5 Steps to Start 3D Printing and Inventing on a Budget

by Jason King on January 13, 2016

5 Steps to InventingHere’s the scenario. You’ve recently heard about 3D printing and the amazing stuff it can do.

You decide you really need to become involved in this technology as it’s potential is so exciting you’d be mad not to be a part of it, right?

After a mad rush checking out some 3D printers you realise that they’re a little expensive and even if you had the cash right now, can you really justify spending it on something you know very little about?

At this point you might consider not bothering and to let your initial excitement about 3D printing pass you by and to put it off until ‘later’. I’ve just described my own situation 4 years ago, when I first heard about 3D printing, after someone mentioned you could 3D print your own designs in Chocolate.

What I did though is hold off from buying a 3D printer (for the same reasons as above), but I didn’t let this defeat me. I started this website almost immediately, so I could write about and learn more about 3D printing, then went from there.

I’m not suggesting that you start a website, but I am suggesting you consider following a similar path to what I’m about to describe.

Incidentally this is very similar to the path I followed myself, but it’s tweaked a little based on what I’ve learned in the last few years and the right and wrong decisions I made along the way.

Step 1: Start Designing Today

3D DesigningOne of the most common reasons people want to become involved in 3D printing at home is because they want to invent their own products.

To be honest, this is much simpler when you have access to a 3D printer and with the ‘making’ part now being so easy, the hardest part is thinking of good ideas (I’ll talk more on ideas later).

This is why, the first thing you should do when you become interested in 3D printing is to start designing your own stuff. Some of the most popular design packages are free, which overcomes the old ‘cost’ excuse. Designing your own stuff is great fun and will also keep your enthusiasm alive, making you want (and be able to justify purchasing) a 3D printer even more.

Let’s quickly give you some examples of the free design software you could use. When I started designing 3D models, in the days before I even had a 3D printer, I used Tinkercad.

Tinkercad is a free web browser based ‘drag and drop’ design tool. It’s now owned by Autodesk and has some great tutorials which will have you up and running designing your own simple objects in a few hours.

The reason I don’t use it much any more is that although it’s great for beginners, it lacks the power, resolution, flexibility and customisation that you’ll need when you advance to more complex designs.

For these sort of features and qualities I now use OpenSCAD almost exclusively. OpenSCAD is a programming based parametric precision design tool. Don’t be put off by those words, they’re all good.

‘Parametric’ for example means that you can create your designs such that you change a few numbers (parameters) and the design will change to fit new requirements. I recently designed some rings (the jewellery type) which had my name on. I used 6 segments, one for each letter of my name ‘Jason’ plus one blank segment.

To redesign this ring for someone called ‘Patricia’ for example, I literally just have to change the letters and the number of segments from 6 to 9 and the ring design rerendered itself and was now customised for someone else in seconds. Good luck doing that in Tinkercad or any other ‘drag and drop’ design tool.

If you’re interested in OpenSCAD, you can download it for free and then save yourself a whole load of time with this Introduction to 3D Modeling with OpenSCAD online Udemy course. I completed this course myself a couple of weeks ago and if you click the link you’ll see my thoughts on it and my certificate of completion.

Once you’ve learned the basics of designing your own objects I suggest you turn your mind to How to Design Specifically for 3D Printing. This is a recent blog post I wrote a few weeks ago, which explains all the things you’ll need to consider when you start 3D printing your designs. Have a look because I promise, you’ll never have dreamed of some of these crazy issues.

Before we leave this section, I also wrote (yes, I write a lot about OpenSCAD) this post, which shows you in detail how to Create a Customised Keyring in OpenSCAD and have it made for you for under $10. I even include the complete source code which you just need to paste into OpenSCAD and update with your own name. A little like the rings I described above.

Step 2: Learn More About 3D Printing

Learn 3D PrintingI’m a big believer in starting something before you’re ready.

The main reason is that if you wait for the right time, you’ll probably be waiting for ever as in reality the right time rarely arrives.

You shouldn’t get caught up in paralysis by analysis either, which is basically waiting until you have lots of knowledge and skills before you even start.

When you have just enough information to get started then start immediately.

Don’t wait for that elusive ‘right time’ or use the excuse that there’s more to learn, because there’s always more to learn. Ok, so if you’re a surgeon then maybe you shouldn’t be practicing until you’re fully trained but for most things in life, just start as soon as possible and learn by trial and error.

Why is this important? Well you may have noticed that I told you to start designing stuff back in step 1, even before you start learning about 3D printing. I just needed you to get started, that’s what’s important. Then, once you’re up and running you can start learning as you go.

Sorry for all the buzz phrases right now but this is called ‘just in time learning’ and I’m a big fan of it. Learn what you need to, when you need to. So, now you’ve decided not to wait for ever before you take action, then you can start to learn more.

What are my main sources of 3D printing information? Believe it or not, I don’t use websites much myself. I spend enough time working on my own, so I personally prefer podcasts and the main one I listen to is called 3D Printing Today. I reviewed it a while ago along with another podcast, which I don’t believe is running any more.

I also like reading good old fashioned books, but maybe I’m just showing my age. One of my favourites (I reviewed this too Here) is called 3D Printing – by Christopher Barnatt. It’s now up to the second edition but you guessed it, I also bought, read and reviewed the first edition too.

Finally, the obvious source of information you can use is my Beginner Series section of this website. I was just about to say that I cannot use this as I wrote it all myself, but that’s not strictly true. I learn more from the doing the stuff I write about than from reading or listening. Again, just getting on with it and learning by your mistakes is a good way to learn sometimes.

You do have an advantage though because you can learn from my mistakes, saving you a lot of time, plastic and embarrassment 🙂

Step 3: Buy a 3D Printer

Purchase a 3D PrinterBefore you rush out and buy a 3D printer, there are other options you could start with.

Remember my Custom Keyring for Under $10 article I mentioned above? Well, in that article I explain how to outsource your 3D printing.

This is a great way to start, especially if you have a few designs of your own which you’d like to have made before you commit yourself to buying a 3D printer.

Take a look at Shapeways (who I’ve used myself and written about a lot) and Sculpteo who are a good alternative.

Now, when you decide to buy a 3D printer you don’t need to spend a fortune. Printrbot make some great low cost 3D printers which are becoming very popular. They also provide the option of buying the kit version of many of their printers which as well as keeping costs down, also allows you to learn exactly how your 3D printer works.

This is quite important as at some point you will have to troubleshoot issues and carry out your own repairs, so you don’t want to be scared of it. This is all part of the fun and I find that if ever my 3D printer is out of action, I just concentrate more on designing 3D objects and writing for my website, until it’s up and running again.

My 3D printer was out of action a few times in the early days, probably because I didn’t know what I was doing, but you can Read All About My MakerBot Experiences from the day I ordered it right up to the present day.

Yes, I have a MakerBot Replicator 2, which I’m sure they don’t make any more but you can still buy them on Amazon and a few other places. The MakerBot range is more expensive than the Printrbots, so maybe my next 3D printer will be a Printrbot. I also hear great things about the Ultimaker 2, but I’ve never used one of these myself.

I really should write an article dedicated to buying your first 3D printer, because it’s a question I am asked quite often but it’s tricky to answer without knowing peoples specific requirements and budget. It’s beyond the scope of this article, but I will write it one day I promise.

When you do commit to buying your own printer, whatever model it is, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. For arguments sake I’ll have to assume you have a 3D printer for the rest of this article, but don’t worry if you don’t because the intention here is to explain the next steps to take and to prepare you for when you finally take delivery of one.

Step 4: Download, Design, Print, Invent

Lighbulb InventWhen you unbox and setup your own 3D printer, this is where the fun really begins.

The first few items I ever 3D printed were some small STL files that were already loaded to the MakerBot SD card.

Trust me, the first time you ever see a 3D printer in action you’ll be mesmerized and you’ll probably stay up all night, just to watch it.

You’ll soon want to expand your horizons though and start printing some bigger, more complex stuff.

Of course you may already have some items you designed yourself. It’s at this point that you’ll be glad you had that head start with OpenSCAD because to see your own designs being 3D printed takes the mesmerization (I think that’s a real word) to a whole new level.

Your next stop should be Thingiverse where you can find some real cool stuff that other people have already designed. The last time I checked there were well over 100,000 things on there but no doubt it’s far more than that now. Start by choosing the popular stuff that people have already 3D printed, as some people design and upload stuff that’s not even 3D printable.

Of course, now is the time to take your own design skills to the next level and perfect your OpenSCAD skills, or whatever tool you choose. The beauty of owning a 3D printer is that you can truly prototype and perfect your designs. Design it, print it, tweak it and re-print. Keep going around this loop until you have a product which is exactly as you envisioned it.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, now you have the skills, technology and no doubt the enthusiasm to design and make your own products, the tricky bit is coming up with new and novel ideas.

For me, I decided to buy a book on the subject after hearing an interview with the author. The book’s called One Simple Idea and is all about designing and licensing your own products. This is a great concept, as after you’ve designed and prototyped it you can hand over the mass production and marketing to one of the big companies and earn passive income from their sales.

Whatever your approach to production and marketing, this book has loads of tips on how to think up great ideas. It’s not as difficult as you think and the best ideas are often just improvements on existing ideas. Why completely reinvent the wheel?

When you’ve designed and 3D printed some cool stuff, why not give something back to the 3D printing community and upload your own designs to Thingiverse. I’ve started to do that with a few of My Simple Designs. If you’re feeling generous you can upload your OpenSCAD source code too, so others can tweak and improve your designs.

Of course you lose ownership of the designs by doing this, so I wouldn’t recommend it with anything which you intend to earn money from at some point. It is a cool thing to do for some of your less important designs though and some people become quite famous in the 3D printing world, just for the amazing designs they upload to Thingiverse. Emmett is a name that springs to mind for me. Check out some of his stuff, it’s pretty cool.

Step 5: Make Some Money

Road to ProfitIf you decide that 3D printing has cost you enough money and it’s time to make it pay for itself, here’s a few ideas you can use to monetize your new hobby.

Of course you could start your own website like I did, but to be honest this is a very long term plan and is unlikely to bring you fame and fortune any time soon.

It is fun though, but a lot of work too.

A good place to start earning a few pennies is with friends and family. People always want customised keyrings for example and although up to now I’ve always given them away, I’ve designed and 3D printed lots of these and I know people would be willing to pay for them.

Another thing I’ve been doing recently is designing and prototyping Bespoke Jewellery. Once I’m happy with it (after a few prototypes on my 3D printer) I then have it made in silver or gold by Shapeways in the US.

So far I’ve been using this little process for birthday presents, but other people have also asked me to make custom jewellery for them and are happy to pay for it.

Speaking of Shapeways, something I haven’t tried myself yet but I’m planning to very soon is to open a Shapeways Shop. You basically upload your designs, just as you would when you want something 3D printed, but you allow others to have your designs 3D printed and sent to them too.

You set the price, Shapeways deal with the manufacturing, delivery and customer services, while you earn commission based on the price you set for the items. Sounds simple enough and no doubt I’ll write all about it when I do it myself.

Hopefully there’s a few ideas here to help you make a little money from 3D printing, or at least to inspire your own ideas. For more information I wrote this article about How to Profit From 3D Printing a while ago and you may find this interesting too.

I hope this blog post has given you some pointers, inspiration and confidence to help you take the plunge and become involved in the amazing world of 3D printing.

Feel free to Like and Share this post if you found it interesting and if you want to learn more about 3D printing then Download Our FREE Beginners Guide to 3D Printing at Home eBook so you can start today!

Thanks for reading.

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