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.

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The plastic filament is 1.75 millimeters wide and comes in 15 colors (my test system came with white). A single 2.2-lb. spool costs about $32 and will typically print dozens of objects. The exact number it will print depends, of course, on the size of the objects.

All printers include a base plate to which the heated, extruded plastic adheres. Some, like the one I used, have heated platforms, which keeps the plastic warm during the printing process, ensuring that the plastic doesn't warp or roll up at the edges, as can happen if it cools unevenly.

Many 3D printers use a "perf" or perforated board that is attached to the printer platform with clips before beginning a job. The many tiny holes in a perf board allow the thermoplastic to adhere firmly to the platform during printing. Once a print job is completed, the perf board, with the finished model on it, can be easily removed from the printer; the model can then be separated from the perf board.

Afinia supplies three perf boards with its printer. The boards only last so long, as the holes eventually fill with excess polymer. Afinia sells perf boards for $24 each. But you can find them significantly cheaper at retail outlets such as Newegg.com.

Software and setup

The initial unboxing and setup took me less than 20 minutes. The printer ships mostly assembled. You need only remove a few clips that hold the robotic mechanisms in place, attach the spool of polymer filament, and you're ready to begin learning how to 3D print.

One resource that I loved with this particular printer was the video instructions that came along with the operating system on the provided DVD. An instruction booklet is one thing, but having a video explaining the process of calibrating the printer and loading a CAD image makes it idiot proof. There are four instructional videos, which go from setup to printing.

The Afinia 3D printer comes with an array of tools to help you cut and pry away the scaffolding material that is used to hold an object in place.

The printer attaches to your computer via a USB cable. The software for running the machine comes on a supplied DVD, or it can be downloaded from the company's website. The software, which works with Windows and Macs, consists of a 3D printing application that allows you to position a computer-aided design (CAD) object inside a virtual box for printing.

Afinia's 3D software is similar to the open-source Slic3r software used by much of the industry to convert a CAD model into printing instructions for a 3D printer. Both applications take the CAD object and slice it into many (in some cases hundreds of) layers, which then become instructions for your printer.

3D printer-ready objects are stored as STL files). STL is a format created by 3D Systems and native to CAD software. It renders surfaces in the CAD design as a mesh of triangles; the number and size of the triangles determine how accurately curved surfaces are printed.

After loading the system software onto my laptop and launching the application, I had to calibrate the printer by printing out a preloaded pattern and measuring it to ensure the printer head and table were correctly positioned.

Making my first 3D objects

I'm not an engineer or graphic designer, so I had no idea how to create a CAD model, but there's really no need to learn. There are plenty of free STL files that can be downloaded from sites such as MakerBot's Thingiverse. These sites have thousands of model designs, including toys like Lego-style building pieces and handy objects such as bottle openers.

This Pteranondon has 30 parts and took three multi-piece print jobs to complete.

Depending on the complexity (the number of layers) of the CAD drawing, an STL file can take a few seconds or several minutes to load onto the printer. For example, a complex, multi-geared model called a brain-gear, which had 712 layers, took about 20 minutes to load. Print time: 30 hours, 4 minutes.

By comparison, an iPhone 5 cover with moving gears on the back that had only 89 layers took just 2 minutes to load; it took 4 hours and 20 minutes to print.

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