Hands on: Trying a 3D printer -- a beginner's tale

It's not as easy as it looks, but printing your own Lego toys can be quite satisfying.

Getting a 3D printer in your office is a little like putting an exotic fish tank on your desk -- just about everyone drops by to find out what it's all about.

For some, the curiosity quickly wears off once they come to understand how a 3D printer works. For others, everything you print continues to be an opportunity to marvel at a robotic mechanism that extrudes threads of hot plastic in hair-thin layers until an object emerges from the bottom up.

Over the past few months, I've had my first chance to experiment with a 3D printer -- and experienced quite a few ups and downs. I printed more than a dozen objects, from models of Porsches and the Eiffel Tower to multi-part objects that snapped together, including a cool whistle and a Pteranodon (a large, prehistoric, flying reptile).

But not everything went as I'd planned.

Afinia's H-Series 3D Printer

My test printer was the H-Series 3D Printer from Afinia, a 2009 startup on a mission to distribute 3D printers to classrooms around the country. (Although 3D Systems and MakerBot, which is owned by commercial-grade 3D printing company Stratasys, lead the market for consumer-grade 3D printers, they didn't have a review model readily available.)

finia's H-Series 3D Printer
Afinia's H-Series 3D Printer

Some 70% of Afinia's printers are sold to middle schools. It's a wonderful way to acclimate kids to the technology of the future. And 3D printing is definitely the technology of the future. It will change manufacturing by allowing product designers to make changes to prototypes on the fly and then print them out.

It will also allow consumers to create their own products and replacement parts for everything from power drills and coffeemakers to eyeglass frames. Some 3D companies such as 3D Systems even believe the technology will someday sit alongside microwaves on kitchen counters, printing out meals and desserts.

How it works

Afinia's H-Series model retails for $1,600, so it's no toy, even though it doesn't look very substantial when you pull it out of the box. It's what is called an open-framed printer -- other vendors enclose the printing area behind metal and glass, while this has an L-shaped frame with the printer head on the upper back and a printer platform on the lower bed. The printer measures 9.64 x 10.23 x 13.78 in. and weighs about 11 lb.

The Afinia printer uses fused deposition modeling (FSM) to create objects. During printing, thermoplastic filament is extruded through a hair-thin nozzle that heats to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 Celsius). The melted plastic is laid down in a precise pattern, building an object from the bottom up, one layer at a time.

Other 3D printing technologies include selective laser sintering (SLS) and stereolithography. SLS uses lasers to melt successive layers of powdered polymers; as each layer is melted into a pattern, more powder is applied over it and melted. Stereolithography is a technology that uses lasers to harden a photocurable resin. A mechanical positioning system directs a laser onto a tray of liquid resin and traces out each layer of an object.

Consumer-grade 3D printers typically use one of two kinds of thermoplastic filament to build the final product: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is derived from sugar and tends to have a more pleasant smell than ABS, which gives off a "plastic" smell. (I didn't find the smell of ABS to be unpleasant, but then again, I like the smell of gasoline too.)

While some printers can work with both types of filament, some only work with one. Afinia's printer, for example, only uses ABS.

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A video showing the Afinia H-Series 3D Printer building a model of the Empire State Building. To see a selection of high-speed videos showing various 3D printed objects, click here.

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