3D printing--or Additive Manufacturing--is a process by which an object is constructed vertically from multiple layers by extruding a plastic filament heated at 190°C to 210°C. While there are several types of materials that can used for 3D printing, the most common type utlized is a plastic known as polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is typically the most affordable filament, with a price ranging from $20 - $30 for a 1 kilo spool and has the added advantage of not requiring ventilation while printing. Other materials that can be used for 3D printing includes but is not limited to wood, metals, and glass.
While once relegated to large scale research laboratories and commercial manufacturing, the rapid minimization of the hardware over the last few years has dramatically reduced the cost of 3D printers. With the technology more affordable and widespread, academic departments are incorporating 3D printing into their curriculua (example: MM 3305, LL X082) as part of the design thinking, innovation, and prototyping process. With the capability and power to realize a prototype and/or visualize a concept, no Makerspace is complete without this emerging technology (Learn more: Emerging Technologies, What is a Makerspace?).
The Breakerspace is equipped with two 3D printer models, an Ultimaker 2 Extended and a MonoPrice Select Mini v2. Both printers are available to all UMN students. Students are currently granted a free quota for filament each semester (Learn more: Submit a Job).
3D design software has been around for a number of years. With popular computer-aided design (CAD) programs such as AutoCAD, Fusion 360, Creo, and SolidWorks, users can create complex 3D objects to visualize a prototype. With the advent of high speed internet, free cloud based platforms such as Tinkercad and Onshape have lowered the barrier of entry for most users to be able to learn and have access to 3D modeling software.
Workstations in the Breakerspace are currently equipped with an installation of Fusion 360 as well as links to Tinkercad and Onshape. Students may utilize whatever 3D design software they have access to, so long as they are able to save their work as a STereoLithography (.STL) file.
From design to object STL files are loaded into the 3D printing program known as Cura. Cura will "slice" the object into vertical layers that can then be printed. Within Cura a user can set how much material to print (also known as infill) and adjust the size of the object, among other settings. By adjusting the amount of material, size, and detail of an object, a user can determine how long it will take to print. An object can take anywhere from a few hours to several days to print. Once sliced, Cura will save the object as a G-code (.gcode) file.
Embedded in those G-code files are thousands of lines of code that include commands that drive 3D printers. These commands correspond to the settings a user set in Cura when slicing an object and include what plot points on the printing bed to extrude at, the size of the printing bed, how much filament to extrude at each point, the speed of extrusion, and much more. G-code files are saved onto an SD card, which is then loaded into the 3D printer.