets of blue plastic and selected a small metal mold. The pellets liquefied and oozed into the mold, then solidified again. We split apart the mold and pulled out our creation: a blue plastic car.
Something about the experience really affected me. I have long forgotten what happened to that car, but I never forgot what it felt like to hold it in my hand. I had been a consumer my whole life, but in that second, I was a maker.
That moment comes to me every so often as I read and write about consumer 3D printers. The industry’s advocates want to empower everyone to be a maker by putting a 3D printer in every home. Ten years from now, any seventh grader could be able to make as many plastic blue cars as they want from their own living room.
How far do we have to go before 3D printers are easy enough to use that anyone can own one? I decided to visit TechShop in San Francisco to find out. TechShop stocks all kinds of equipment for woodworking, metalworking, laser engraving and beyond. It’s also a big center for 3D printing.

Meet the MakerBot

Maker advocate and Autodesk program manager Jesse Harrington Au showed me around the shop before leading me into the Annex next door — a smaller, quieter workspace that houses some of the more unusual objects made by TechShop members. There was a handmade skee ball machine and a chair constructed entirely of cardboard. There was also an old jet engine that you threw tiny nuts and bolts into to produce tinkling music. A member plans to take it to Burning Man this year.
In the center of it all sat a MakerBot Replicator 2 — the most popular consumer 3D printer out there. As of late last year, MakerBot had sold 25,000 units of its desktop printers, which they estimated to be about a quarter of the market. Replicator 2s are about the size of a microwave, but taller, and contain a printing platform and nozzle. The platform moves up and down while the nozzle moves laterally during the printing process.
MakerBot Replicator 2 in the TechShop Annex
Harrington Au placed strips of painter’s tape across the print surface — a personal preference of his because it helps the surface last longer and prevents objects from sticking. Then he hit the glowing red “M” that serves as the on button and began the preheat process as a test. Once it was heated, the Replicator’s nozzle oozed out a long wispy string of hot red plastic.
Harrington Au set up his Macbook Pro next to the printer and opened Autodesk 123D Design, a free computer-aided design program that’s also available online and for iPad. One of the biggest challenges for people new to 3D printing is learning how to use design programs. A host of them, including 123D, have cropped up with the purpose of making it easier for anyone to create a 3D object. 123D is all drag and drop and does not require you to make a highly precise object — a nice shift from older CAD software.
Harrington Au listed off a few of the program’s tools and then started walking me through how to replicate my chosen object on the computer. My workspace: a vast white grid that I could twist and zoom in and out from with simple mouse movements. I dropped a small cube onto the grid and went about drawing 13 circles on its surface. Then I turned the circles into cylinders that dropped all the way through the cube, turning them into holes. I rounded the cube’s corners and shortened its height until it became a disk.
The process took maybe half an hour. The tools were difficult to remember at first, but 10 minutes in I was using them with few reminders from Harrington Au. It did have a few hiccups that would have grown frustrating if I had been on my own. Not having a helper to point out the steps on which I got stuck would have dramatically slowed the process or even convinced me to give up. There’s also no way I could have designed anything much more complicated. But compared to a tool like Photoshop or Illustrator, which I’ve been using for years, 123D is pretty intuitive. I’ll just leave the more complex work to professionals.

Let’s print

Design complete, it was time to print. Harrington Au took over for a few moments to input the best settings for the Replicator 2. We were working with his personal machine, and he knew, for example, that it ran better at a temperature about 20 degrees Celsius cooler than the default setting. He also knew the nozzle had trouble printing in the back of the machine, so he asked the Replicator to print my disk in the front. He explained that you can select how solid you want your object to be. At 100 percent, the object comes out a solid mass of plastic. At a lower percentage, the printer builds a honeycomb of ridges inside the object for support, plus a solid outside. We opted for 15 percent. We also set it to the lowest print resolution to save some time.
I hit “print” on the Replicator’s menu and it began heating again. The print platform raised up and the nozzle came forward to start printing. But it didn’t print properly. Gobs of red plastic stuck to the tape in some areas, while in other spots the nozzle didn’t deposit any plastic at all. Harrington Au stopped the machine and said the print platform wasn’t level, resulting in the nozzle not contacting the surface properly. He tinkered for a bit and then let the machine get back to the job. We decided not to start over, and instead let the machine correct for the sloppy first layer of plastic.
Layer by layer, the Replicator built up the disk. Harrington Au had been worried the holes would be too small a detail for the machine to build well, but it was soon clear they were printing nicely.
Replicator 2 3D printing the GigaOM logo
After 16 minutes, the nozzle withdrew and the platform lowered to reveal the finished product: the GigaOM logo.
It turned out to be stuck to the tape due to the uneven first layer, so Harrington Au used a putty knife to pry it off. Save for a slight mismatch between the bottom and top layers, the finished product wasn’t bad. If I had been looking for higher quality, I could have sanded the surface a little for a smoother finish.
3D printed GigaOM logo
The whole process took about an hour. If I attempted it a second time, it would take half that. There’s definitely a steep learning curve that would have been much steeper if I didn’t have someone there to help me. I have no doubt I could have figured it out on my own with the resources available on the internet, but lessons like running the printer at a lower temperature would have had to come with time.
I don’t think 3D printing is for everyone.┬áLike a DSLR camera or a computer, 3D printers take patience to learn. But once you learn them, you’re free to do whatever you want. That was obvious to me from just one use, and enough to convince me I want to get my hands on a 3D printer as often as possible from now on. It’s worth the learning curve. I think the rest of the world will feel that too when they hold their first little blue car.