Don't buy a 3D Printer! (yet) How to Start 3D Printing Without Owning One!
One of the reasons I started this website is because 3D printing has become extremely affordable for the average person. With an investment of a few hundred dollars, anyone can purchase a 3D printer for use in the home. That said, not everyone has that kind of money just to try out a new hobby. Fortunately, there are several ways to start 3D printing without actually owning a 3D printer! It's a great way to try out the hobby before investing seriously in it.
This article will cover details about finding an online 3D printing service, accessing printers via your local library, and participating in a community maker space. All of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages to review, so read-on to find what is right for you!
First, we'll cover why you would want to use one of these alternative methods of 3D printing. Then, we will discuss each of the methods and a few positives and negatives for each one.
Why 3D print without owning a printer?
One of the first questions I've been asked by people about this topic is, "why would I want to 3D print without my own printer? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of creating my own items on my very own machine?". To that I say, "Absolutely not!". Here's why.
By participating in the hobby of 3D printing in this way, you are putting yourself in an excellent position to actively learn about it. There are a lot of skills you can learn without owning a 3D printer yourself. Here are a handful of examples:
3D CAD (computer-aided design) has come a long way since it was first created. For the hobbyist 3D printing enthusiast, that means there are a long list of completely free options that are easy to learn and use.
Using these free tools to create designs at home, and then printing them via one of the options listed later in this article is a great way to dip your toes in to the water without a big investment. 3D printers have some limitations when it comes to the types of things they can print effectively. By going through not just a design cycle on the computer, but actually getting your models made, you can improve design skills for creating 3D printer-friendly items.
Depending on how serious you are about design, or if you're wanting to learn to design your first 3D model in literal minutes , there is a tool out there for you.
On the simple side, I suggest Tinkercad: This software is fantastic! The best part? It works on any web browser and is completely free. All you have to do is sign-up for an account and you're good to go. The models you create even get saved in the cloud, so you can work on something at home, then log-in to your account from another location and continue your work! This is literally simple enough for a child to use, and is a lot of fun for kids of all ages! Here's a link to this great little tool: https://www.tinkercad.com
On the more professional side, I use Fusion 360: While this is another completely free tool (if you're using it for hobby reasons). The learning curve is much steeper than Tinkercad. That said, after just a few video tutorials on youtube, you can get the hang of the basics and start creating pretty quickly! https://www.autodesk.com/products/fusion-360/overview#banner This software requires a download and runs on your computer, but also features cloud save support so you don't have to worry about losing hard work as long as you've saved it!
General 3D Printing Techniques
Designing isn't for everyone though, sometimes people "just want to print cool stuff!". Well, you're going to learn some useful skills as well! In 3D printing, there are several useful concepts and skills to familiarize yourself with. Getting access to a 3D printer or even a completed 3D printed model will help to understand these concepts about what printers can and can't do.
Different Materials: 3D printers can use a range of different types of materials. The home machines are generally always some type of plastic, but even then there is a variety of types that require very different settings
3D Print Infill: Most people don't realize that often times, 3D prints are not hollow! In fact, there are sometimes complex interior structures. In short, infill offers a structure to make the 3D print stronger. Infill is an important concept to understand, and getting your hands on a 3D printed model can really help solidify it in your mind.
3D Print Supports: Supports, like infill, are something that don't make it to a final 3D printed model. These structures help the model print successfully. Understanding when and how to use them is important, and seeing 3D printed models in person gives you much better context for how they work.
3D Print Rafts & Brims: These settings help a printer to print successfully. Understanding how these work before purchasing your own printer can help save you some time and frustration if you ever decide to take the plunge and purchase your own machine.
What Home-Grade 3D Printers Can & Can't Do
Finally, by starting 3D printing before you own your own can give you a better idea of what printers can and can't do. While 3D printers are amazing gadgets, they have limitations. That said, I have found my own printer to be hugely useful in my every day life.
Among other things, home 3D printers are great for creatives, for adding a unique touch to something for a child's school project, and for rapidly testing new ideas.
3D printers are not good at creating super-strong parts. They're also not great for impatient people. Not to say 3D printers are bad, but it's important to understand the limitations before putting down the money to buy one.
How to Use a 3D Printer Without Purchasing One!
Now, for the 'meat and potatoes' of this article. How to get access to 3D printers without spending hundreds on buying one yourself. As mentioned, each of these methods has some advantages and disadvantages which will be discussed within each of the following sections. Overall though, there isn't a single method that is necessarily "better" than any other. You can only pick the right method for your personal situation and level of interest.
Use an Online 3D Printing Service
An online 3D printing service is exactly like it sounds. users can send a 3D model to the service and the service will print it and ship it directly to the user. It's more or less a print shop for 3D objects!
Probably the largest and most well-known service is Shapeways. You can find their website here. Shapeways has a massive library of capabilities and can print in anything from regular home-quality 3D printing PLA plastic, all the way up to even creating models out of precious metals like 24K gold! (yes, really!!!)
Even if you have your own home 3D printer or easy access to one, it's worth checking these guys out if you want to create something that is above and beyond anything you could do at home, even with the best home 3D printer.
I will come right out and say that this is my least favorite of all the options if you want to learn. Depending on your unique situation though, it may actually be the best for you!
3D Printing Service Advantages:
Quality: The number of options and level of quality that these services can produce are well beyond the average home 3D printer.
Variety of materials: Being able to print a part in steel, or have jewelry you designed printed and finished with gold or platinum is next-level!
3D Printing Service Disadvantages:
Expensive: Prices vary based on the size of the model as well as the finish you get. Even with the lowest-price options though, you're paying much more than what an individual print would cost at home if you already owned a printer.
Invisible process: By this I mean, you place an order and you get the object in the mail. The end user doesn't actually see or learn anything about the 3D printing process. If your goal is to design and create an end product, then it's great! but if you want to learn about 3D printing and how printers create 3D objects, it's less than ideal.
Who is this method good for?
Using a 3D print service is good for people who are focused more on their 3D designs than the 3D printing process. It's also ideal for folks willing to spend some extra money to get not just a 3D printed part, but to create a final product out of their 3D model.
Reach out to an Online Community
Like every hobby out there, 3D printing has a thriving online community. There are various forums for specific models of printers, or just general enthusiasts of the hobby.
Not only can you do some research and ask questions, but you can also find people to print your designs! A great resource for those looking to have something printed is over at reddit at /r/3Dprintmything: https://www.reddit.com/r/3Dprintmything/ A big forum full of people who will print items for a small fee.
Online Community Advantages:
Low-cost: If you are able to find someone to print an object for you, it's generally really low cost. The most expensive part of the process will be the shipping to get it to you.
You can ask questions: This is a big advantage over a professional grade print service. By interacting with members directly, you have a great opportunity to ask questions. That can include both general questions, and it can include questions about a specific model you want to get printed. More often than not, enthusiasts are extremely happy to talk about their hobby!
Online Community Disadvantages:
Sometimes tough to break in to: Some online communicates are close-knit and it might feel like it's tough to get involved. That said, I've found that if you respect the rules of the forum and post honest questions (after doing your own research first), there are more than enough people willing to help.
No direct hands-on time: Just like the print services, if you get something printed by a random forum member, you will not see the process in person. You could ask them to take some pictures or video of your model being printed, so it's an improvement over the professional services. But still nothing compared to being hands-on!
Who is this method good for?
Online forums are great for everyone looking to get in to or who is already actively participating in a hobby. It's a great learning resource and there is an opportunity to directly ask and answer questions for others. If you are thinking about getting in to 3D printing, or are a seasoned veteran at it; you will have something you can learn from participating in forums.
Find a 3D Printer at a Local Library
Most people don't realize that public libraries across the country are taking on 3D printing as a tool to serve the community. Call your local library and see if they have one, you might be surprised with the answer!
Each library will have its own rules, restrictions, and methods for allowing visitors to use their 3D printers. One thing that's nearly a guarantee though, is that it will be very inexpensive compared to the other methods on this list.
Low-cost: Libraries are a great community resource and the purpose of them is to be able to deliver knowledge to everyone at low or no cost. This should hold true for tools like 3D printing as well.
Wealth of information: What is a library good for if not information on a topic? Being surrounded by books on engineering, design, possibly even 3D printing with hopefully some staff who can help is a good opportunity to get your 3D printing start!
Hit or miss knowledge: Most libraries train their staff to use 3D printers. That said, some libraries may have a specialist that is only there at certain days or times. Also, it's possible that the 3D printer has taken a back-seat to other priorities within the library. Don't lose hope though. If there are multiple libraries available with printers, try a few to see which one might be able to support 3D printing projects best.
Time may be limited: Depending on how a library runs their program, there might only be limited access to 3D printers. Not to mention if a library doesn't have a good focus on their 3D printing program, the machine could be down for maintenance relatively often.
Who is a library good for?
Libraries are a phenomenal resource for nearly everyone. To get the most out of it though, it's important to be a self-starter and seek the information you want. Some libraries will offer courses and lessons, which could be a good start if you don't know where to begin. That said, sometimes library staff might not be as well trained as other sources and might not be able to offer guidance if you're not quite sure what it is you're looking for when using a 3D printer.
Get Involved at a Local Maker Space
In terms of sheer knowledge, finding and getting involved with a local maker space is by far the best way to learn 3D printing without actually owning your own printer. For usually a small fee, you can get access to a 3D printer and knowledge you need.
A maker space is generally a non-profit organization that people can go to gain access to all kinds of tools, machines, and more to complete a project. A local maker space might vary in the types of items it has, but you're extremely likely to find things like 3D printers, laser cutters, hand tools, electronics, etc.
Most importantly, you'll be gaining access to knowledge. Not only does a maker space have the tools to get the job done, but they also have a passionate group of people who want to teach and learn. That is the core of maker spaces and anywhere that has a maker space likely has a group of people.
The best way to find a maker space is to simply google where you live and "maker space". You might come across an official website or a facebook page, but there's a good chance you'll have one near by.
Maker Space Advantages:
Tons of equipment: The great thing about a maker space is that they often can afford high-quality 3D printers and tools. Better than many people could afford for home use. Using membership fees, a well-run maker space will stretch the budget in to a collection of great equipment.
Knowledgeable members: This advantage far outweighs anything else on any of the lists in this article. Access to knowledge and the ability to ask questions while getting hands-on with 3D printer equipment is invaluable if you want to learn. Maker spaces are filled with people who want to learn and who want to teach. Who knows, someday you might be teaching others what you've learned!
Maker Space Disadvantages:
May not be available everywhere: While new maker spaces are popping up everywhere and they are more common than ever, small towns might still not have one or they might be inconvenient for you. For example, I live in an area that has maker spaces, but they are all too far a drive for me to regularly visit.
Fees: Regular maker space visitors will gain a huge wealth of knowledge, but it comes at a price. In general though, fees are minimal and offer fantastic bang for your buck.
Who is a Maker Space good for?
Pretty much everyone! Unless you absolutely don't want to interact with people in person, a maker space is going to by far be the best value for money. You'll be getting access to good tools and the knowledge to make them work.
A maker space is also a great family activity. Several of the spaces near me offer a family membership that gets multiple members access to the resources and knowledge available. A family that learns together is great!
Hopefully this article gave you a few great ideas on how to learn about and work with 3D printing technology without investing hundreds on your own 3D printer for your house.
Getting a little experience with 3D printing will be leaps and bounds better than simply reading about the topic. Whether it's hands-on time with an actual printer or even just experience designing and seeing your models printed by a 3rd party service, you are bound to find out new things that will help you figure out if you'd like to bring your very own 3D printer home some day!