Lessons Learned From My First 3 Months of 3D Printing

Over the last few years my wife and I have been trying to move away from getting our kids a lot of little things for their birthdays and Christmas. We feel like, while they may be temporarily interested in a toy set or collection, it’s never lasting as their interests are always changing. This year we set out to try and come up with something that would encourage creativity and learning while still bringing the level of excitement and fun we love to see in our kids. We landed on a 3D printer and for the last several months I have been learning a lot about the technology, the products, and the process.

How To Pick A 3D Printer

I started out with questions like:

  • What price range should I expect?

This is not an easy question to answer. 3d printing technology has advanced a lot in the last 5ish years and as a result we have a broad market for personal, professional, and even industrial use.

  • What features are important for us?

I narrowed our personal needs/wants down to:

  • The quality should be good but it doesn’t need to be micro-detailed or perfect.
  • We may want to print some bigger pieces (e.g. helmets, swords, armor) so build plate size is important.
  • I don’t want to have to mess with it for a week or two before we can start printing — want to keep the excitement level up.
  • I don’t want something I need to do a lot of maintenance on.
  • What brands are currently leading, most reliable, and best supported?

For people just stepping into the world of 3d printing “Creality” tends to come up the most — specifically their Ender line. There are specific brands for kid-focused printing like Toybox but I found them to be more expensive and more limiting in terms of what they can do. To put it another way, I’d rather spend $300-$500 on a printer that will take me a while to outgrow than one that will start with limitations from day 1.

Note: I found all3dp.com to be a pretty reliable resource, see their beginner’s buying guide here.

  • What will get me printing quickly without a ton of building and tweaking?

Most reviews, actual owners, and 3d printing sites will tell you that the Ender line comes “ready to go” and, for the most part, I agree.

Which Ender should I buy?

After comparing options against our needs and goals I ended on the Creality Ender 5 Plus. There are some concerns around layering issues and print detail/quality but I’ve been more than happy with my choice so far. It’s my understanding (and experience) that once you get into more complex prints, you’ll need to start developing an understanding for advanced slicer settings anyway (will get to this).

Upgrades Needed?

While there are a lot of upgrades that could be helpful or useful to high-volume printers, I haven’t actually needed any of them yet. I have this printer set up in my office and running most days. While I can hear the white noise it puts off, it’s never been a problem during calls. I have been fairly successful in leveling my bed with test prints like this one and the knobs under the build plate. Honestly, I can usually see if it’s leveled when the printer does the default outer ring of a print and that gives me a chance to quickly tweak it or stop the print before it wastes any filament. On that note, let’s talk filament.

What You Should Know About 3D Printer Filament

First of all, there are several different types of filament and diameters they come in. Each type has different properties when it comes to strength and flexibility and that impacts what temperatures you will need to print at AND whether or not you actually need to modify your printer.

So far I’ve stuck with PLA but I encourage you to research the type of filament that makes the most sense for your specific project. We’ve printed a lot of toys, novelty items, and some desk/home organization things. I would say PLA isn’t great for anything you intend to actively use. It’s very lightweight so for prints like the Lift Pod, I’ve had some issues getting it to hold desk lighting or anything else I attach. For prints like the Sword of Darkness, I’d had a lot of trouble with pieces holding the weight when my kids are swinging it around.

For simple items that aren’t heavily used, moving parts, etc. I think PLA is the most cost-effective filament and that probably makes it the best material to learn on. Simple prints like this pen holder are easy to run, last quite a while, and can bring a surprising bit of satisfaction to your day.

You can spend a lot of time optimizing shell thickness, infill, etc. but I intend to start trying some different materials like TPU and PTEG.

Check out this guide to :allthefilaments: for a good starting point.

What’s next?

We just moved and I haven’t had a chance to get the printer up and running yet. I think I’m going to use that opportunity to get a direct drive and all metal hot end installed to make printing with some of the different materials I mentioned easier.

This was a gift for my kids so I imagine most of what we’re printing will continue to be toys, costumes, and fun things and based on the experience so far I think I need to move towards more flexible materials.