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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Not all models translate into printable objects depending on the printer you're using. In some cases, the printer struggled to configure some object, and ultimately failed to reproduce the CAD drawings.

For example, one of the more intricate models I attempted to create was the Starship Enterprise (the one Captain Kirk commanded in the 1960s TV show). When I first downloaded the CAD file, the model was about 14 in. high. The printer's software told me it would take about 20 hours to build.

Failed print job
An attempt to print a model of the Starship Enterprise failed miserably.

I scaled the Enterprise model down, first to 80% of the original and finally to 60%, in order to speed up the process and use less material. The software told me the smaller model would only take two hours and 40 minutes to build. Unfortunately, the design didn't translate to a smaller size, and the print job wound up being a tangled mess of threads with no real form.

I had more success with a model of the Empire State Building. The model had 806 layers and took two hours and 13 minutes to build. I liked it so much, I built two of them.

I also built two copies of the Eiffel Tower -- a process that taught me that sometimes objects print OK, but removing the required scaffolding ultimately ruins them. When I attempted to cut the scaffolding away, the more fragile parts of the structure snapped off with both the models I printed.

My favorite objects to print were Lego-style building pieces. I decided to build a car, and started printing wheels, axles and part of a car body. But unfortunately, the perf board had filled with polymer and so the edges of the plastic models curled up -- effectively ruining the last of my Lego-style print jobs.

Models of the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building
Models of the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building. The Empire State Building came out the best of all because it was the simplest and required little scaffolding. The spire and pieces of the truss frames are missing on the Eiffel Tower; they broke away when I tried to remove scaffolding material.

Overall, learning to use a 3D printer was challenging. There may be some who intuitively understand how to manipulate objects using the software, but as a neophyte to the technology, I was not one of them.

Bottom line: Look before you buy

While the Alfinia H-Series 3D printer lists for about $1,600, there are less expensive printers on the way. For example, MakerBot's upcoming entry-level Replicator Mini will retail for $1,375, and 3D Systems' entry-level Cube personal printer starts at about $1,300.

Even better, there are interesting-looking printers soon to be released that will cost $500 or less. One of the more promising ones in the offing was announced in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: XYZprinting's da Vinci printer. Due out later this year, it looks like a high-quality product, with an enclosed printing area and LCD touchscreen displays. The entry-level da Vinci 1.0 model will retail for just $499.

What I took away from learning to use a 3D printer is that the model you buy does matter. Read reviews, check specifications and ask how intuitive a machine is to use.

Whether you're an engineer in a startup, an entrepreneur looking to develop your own products or just someone who loves to make stuff for your home, 3D printers are a blast. And the more time you spend with them, the better you get at building intricate objects -- even stuff you can really use.

This article, Hands on: Trying a 3D printer -- a beginner's tale, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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