3D Printing FAQ

3D Printing & Imaging Workshop

Q: What is “open source”, and why should I care?

A: The manufacturer of an open source 3D Printer provides the design files for their machine online, so you can download them and use them to modify your machine. Want to 3D Print a spool holder that will fit perfectly on your Type A Series 1? No problem — download the design files from Thingiverse and draw up your part to fit just right in your favorite CAD program.

Q: Where can I find a 3D file (an .stl) to print on my machine?

A: You can do one of two things:

  1. Find a file online from a website like Thingiverse or GrabCAD.
  2. Create a 3D file yourself with a CAD program. You can do it for free with programs like SketchupTinkerCAD, or 123D Design.

Q: Once I have an .stl file, how do I prepare it for printing?

A: First, you need to slice the part into layers by using one of a few free types of slicing software. If you have a MakerBot, use MakerBot’s own software, MakerWare. If you own an Afinia H-Series, you don’t need separate slicing software, since the Afinia software does everything for you. For the other printers, I’d recommend using Slic3r (see Maker Shed Product Development Engineer’s tutorial, Getting Started with Slic3r). Now that you’ve sliced your part and have .gcode, you’re ready to print! For all the printers we sell (other than the MakerBots and Afinia), I’d recommend using either Printrun or Repeteir-Host. Both will allow you to connect to your 3D Printer via USB to heat up the extruder, do a test extrusion, and start a print. They also have Slic3r built in, so you can do everything right from there if you want to. I find it easier to use Slic3r separately, but that’s up to you.

Q: What’s the point of having two extruders?

A: For doing two things:

  1. Printing with two different colors of plastic. You can get great-looking results with this technique, like this globe.
  2. Have one nozzle printing support material (like PVA) while the other prints PLA or ABS. With this technique, you can print any object, no matter how large the overhangs are. Although slicing software like Slic3r is capable of generating support material that will be printed in ABS or PLA, it requires cleanup at the end of the print. The great thing about PVA is that it’s water soluble, which means you can throw your part into a warm water bath once it’s done to dissolve the support away.


PLA: Biodegradable, corn-based plastic. Prints at ~180 *C, and doesn’t warp, so you can print big things without a heated bed.

  • PLA will “ooze” more than ABS will — if the nozzle is hot and there’s plastic loaded, it will drip.
  • For all printers, the nozzle should be about ~0.2mm away from the bed (about the thickness of a sheet of paper).
  • Because of its low melting temperature, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to leave a PLA part in your car on a hot summer day, because it will warp!
  • Available in 1.75mm and 3mm.

ABS: Not biodegradable, but stronger than PLA (same material Lego bricks are made out of). Prints at ~220 *C, and will warp, so a heated bed is needed.

  • If the user is getting warping problems, either the bed isn’t hot enough, or the Z-axis isn’t calibrated properly.
  • The bed should be at least 80 *C, depending on the printer.
  • For all printers, the nozzle should be about ~0.2mm away from the bed (about the thickness of a sheet of paper).
  • More durable than PLA
  • Available in 1.75mm and 3mm.
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Eric is a Mechanical Engineer with interests in machining, mass manufacturing, product design and kinetic art. While not building things, he enjoys skiing, cycling, and juggling.

View more articles by Eric Weinhoffer


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