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How can I 3D print?

FAQ -- 3D Printing in the PSMS FABLAB

Students will self-direct and self-pace learning about 3D printing through exploration, discovery, and creation.  

The goal is for students to become makers not simply consumers.

To learn about 3D printing, there are a number of books in our library and numerous online resources.  To get started, I recommend that you begin with the tutorials on Tinkercad.  

There is much that can go wrong during printing, from printer malfunctions to design flaws.  Read on for tips to minimize errors during your print.

  • Make sure files are saved public, not private
  • Save files as .stl
  • Make sure they are the correct size by clicking on the width, length, and height handles (white squares) to verify the model is within assignment parameters.  Your print should not be bigger than an orange unless you have special permission.
  • Troubleshoot to make sure it will print well (as much as you are able – this is a learning process!)
  • Make sure all the parts of the model are touching at some point or else you will have separate pieces instead of a solid model.
  • Make sure the model is sitting on the work plane, not floating above it or down below it.  To check or adjust this, mouse over your model and when the resizing handles appear, you will see a black cone either above or below your item. Use that to move the entire thing up or down within the space.
  • Make sure the model is even printable.  This seems like a given, but due to the size of some models, they print better if they are thick, chunky pieces, not delicate, fine, spindly ones.
  • Change the file before you reprint a failed job for an assignment unless it was printer malfunction.  If reprinting because your model did not print as expected, DO NOT submit the exact same file – it will print exactly the same. Make the adjustments (size, dimensions, etc.) that you were unhappy with the first time around.


When designing for 3D printing, there are a few design guidelines and constraints that should be followed, as there are for any manufacturing process. One of the most important considerations during the design process involves designing with a build face in mind. All printers start building the part from the print bed, so remembering what face the part is being printed from is important. While determining optimal part orientation is slightly different on all printers, designing to optimize that orientation will minimize material usage, print time, and risk of print failure.

Reducing Print Time and Support Material

By orienting your part well, you can reduce the amount of support material needed, which can minimize material and print time. Support material can be hard to remove and creates a rough surface finish, which isn't the best if you want your part to look like a finished product. In order to remove the effects of the support material, parts need to be polished and sanded down, which may affect the tolerances of your part if it is interfacing with something else.

Part Strength

On most desktop printers, parts usually tend to break along cross-sections of the part that are parallel to the build plate. Material is laid down or cured layer by layer, and the layers don't fuse as well as they do in higher end printers, creating seams along the cross-sections of the part. This means that parts can shear easily along those planes if force is applied. If you know how and where force will be applied to your part, orient your part such that the direction of force is not along those cross-sectional planes.

Build Adhesion

On most printers, primarily FDM machines, the 3D printed parts stick to the build plate as they are printing, and a very small contact area may result in the part falling off the build plate. The side of your part has the most surface area on the same plane is usually the side you'll want to print on, although this can change depending on the features of a given printer.

3D Printing

Step 1: The Idea

First and foremost: you have to decide what you want to make. It can be anything, from a simple decoration item to a complex toy. It is best if you start with simpler projects until you get comfortable with designing more compound objects. When the team at 3D Insider first got a 3D printer, we experimented with very simple objects (such as cubes) until our abilities improved. Come up with a number of ideas, and be prepared to reject a number of them from a technical feasibility perspective. It’s also important to take action at this stage – it can be very tempting to come up with a number of ideas for the next great 3D printed invention, but never get around to designing and making anything. If you’re prone to procrastinating your work, then you might want to read this handy guide that covers the best ways to quit procrastinating – you’ll find that you get a lot more 3D printing learning and making done after reading it.

Step 2: Design the Model

Here comes the first main step; designing the actual model. After you have decided what you want to make, you should use CAD software (or non-CAD software) that can help you craft the model. Learning to use any particular design software is no easy task; and you should be well prepared for it as well as being willing to learn.

On the 3D Insider YouTube channel you’ll find some great introductory videos, showing you the ropes of common CAD software – in particular Autodesk Inventor.

Step 3: Convert it into STL

It is absolutely necessary that you convert your model into STL format after it has been completed. Most of the CAD software you’ll ever encounter comes with built-in features that allow you to export the model as STL. Nonetheless, if you’re planning to use a non-CAD design software, such as Google SkectchUp, you will need to install a plugin (Cadspan, in this case) in order to be able to tweak and convert the final design.

After you’ve converted your model into a STL format, you’re only half-way across to getting a 3D printable file.

Step 4: Slicing it

The fourth step requires you to ‘slice up’ the model into layers so the 3D printer can understand how to go about creating the object. This is the last step involving the use of computer software, after which you will get the final G-code file that the printer can recognize.

To sum it all up: You need software to design the model, convert it into STL and to slice up the model to get it ready for the 3D printer.

For the printer to be able to manage the design files, they have to be sliced – which means that it has to be transformed into the exact layer-by-layer description of the object, including the temperature, the speed and wall thickness controls. The resulting file is called a G-Code file that can be interpreted by the printer.

How A 3D Printer Works

By now you should know that a 3D printer creates objects by adding material layer by layer until the object is completed. A printer consists of a frame and features three axes:

  • X-axis (left to right movement)
  • Y-axis (front to back movement)
  • Z-axis (up and down movement)

A part called an extruder is installed on the X-axis and its function is to feed the material that is used to create an object. The lowest part of the extruder itself is called the extruder head – this is the part where the filament is melted and ‘extruded’ from a tiny hole that has a diameter of no more than a millimeter.

A part called an extruder is installed on the X-axis and its function is to feed the material that is used to create an object. The lowest part of the extruder itself is called the extruder head – this is the part where the filament is melted and ‘extruded’ from a tiny hole that has a diameter of no more than a millimeter.

Print Bed

The print bed is the area where the objects are created layer by layer by the printer. Based on the type of filament you are using, the print bed itself may be heated. You can cover a non-heated bed in painter’s tape.

As for heated print beds, it is important to keep the print bed warm during the whole layering process in order to prevent warping. Temperatures between 40 degrees to 110 degrees Celsius are maintained during the entire printing process.

There are some printers that can reach extremely hot temperatures, and extra care should be taken if there are children around. You’ll quickly learn not to touch a warmed-up print bed!


The extruder is often considered to be the component from where the plastic filament extrudes. However, this isn’t entirely true; the extruder is a part that is responsible for pulling and feeding the filament to a part called the hot end.

A depiction of the various parts of a hot endTypically, extruders are integrated within hot ends. In other cases, they may be located away from the hot end from where they push the filament to the hot end through a tube called the Bowden Cable. A printer with a dual extruder can print using two different colors and materials at the same time. This does come at an extra cost because an extra extruder and a hot end is required.

Hot End

The Hot End in a 3D printer comprises of a heater, a temperature sensor and an extrusion tip through which the filament is fed. Just as their name implies, they can get extremely hot and should never be handled directly (we mean this … don’t fiddle around with the hot end if you value your fingers!) There are holes in the nozzle that range in size: between 0.2 mm and 0.8 mm.

The smaller the nozzle of the hot end, the finer the print will be; however, the time taken to print the object will also be greater.

Plastic Filament

While the plastic filament is not a component of the printer itself, it is a consumable that is vital for its operation. Just as you couldn’t print on an inkjet without cartridges, you’ll be stuffed without your 3D printer filament. There a quite a few types of filaments available for use by 3D printers. The choice is generally limited to two major types when it comes to home 3D printers: ABS and PLA.

Maintenance Guidelines

A 3D printer that is well-cared for will give you years of flawless service while functioning optimally and delivering better quality prints. The following guidelines will help you keep your precious printer in the best condition possible.

Oil the Rods

The X, Y and Z axes provide movement paths for the extruder head. It is essential that the movement is smooth and unrestricted for the finished product to be created as accurately as possible. This is why you should periodically oil your X, Y and Z rods after cleaning up any residue that you may find on them. In most cases, once a month would suffice.

Tighten the Nuts and Bolts

The mechanism of a 3D printer is designed to move, and this movement can cause the nuts and bolts to become loose overtime. If they get too loose, your printer will start to shake when being used and this will reduce the accuracy considerably. Again, tighten all the nuts and bolts on a monthly basis. Just remember not to over tighten them!

Test and Adjust Belt Tension

There’s no harm in testing the belt tension to ensure it is correct. Any deviation from the correct tension will lead to a decrease in print quality. Adjust the tension as required. You can refer to your printer’s manual for detailed guidance on tightening belt tension.

Floss the Extruder Gear

With time, some small pieces of plastic may accumulate in the extruder gear and prevent smooth rotation of the gear. Take a pointy object (such as a toothpick) to remove such bits and bobs from the gear’s teeth.

Update Your Firmware

Maintenance isn’t just limited to the hardware portion of your printer, it also involves the firmware. Keep checking for any available updates for your extruder. Firmware of 3D printers has improved drastically over the past few years, and it will continue to do so.

Keep Your Software Updated

The software that you use to control the printer must also be updated whenever one is available. A lot of bugs and errors may have been removed in the newer versions.

Replace Build Surfaces If Necessary

In order to create perfect, flat builds, you need to make sure that you replace your build surfaces if they become warped.

Things You Must Never Do With Your 3D Printer

Don’t Rush
You will definitely be really excited when you have your 3D printer delivered. DON’T RUSH to start using it as quickly as possible. You may mess up something while doing so. The best way is to start off slowly, read the enclosed documentation and proceed one step at a time.

Don’t Forget The Hot Nozzle
The nozzle of the extruder has to be hot in order to melt the plastic filament. The temperatures can exceed 150 degrees Celsius. If during printing, you have to re-adjust the bed height, don’t forget that the nozzle would be hot – you don’t want a small indentation in the printer bed!

Don’t Presume That It’s Calibrated Correctly
While it is true that printers now come pre-calibrated, things can shift during transportation. Make sure you check the following to ensure everything is as it should be:

  • Clearance of Nozzle from Print Bed
  • Printer Correctly Configured in Software
  • Print Bed Dimensions Properly Loaded in the Software

Remember: measure twice, cut once.

I'm ready to print! Print Request!

Let's Learn!

Donations Appreciated!

3D Printing Filament

Gently used logic problem solving games, jigsaw puzzles, Legos, K'Nex,  etc.

Drop cloths to cover tables and floors

Glue guns and glue sticks

Duct tape - all colors, sizes

Washi tape

Packing tape

Craft glue

Materials for our CriCut Cutter

Scrapbook paper 


Paper punches

Stickers, letters, borders


water beads


Craft sticks, skewers, etc.

Cotton balls, cotton swabs 

Toilet paper and paper towel rolls

Beads, Beading, and jewelry making supplies

Wire, washers, nuts, bolts etc.

Pipe cleaners, pom poms, etc.

Metallic Sharpie Markers

Sharpies, black and colored

Wrapping paper


Old keys, chains, etc.

Poster board


yarn, knitting and crochet needles

Embroidery hoops

Used but working sewing machine

Bobbins, thread, zippers, snaps, etc.

Computer monitors

Old electronic parts that don't work anymore - light switch, personal cd player, etc.

Old parts of machinery that don't work any more

What would you make?