The rise of the desktop 3D printer has democratized prototyping and brought a new wave of opportunities to the design industry. From product designers who are creating 3D printed prosthetics to fashion designers like Noa Raviv and Zaha Hadid who create new 3D printed forms, the breadth of possibilities is almost limitless! Whether you’re interested in 3D printing for product prototyping or pure fashion folly, I have put together some tips to help you navigate the world of 3D Printing.
So, you have an idea that you want 3D printed? That’s awesome! How do you get it made? Producing your product idea depends on your level of comfortability with 3D software and 3D printers in general.
Any 3D software program that can export to an .stl file will work with a 3D printer. Sketchup is a free, lightweight 3D modeling software that requires very little experience. Since It’s owned by Google, there are a lot of free tutorials and communities online. My favorite feature is the Sketchup Warehouse where other users upload their models. No need to reinvent the wheel when you can modify it. Just a caveat- you can’t trust that the geometries are clean because you don’t know how the 3D file was created. 3D printers love clean geometries. Rhino 3D is another software program, and it’s free for Mac users.
The Cost of 3D Printing
Maybe you don’t have the time or interest to invest in learning a 3D software. There are plenty of companies that will work from your sketch or drawings and build the product for you. Maker’s Row has a community of factories that specialize in 3D printing. If you go this route, cost will be important to consider. The cost of working with these companies varies, but they are usually good at working with beginners. The cost depends on a few factors:
1. How complex is the object you would like to print? More complexity means more time on the printer.
2. How large or small is the object? What material will you use? The materials have a cost. Using plastic on a small, handheld, simple object will be less expensive than using metal on a large, complex object.
3. How much prep work will the company need to do to get the project 3D print ready? Some companies will partner you with a 3D designer who can take your idea from drawing to product. This is an additional cost, usually per hour. To get what you want with less back and forth, you should have a clear vision, some sketches, inspirational images, and materials selection. As a cost conscious entrepreneur, I refine my 3D models by asking friends who have experience with 3D printers to look over my 3D models before I go to print.
The Two Main Types of 3D Printers
If you partner with a 3D printing company, it’s good to know some of the lingo and what to expect in the final product. There are two main types of printers that are commonly used: extrusion and stereolithographic. Each type yields different results and works with specific materials. From my experience, stereolithographic 3D printers gives a smoother, more refined finish, but takes a lot longer to complete a project. Your material selection can range from plastics, plaster, clay, metal alloys, rubber, and edibles to name a few.
As an alternative or supplement to working with 3D printing companies, you can also join a design cooperative in your area. These cooperatives allow you to rent time on different printers and take classes on how to use them. When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, I was a member of the Columbus Idea Foundry. It is a great design cooperative that has hundreds of designers and entrepreneurs teaching classes, members offering design services, and different design tools like 3D printers that members could rent to work on projects.
3D Printing Communities
For more information on 3D printing, there are online communities that offer great support. Sketchfab has downloadable 3D files that members have uploaded. You can share projects in a portfolio format, and ask questions on the member forum. Thingiverse is a MakerBot online community. In addition to downloadable 3D models, Thingiverse hosts “challenges” or competitions sponsored by companies.
Need help with your 3D Printing project? Comment with your questions below!