Ever wondered how 3D printing works? We’re starting a new series #AskAnExpert, and each time we’ll have an expert answering your questions. First up is our Engineering Lead, Jake McIvor, who answers the community’s questions about 3D printing!

Prusa Printer on a wooden table

What is a low cost and good quality 3D printer to get started?

This is a challenging question, as choice of printer will depend on a variety of factors beyond just price and quality. One of the important factors to consider is your willingness to troubleshoot and tinker. All 3D printers require maintenance and setup, but it may make more sense to spend a little more for reliability  and ease of use.

We have used a variety of printers on our team, but our everyday printers are the Prusa i3MK3S and the Ender 3 Creality Pro. The Prusa is a more expensive printer, but have been very reliable and have a number of user-friendly features (automated levelling, easy z-offset adjustment, removable build plate). The Ender 3 Creality Pro can produce great prints, but often takes a little more fine-tuning. One of our team has been successfully using the Prusa Mini, which is more affordable but still has many of the user-friendly feature of the i3Mk3.

We have a 3D printer that prints using filament. I leveled it, loaded the filament, but it doesn’t even print the sample design that is pre-loaded correctly. It comes out a mess. I’m a total newbie to this — where do I start with troubleshooting this issue?

Starting out with 3D printing can be a frustrating process. There is plenty to learn, and while there are lots of resources out there, some of them may be outdated or not relevant.

A good starting place is the user manual for your particular printer. While a lot of printers are designed to use similar techniques, there are differences. Some printer manufacturers also offer good technical support.

One of the main challenges for any printer is getting a good first layer. The nozzle must be the correct distance from the bed (i.e., z-offset height), this distance should be consistent across the build surface (i.e., bed levelling or tramming), and the filament needs to stick to the build surface (i.e., build surface cleaning and preparation.)  We’ve included a few good resources below. It’s definitely worth using a specific test print code to fine tune your first layer and referencing photos that show if your nozzle is too far or too close.


Billie Reuben’s Bed Leveling Poster: https://i.imgur.com/hIcGr8U.png

Teaching Tech First Layer Calibration: https://teachingtechyt.github.io/calibration.html#firstlayer

What does a 3D printer use for material (ink)?

Nearly all consumer-grade FFF 3D printers use rolls of thermoplastic filament as the stock material to create objects. The plastic filament is heated up and pushed through a nozzle to make a thin stream of molten plastic. As the plastic cools, it hardens.

There are a variety of suitable thermoplastics, (e.g., PLA (Polylactic acid), PETg ( Polyethylene terephthalate glycol) that have different use cases and properties. Typically these filaments also have other materials added to them to change the properties, such as pigments to make it a different color, or other additives that change the surface appearance or strength.

There are also a variety of different 3D printing technologies that use different stock materials, such as resin, clay, metal, cement, and even chocolate.

Which filament material should I choose?

The choice of filament material depends on a variety of factors, including the printer, the part, and the environment in which the part will be used. We often choose PLA or PETg as these are commonly available, cost effective, and printable on the majority of FFF 3D printers.

What is a slicer software?

Slicer software is used to convert the geometry of the digital model into instructions that the 3D printer can understand (e.g., G-Code). It is called a slicer because it literally slices the models up into thin slices, and then figures out the pattern to draw to build up the object slice-by-slice.

Got a suggestion for a future #AskAnExpert series? Send us your idea at [email protected].