3D printing hands on: Getting started with my desktop MakerBot

In 3D printing, the world's not a stage -- it's a build tray. David Gewirtz walks you through the setup and first use of a desktop 3D printer, and dispels three myths that often hold people back from 3D printing.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Watching a concert on TV, even a 4K TV with an excellent sound system, is nothing like attending it in person. Watching a rocket launch on TV is nothing at all like being there, at NASA, watching a mighty vehicle strain to leave Earth's gravity.

And reading about or watching YouTube videos about 3D printing is nothing -- nothing, nothing, nothing -- like what it's like to actually make a 3D print, right in your own garage or office.

Welcome to ZDNet's DIY-IT 3D printing discovery series. In this series, we're going to go on a journey, into the future of technology, manufacturing, and innovation and help you get to know what 3D printing is all about, give you the feel of 3D printing, and explore how to integrate it into your world.


Yes, I made a Dalek. Of course I made a Dalek.

I have been intrigued by 3D printing for years, but until this weekend, when I opened up, installed, and started to use the MakerBot Replicator, I had neither made my own prints nor seen 3D printing in person.

On one hand, it seems so simple. All that really happens is an arm moves back and forth like an inkjet printer, depositing material on a surface. 3D printers add the dimension of depth, so the print head or the printing bed also moves up and down, and that's how we get 3D objects grown, right in front of our eyes.

But, on the other hand, watching it happen, making something from a mere drawing, pushing print and then removing a physical object from a print bed is -- and I'll use this phrase over and over -- mind-blowing.

In this article, and in the associated video, I'm going to give you a first taste. Then, over the coming weeks and months, we're going to dive into many different aspects of 3D printing. My goal is to show you how accessible this technology is, and shatter some myths and expectations.

Let's briefly touch on three myths, and in the coming weeks I'll help you understand why they're myths.

Myth #1: 3D printers are expensive to buy. While you certainly can spend a lot of money on a 3D printer (or any high-end version of a device), there are 3D printers available for as little as $179.

Myth #2: 3D printed objects are expensive to print. I just bought my Dad a package of replacement ink cartridges for his little HP printer. The price? More than $60. An entire roll of 3D printing filament (enough to make five or ten full chess sets) can be bought for as little as $30 or less.

Myth #3: 3D printing design is hard. Like any piece of software, it can take a little while to develop mastery. But I'll tell you this: If you can make a PowerPoint presentation, you can design useful 3D objects for your office or home. It's just not that difficult.

Before I go further in this article, I want to send a special shout-out of thanks to the folks at MakerBot, who have provided a MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation printer for use with this discovery series. The printer they provided retails for $2,899 and can be considered a mid-range desktop unit. Obviously, there are much larger 3D printers used in manufacturing, and as I mentioned, there are also teeny-tiny 3D printers available for beginning tinkerers.

The video below takes you on a tour of setting up and the first use of the device, but I wanted to share with you a few of my initial impressions. Since setting it up and running some test prints, I've done a few of my own designs and downloaded some pre-designed templates and printed them out.

My first observation is that this is a bigger "thing" than I ever thought. There are a number of design-sharing sites (think SourceForge or Github) for 3D designs. One I've been exploring in quite some depth is Thingiverse, which has had one million designs uploaded and more than 200 million downloads.

I was showing the site to my wife, who was in a holiday cookie baking mood (one of the 9,999,999,999 reasons being married is cool), and she wanted to look for cookie cutters. There are a lot of cookie cutters on the site. She noticed a Batman logo cutter, and told me if I download it and make it, she'll make some cookies. So, yeah, I'll show you that in the next few weeks.

I also downloaded a Dalek from Dr. Who and printed that out. Even slightly scaled down, that took 16 hours to print, so that's another observation: 3D printing can take a long time. If you run into a snag, that's time and material wasted. We'll discuss those problems -- and how to overcome them -- in future articles as well.

Another observation is that 3D printing can fire up your awareness of possibility in a fierce way. How many times have you known there might be a better way to do something, hang something, organize something, but just not had anything to make it better?

Now, with 3D printing, everything becomes a canvas and I've noticed that as I walk around my home and office, I'm constantly noticing things I could make with 3D printing to solve small and big problems, and to remove annoyances. In 3D printing, the whole world isn't a stage, it's a build tray.

3D printing: Unboxing the MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation

Before I wrap up this first article, I want to share with you a personal perspective. I'm an engineer, but my training is in software. While I'm competent around physical tools, I've never really had the skills to fabricate metal or wood in anything other than a hacky sort of way. I could mash up existing objects, and I could certainly solve problems, but the end result of my physical constructions were never what you'd call "nice."

For me, 3D printing is changing all that. I've been finding, in just the few short days I've been doing this, that I can combine my skills on screen with my design sense (both of which are quite good), and then push a button and have the printer do all the fabricating. It is an astonishing and surprisingly liberating feeling. I can sit at my desk and design stuff, and out it comes, a few hours later -- almost as if I simply said, "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."

Personally, I'm starting to think that what began as a simple editorial project for work may become something far more interesting. It's been just under a week and I'll tell you, I think I'm hooked. I haven't been this excited about a technology since computers started going mobile back in the Sharp Wizard days.

I think this changes everything.

And with that, I'll turn you over to my short video. Let's get together next week, when we build our first objects and learn more about this amazing, accessible, and useful technology.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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