At the end of last year my company, Thought Ensemble, decided to give each employee a technology bonus and encouraged us to use it to research an emerging technology of our choosing. Some folks decided to go the VR route, and some chose home automation, while others considered Alexa or one of her friends. I was having a hard time picking something since there is so much cool and exciting stuff out there, so I left it up to you, the citizens of the interwebs, to discuss and decide. After about a week of comments, a clear winner emerged – I would soon be the proud owner of my very own 3D printer.

I was genuinely excited. My mind started racing through all of the articles and History channel specials I had come across which mentioned 3D printing. Would I build rocket engine parts like SpaceX? An entire house like the company in China? Or maybe just start small and print out some hamburgers? The possibilities were seemingly endless and I was positive it would change my life.

Obtaining & Unboxing

Now that I knew what I was going to get, I had to go about getting it. My natural impulse was to go to Amazon; after all, any place where you can get Unicorn meat and uranium in the same trip should also have some 3D printers in stock. Once again, Amazon met expectations, but they had so many different kinds of printers that my challenge was going to be picking which one to buy. Fortunately, my budget and level of expertise narrowed the field down quite a bit, as did my desire to do as little assembly as possible. I compared the small selection I was left with to the review pages of various 3D printing websites and settled on the XYZprinting da Vinci Jr. 1.0 3D Printer. In the world of 3D printing, asking people which printer is the best is a lot like asking a new parent “who has the cutest baby?”; however, it seemed to be the general consensus that the da Vinci was a good place for a beginner to start.

When the printer arrived, the first thing which struck me was its size: for being able to print out something only a little bit larger than a can of Coke, this thing was about the size of an old-school 32-inch CRT television. This made finding a home for it a little more challenging than I had expected, but I didn’t think the dining room table would mind a new companion, at least for a little while. Once I found a place to put it, unboxing it was fairly straight forward; there were a couple pages of setup instructions, a few tools for cleaning the extrusion nozzle, a flash drive to print from, as well as a USB cable. After I removed the accessories, there were a few pieces of support and packing materials I had to remove from the inside, but again, this was straight forward. After the material was removed, I was able to put the filament wheel (the 3D printer “ink”) in the printer and feed the line through the feed tube and into the extruder module. All told, about 10 minutes and a mound of Styrofoam later, the printer was ready to go.

1st Print

With my nice shiny new 3D printer unboxed and ready to go, I went about the task of selecting my first item to print. The printer uses custom software to output print designs into a .3w file (this is a custom file type created by XYZware). The printer can access these files 1 of 2 ways; either you can insert an SD card, and select the file from there, or you can connect a computer to the printer and print directly to the machine. Wanting to see just what the machine could do, I chose the first method and popped in the SD card that came with the printer. The good folks at XYZ were kind enough to include a demo print on the memory card, so I selected that and pressed print. Immediately the machine sprang to life.

Anxious as I was, I sat and watched the whole print process from start to end. But about 2 minutes in the print head caught on the material it had laid down and began to drag it all over the print bed while continuing to lay down new material. Very quickly I found myself with a thin plastic wafer cover and a small serving of plastic spaghetti. Apparently “ready to go out of the box” is too much to ask for and I needed to manually adjust the distance between the print head and the print bed, also known as the z-axis. So, mark that as one major difference between a 2D and 3D printer – in 3D printing there are no “minor” errors.

Once I set the print head to the right distance from the print bed I had another go, but yet again, shortly after starting I found myself with a small ball of plastic yarn. This time the print material failed to stick to the print bed surface. So how do I fix this? Like you fix anything worth fixing of course: tape and glue! Apparently, it is a common technique to apply tape to the print surface and then a layer of glue stick glue on top of that to make sure the object doesn’t shift around during the printing process. Sure enough, after I calibrated the print head, applied the tape, and smeared some glue on, the third print worked like a charm; a heart charm in fact!

Complex Print Job

Fresh off of breaking in my new printer, I wanted to up the difficulty level a bit. Having played with the 3D designer that came with Windows 10 and seeing how difficult that was to use, I knew building my own model was out of the question…for now. Still, I knew that I really wanted to test the machine. I wanted to print something much larger, maybe with multiple base points, a higher level of detail, and a twinge of nostalgia. Where would I get such an object?

One of the true miracles of the internet age is the level of collaboration and crowdsourcing the Internet allows. Humans are amazing creatures, and when provided with an outlet, will quite frequently give away their creations for free because they simply enjoy the process of creating. So is the case with music and videos on YouTube, and so is the case on a site called Thingiverse for 3D objects. So, it is there I went to search for my next object to print and it was there that I found it: a Humvee!

Well, if one small object with a single flat base had difficulty sticking to the pad, then it goes without saying that four tiny round objects would be VERY difficult. After two false starts (caused by one of the tiny wheel pieces coming loose and being dragged around the print bed, in turn knocking the other wheel pieces loose), what I ended up having to do was babysit the print for about an hour and, with surgical precision, apply dabs of Elmer’s glue at the base of each wheel after every few print passes. Not exactly ease of use. After a while though, the wheels were solid enough that I could step away. And step away I did…until the next day…and then I went to sleep…and then I had breakfast…and lunch. It took 36 hours to print out this soda-can-sized toy. I knew it was going to be slow, but this really surprised me.  However, despite the day and a half print time, the end product was pretty cool…although it wasn’t without its flaws. The tail gate failed to print correctly and experienced what I’ve dubbed “spaghettification” and the sling hooks in the hood, as well as some other finer details like the antenna, failed to print, but overall it did a pretty good job I thought…and it is really cool to watch it build layer by layer.

My Next Steps & Initial Impressions

So, after a cute little heart pendant balanced out by a dose of hardcore Humvee “hooah,” what do I think about the future of 3D printing? Well, for me, Joe Consumer, not a lot unfortunately. Despite the hype in the media, the current state of consumer 3D printing really limits its use to serious hobbyists for several reasons. First and foremost, the actual objects you’re able to print are limited to the few things available on sites like Thingiverse and what you’re skilled enough to design yourself (which is its own skillset). So, unless I become a skilled designer, I’m not going to be making that discontinued shelving mount I need to replace. Secondly, the items you can print are limited by the fact that they can only have one material or one color at a time…which really limits what you can print to either, parts for a larger object, or tiny trinkets, so I won’t be printing out replacement Xbox controllers anytime soon. Finally, it is excruciatingly slow. It is completely impractical to wait 36 hours for a soda-can-sized Humvee to print out. If it took 36 hours to print a PowerPoint deck, nobody would buy a printer for their home office. But since I already have one, I think I’m going to start brushing up on this 3D design software and see if I can’t make these drawer mounts that keep breaking in my kitchen…even then though, I don’t anticipate 3D printing changing my life anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments or 3D printing advice below! Let me know what you think about my experience, how it compares to yours, or if you have a different take on this nascent technology!