Our head mentor recently purchased a 3D printer, the MakerBot Replicator 2, and is letting our team use it to fabricate parts for our robot this coming season. We believe that 3D printers are an outstanding way to bring engineering and manufacturing into your home, school, or buisness, and as such, we wish to share that with you.
Let's start with the basics. A 3D printer works by heating a plasitc filament (commonly PLA or ABS, but there are many varieties) to about 230 degrees C, then feeding that heated filament through an extruder. As it is extruded onto the build plate in .1 mm layers, the plastic cools and hardens, forming a solid object. The printer gets the instructions for making this object from a .x3g file, which you can generate by converting a .stl file that you had created in a CAD software. To do this, you need to use the software that came with your specific 3D printer.
Some challenges that you face when printing solid objects is that you must build from the bottom up, and you have to have a surface to build on when you move up a layer. This means that you can't have any overhangs or unsupported peices that aren't in contact with the build plate. Some programs give you the option to automatically put in supports, which you can remove after the peice is compleatly printed. The disadvantage of this is that it uses a lot more filament, and that you do get some marks/left over material on your finished peice that you have to remove.
Our team is hoping to use 3D printed objects to make custom rubber bands (they make stretchy filament too), specific nuts and bolts, end effectors that would be hard to build from raw materials, and other custom peices that we wouldn't have had the ability to create without the assistance of the printer. Check out our photo gallery and blog to find pictures of the peices that we build.