How to Get 3D Printing Up and Running
From out of reach to the next cool accessory
We’ll risk putting on our prognosticator hat and tell you that in years to come, the past 12 months will be thought of as the year consumer-grade 3D printing had its coming out party. Of course, there were earlier adopters, and there will also be stragglers, too. But in the past year, we’ve seen the key components that make a thing into “a thing” all come together.
We saw the release of many newer brands of consumer-priced and -sized 3D printers. These follow the trend started by industry leaders such as Makerbot. This explosion has led to greater public awareness and accessibility, and even a proliferation of new trade/consumer events, such as the 3D Printer World Expo.
Of equal importance has been Adobe’s support for 3D printing within their flagship Photoshop application. This year Adobe has both added and enhanced Photoshop’s ability to prep 3D models for printing. With a still-limited selection, Photoshop can send your 3D datasets out to either a local printer or a service bureau. This puts 3D printing in the hands of anyone with a $10 monthly Adobe Creative Cloud Photoshop membership.
But let’s put on the breaks for just a moment, because we’re not here to oversell you. While this is touted as the next great thing, it ain’t no smart watch that you just slip on your wrist. However simple the developers are trying to make it, 3D is inherently more complex than 2D work. At it’s best for the consumer, we should hope to be able to accomplish three main things.
The first of these is the ability to take an existing 3D model and print it without too much expertise or strife. Second, we want is to be able to scan in an object without too much effort (which will, in turn, print easily). Third on our punch-list would be the ability to create some basic 3D models from scratch. Again, without too much effort in creation or printing. Now that we know what we want, let’s get to it!
Easy 3D Printing
Adobe Photoshop can play a big role in our first objective. You can import a 3D model from a wide range of sources. Just what you’ll be importing will depend a lot on what your goals are for 3D printing. The hype we read tells us this is the next industrial revolution, and before long we will be printing many of the items we currently buy from Amazon.com (which, of course, was part of the last “revolution”).
So, in addition to all of the many long existing online resources for downloading 3D models, we should expect an explosion of readily available sources of household items, replacement parts, and other clever items. Imagine the day when going to an online store to buy a lens cap, chess pieces, candlestick holders, or countless other things will offer shipping options of “Ground,” “2-day,” or “Download Now.”
Well, such sites are already online. One notable incarnation is the Makerbot-owned www.thingiverse.com, which highlights a wide range of member projects, along with download links so you can print the items yourself.
There is also a wide range of existing sources online for 3D models of all kinds, both free as well as for a fee. Most of these sites are geared toward the 3D animation and industrial markets, but there’s no reason you can’t download the range of models to be used as kids toys, props in your Lionel train creations, and many other applications.
There is also the growing aspect of community in the 3D printing world. For example, we have already helped a friend that had the battery cover to his TV remote crack in two (he stepped on it one night). Since we had the the same TV remote, we scanned the battery cover and emailed it to him across the country. He then printed the model, took a fine sandpaper to it for a few minutes, and it slid right into place! Not only was is very cool, but it also saved him the cost of replacing an entire remote unit.
While there are many lists of 3D printing projects to consider, this particular list at Hongkiat.com (www.hongkiat.com/blog/3D-printings) caught our attention, with its unusual offerings.
Wherever you get your 3D models from, it can be important to know the formats that your software accepts for importing. For example, Photoshop accepts the list seen in the screen shot below. While there are conversion applications available, our personal experience indicates that you may find instant success or you may be going down the rabbit hole into a wasted day of futility. If you can find a well-made model in a format your application accepts, you will save a great deal of time.
For most of the 3D printing being done today, color and texture map information isn’t going to be an issue. This is because most printing is being done in a single color. So basic 3D formats, even those that aren’t supporting the color information, are just fine for our needs. But keep in mind that this is likely to change in the near future.
For this experiment, I went to archive.net and downloaded a wooden outdoor seat model. Its zip file came with a range of formats to choose from. But I went with the 3DS format, which is a common industry standard and compatible with Photoshop.
To import into Photoshop, select 3D > New 3D layer from file… option, and choose your model. Once inside Photoshop, your model will open inside the 3D environment, which will certainly take some getting used to, even if you’ve done 3D work before. Every program is different, and Photoshop’s workflow has its own unique procedures to learn.
Since our ultimate goal in Photoshop is simply to print the model, we can actually bypass most of its controls and head right over to the “3D Printer Settings,” which can be brought up under the 3D menu. The first option, “Print To,” allows you to select the printer you’ll be using. This can be a local printer or a service. Based on that setting, the next option, “Printer” has you select from a range of applicable attributes for that output device. You will also want to set the model’s scale, and other attributes.
When all the settings are correct, go to “3D Print,” which will prepare the model for printing, with a wide range of corrections to the geometry to ensure a good print job. Though to be honest, experience and trial and error are likely the best ways to ensure a good print job. Adobe has prepared a few videos that may help with the process: http://bit.ly/mpc_pshelp
This is where we ran into a problem, because at this time, Photoshop’s selection of 3D printer drivers is rather limited, and does not include a driver for our current printer, XYZ Printing’s da Vinci 1.0 AIO (the AIO refers to the “all-in-one” nature of the unit, as it also includes a 3D scanner).
We now have two options in order to print our model: We could set Photoshop to export the model in a compatible format, and bring it into the da Vinci printer’s own printing software; or we could skip Photoshop altogether and take the downloaded model directly into the proprietary printing application.
Which is the best way to go about doing this? Well, some decisions are made for us, since the da Vinci software only imports .3w, .stl and .ntg files, none of which were included with the downloaded model. So, we set the “Print To” setting in Photoshop to “local,” which then offers the option under Printer to “Export to STL.”
Now, when we choose the “3D Print” option, we’re given the option to “export.” Perfect! The added advantage is that Photoshop will clean up any unruly geometry a model may have. And it now opens effortlessly in the printer’s software.
As you can see from the da Vinci printer interface screen grab below, the toolset of this 3D printer is intentionally kept simple and easy to use. And while it may be impossible to make any 3D printer truly “easy,” the makers of the da Vinci have created an interface that is no more difficult than your average desktop inkjet.
One way to tell we are still at the start of the technology is in learning how long it takes to actually do the new tech. Just like 2D printing used to be painfully slow, so 3D printing is today. I printed the sample “XYZ logo-keychain.stl” model that came with the printer. Its mere 2x3x1/4-inch size took 37 minutes to print. Such slow speeds may limit all those great ideas you came up with for mall booths, and it can be a real downer when you find a problem and need to reprint. But hold tight, it’s bound to get faster down the road.
A few nice items to note about the da Vinci AIO unit, is that it is well made, fully enclosed (unlike many), and includes both scanning as well as printing, in one unit. While it is a large unit, it is well worth the trade. My only comment might be that connectivity is only via a USB connection, which limits how far away you can place the printer. But there may have been some technical reasons for not offering either ethernet or wireless options.
Creating Your Own Models
3D modeling is a huge and complex subject. But I want to take a moment to offer some reasonably easy to do options that will give you some alternatives to a life of only printing pre-made models.
As mentioned, the da Vinci AIO has a built-in 3D scanner. This is fantastic. It would have been even better if it worked. The issues aren’t the hardware, it is the buggy scan software supplied with the unit. I am a firm believer the company will work out the bugs and deliver a solid product.
Photos to Mesh
One of the most popular ways to scan a model is to use software that converts a series of photos into a 3D model. This is nothing new, but the options have become more plentiful. There are even no-cost options that include the “123D Catch” cloud software from 3D industry giant Autodesk (www.123Dapp.com/catch).
While you can use 123D Catch to turn almost any item into a 3D model, it’s always tempting to create a cyber version of a loved one, as we have started to do here. The other reason to do this: His head won’t fit into the da Vinci scanner! As you can tell, this is still a work in progress.
Simple Models in Photoshop
Yet another thing that makes Photoshop great for the novice 3D practitioner is its ability to make some simple 3D models without too much fuss. In this example, we decided to make a 3D version of the MaximumPC logo.
To do this, we first found a similar typeface and got it as close possible to looking correct in 2D. All we had to do then was select the type and in the 3D menu choose “New 3D Extrusion from Selected Layer,” which let us create basic 3D text of our logo.
But adding five-minutes of fiddling with all the settings gives us a much more pleasing model, as seen below. This model will also need to be placed on some type of base before printing, something that will hold all those separate letters together.
Keep in mind that for most 3D printers, the color isn’t going to matter on the software side, as it’s determined by the material you use in the machine. That said, you can always spray paint after printing if you want to.