3D Printing – The Process Part 1

In my last post, I covered the basic setup of my devices. In my next few posts, we’re going to take a look at the process of actually printing the model. The first will cover all the stuff that happens before we start getting messy.

Getting Models

The first stage of 3D printing (after the initial setup) is of course, getting something to print. There are a few different ways to get hold of STLs (the file format most commonly used by slicing programs).

Make your Own!

Errrr… okay this is WAY too much for a single blog post. 3D modelling is a whole career into itself, with a selection of tools and methods to get into. Its something I’m interested in (I have some things I’d like to make such as conversion parts for my Sisters of Battle still in the box) but we don’t have time in this post.

Download them for Free!

There are lots of STL files available for free online. Google is a good starting point, although it will quickly lead you into STL search engines such as Yeggi or STLFinder. You’ll also find free STLs on other sites such as the classic Thingiverse.

But here is the thing – you really do get what you pay for. There may be some incredible work given away for free (often due to them being fan-work of copyrighted content) but a lot of the time you’ll find 3d files made by amateurs and uploaded for fun. Also don’t expect them to be pre-supported so some extra work will be needed to get them ready.

Purchase them!

If you’re willing to spend the money, you can also go and buy STLs. There are several sites for it (such as MyMiniFactory) as well as people using Gumroad to create their own stores. I’m a keen fan of SkullForge Studios, who make a great set of figures who are… inspired by Disney properties.

Prices are massively variable. Some people go bargain basement on the models, while several will charge a lot more per figure than other companies that will produce the physical object. An important thing to remember when considering price is to remember that when buying an STL, there is no limitation on how many copies you can print.

Another option for single purchase is keeping an eye on Kickstarter. Many 3D moidel sellers will start off with a Kickstarter run, often with a few extra goodies that won’t be available later. These Kickstarters are also often cheaper than they would be at retail, so if you want the entire thing, they can be great value for money. However, like with all Kickstarters, make sure you trust the people running it. A few STL files (including hopefully a free test one if you’re lucky) and some example prints are the bare minimum to look for.

Purchase them every Month!

The other way of buying STLs is to delve into the world of Patreon. For a monthly fee, you get a pack of models. Patreons usually have different levels, usually ranging from a single figure or taster pack at about £4 a month (+VAT), the complete release at around £7 – £8.50 a month (+VAT) and occasionally a premium package at £11.50 (+vat). All of these usually include a welcome pack, a few figures to whet the appetite for what you’re actually paying for.

Patreons vary in their contents – in some case it’s a different theme every month (Anvil Industries is the master of this, while still making them all work together thanks to their regiments system that came over from their resin range) while others slowly build up full ranges (Last Sword is slowly creating an alternative fantasy army range, including some glorious Elves while Turn Base is adding small packs of ultramodern figures).

I have… mixed feelings on Patreon bundles. In nearly every case, you are getting models for a steal (which can be seen when the models are re-sold in the store – Anvil charges £40 for bundles that are £11.50). However, this can play a little bit on fear of missing out, the worry about missing a good deal. You may also end up with a lot of crap you’ll never use if you don’t carefully keep an eye on what the Patreon is signed up for. But this can work both ways – maybe that random pack of Space Western parts might come in handy?

Preparing Models

So, you now have your file. What’s next?

Before you can start printing, you need to slice your STL files. Slicing is assembling the instructions that the 3D printer will use to actually set the resin and eventually produce the final product. However, there are a few other little elements to creating the slicing instructions.

But first of all, we need to talk about the program you’ll use. There are several options, but the most common is CHITUBOX. Much like anything, people will argue over the different variants, but CHITBOX is the one that Elegoo provides with the printer. It’s quite barebones and to the point – it’s whole aim is to get things working

Pre-Supported?

Some models are advertised as “Pre-Supported”. This usually means that the 3D file’s creator has deemed it should be able to be printed without any extra work from the user. Simply drag in, hit the slice button and save the file out.

Simple right?

Wrong.

This works like 10% of the time. It is one of my pet hates about 3D printing at the moment – people who see “pre-supported” “ready to print” or whatever and assume that no extra work is needed on their end. That haven’t realised that pre-supported assumes your printer has the correct settings.

Pre-supported varies from rock solid with barely any problems to a wing and prayer design to tick boxes. I find it best to assume pre-supported models are more of a… guideline. A starting point. A few people have managed to almost crack it, but there are plenty of other things to setup before it will just work.

Arrangment

If you have just a raw model file with no supports or optimisation then it’s time to get dirty. The first step is how best to arrange files on the print bed (the area shown as the rectangle above). It’s not just the actual positioning – it’s also the file rotation. The surface parallel with the print bed will be a little less detailed than the rest. A rough guide is to print figures at 30-45 degree rotation, although honestly there are plenty of people who print models standing up straight (as you can see above).

All3DP has an article talking about the how best to arrange items on the print bed. Although not 100% for printing miniatures, it’s a reasonable intro to all the concerns.

Supports

Assuming your model wasn’t pre-supported by the file creator, you’ll need to assemble the supports. These are elements used to help print overhangs in the model, reduce islands (unsupported areas to be printed) and generally giving more material to help keep items stable and strong. You can also create a “raft”, a large chunk of material that makes it easier to remove the finished model from the build plate without damaging it.

CHITUBOX has a very easy setup for adding supports, letting you auto-generate supports or add additional ones with a button press. As you can see above, the auto generate is not 100% perfect. But it does a reasonable job to begin with.

All3DP also has have a very interesting article explaining about supports, giving some advice on how best to use them.

Settings

No matter if your models are pre-supported or a random obj file pulled off the internet, once they are all setup you now have to choose the settings for your 3D printer. And this is the biggest pain in the ass of the whole thing.

You can get settings for different printers and resin combinations from most printer makers, even easier if you use the same brand for both. These settings are a good starting point but there are little things to tweak and look out for. Exposure times, lift speed, layer height and more – all of these variables will affect the end result.

I’m going to take a look at these in the next post (as well as some common flaws you might find based on these items being mis-set). But this screen will potentially be a familiar friend (or hated foe) when you need to get everything setup.

Slicing

Once your settings are sorted, it’s time to get slicing. Slicing turns a 3D model into layers of points. Each point is a location in space that is either inside the model or outside of it. This can then be used to create effectively a collection of images equal to each layer of the model. In the next post, we’ll talk again about how the process actually works and how these images are used.

This stage lets you preview those images (using the bar to see how the print progresses and do any final checks for islands that will automatically fail the print. Handily, it will also tell your a rough estimate of how much the print will cost in material as well as how long it will take. This time estimate is often incorrect but it’s a good rough idea, letting you see just how much using super tiny layers will affect how long it takes to get your model. Hitting spits out a ctb file, which can then be accessed by the printer and used to actually make the final thing.


At this stage, you’re all good to move your sliced file to your memory stick, put it in the printer and begin the process. Next time, we’ll cover what happens between the printing start and the final product hitting the table.