How to buy a 3-D printer

How to buy a 3-
Jamie Parker holds a 3-D printed magic wand in the original West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo by Manuel Harlan.


SO YOU'VE DECIDED to invest in a 3-D printer, congratulations! Welcome … to … the future! 3-D printing is an incredibly powerful tool in manufacturing and designing props, set models, scenery, and even costume accessories. But at the end of the day, a tool is all that a 3-D printer is. It might as well be a hammer. And hammers are awesome — as long as you know how to swing them.

3-D printing is an incredible technology, but it’s nothing new. “Additive manufacturing” (the fancy term for 3-D printing) has been around for more than 30 years. It’s just that the technology has become affordable and democratized in the past decade. This is good news for theatre professionals, and its use is popping up all over the industry, from Aladdin to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (You can read more about theatrical uses of 3-D printers in “Teaching in a new dimension” from the March/April 2018 issue of Teaching Theatre). Movies are getting in on the action too, as many costumes and props in Black Panther were created using 3-D printers.

3-D printer
The LulzBot TAZ, with (gnarly) printed neon octopus. Photo courtesy of LulzBot.

Quick note: there are many different types of 3-D printers on the market: extrusion, SLA (stereolithography), SLS (selective laser sintering), and powder resin. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the most commonly available printers: extrusion. Extrusion printing refers to the process of literally extruding (that is, pushing) heated plastic through a small nozzle and sticking it to itself, layer by layer, to build an object in three-dimensional space. If you’ve ever used a hot glue gun, you can roughly imagine how extrusion printing works.

3-D printing has blown up over the past decade, and there are as many options for what printer to purchase as there are computers at Best Buy. So, before you get your printer, consider some of the following questions.

How big do you need to print?
The LulzBot TAZ 6 has a substantial build volume (11” x 11” x 9.8”) and can print in various materials right out of the box. One great thing about the TAZ is that the printer itself is built partially with 3-D printed parts, so you can print replacement parts for your printer in case something breaks (spoiler alert: something always breaks on a 3-D printer). Creating replacement parts is just a small part of 3-D printer maintenance. Whatever printer you decide to buy, familiarize yourself with the mechanics and basic upkeep required.

How intricate will your props be?
Do they have lots of moving parts? The Ultimaker 3 is simple to set up and comes preloaded with a dual-head extruder. This means that, within an hour of setting up your new printer, you can print objects with two different materials. This is a huge boon if you’re making something you want printed in different colors or something with immediate moving parts. For example, it can use a dissolvable support material called PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) that can let you print one twisting gear inside of another.

Are you looking for low cost?
The online retailer Monoprice has a wide range of printers available in various sizes and build volumes. The printers can be somewhat finicky, but you can hardly beat getting into the 3-D printing world with the $159 Monoprice MP Mini Delta. The printer can’t do as much as the Ultimaker or TAZ, but the Mini Delta is an incredible value that helps you get started with the technology at a price that your boosters can likely support.

A printer can’t do anything unless you give it something to print. Sure, you can download and print Pokémon Cubone masks for your dog all day from the user-created, design-sharing website, but browsing pre-created designs can only take you so far. You need two types of software to make your ideas come to life: a CAD (computer-aided design) program and a “slicing” program to prep your model for printing.

Slicing is the term used to describe the way a printer looks at an object. When creating your print, the printer has “sliced” your object into hundreds (sometimes thousands) of 2-D layers that it will lay down one after another from the bottom of the printer (the build plate). The printer can’t do this work by itself. Before you load an object’s file to the printer, you need to use software that will tell the printer how many layers to print and where to place those layers. Most printers use the open-source slicing software Cura, which manufacturers customize to work with their printers. Your printer will come with set-up instructions that will point you to the Cura software it works with.

Simplify3D is a paid alternative to Cura that gives you more options and does a lot of the work of slicing at a higher level. It’s not a great option, however, if you’re just starting out. Get comfortable with setting up your prints before you pay for software to do this.

The slicing software will let you customize every aspect of your print — from “layer height” to “infill,” which pertains to the density and composition of the printed structure. Once you are comfortable with these options, you can do test prints much faster than those you’ll use for the final print, allowing you to rapidly figure out what works and what doesn’t in the object.

Ultimaker 3
The Ultimaker 3 comes with a dual-head extruder allowing single objects to be printed
with two different materials. Photo courtesy of Ultimaker.

When it comes to CAD programs, you can end up paying thousands of dollars for software that has piles of features you may never need (like assemblies and automated frame design). It is more likely that you can be successful with a low- or no-cost solution.

Tinkercad is a free, online-based software that lets you design with shapes, as opposed to a feature-rich, measured program. Let’s say you are creating a glowing orb prop that needs to fit an Arduino and LEDs inside. Tinkercad simply asks you to model your objects using basic 3-D shapes like cubes, pyramids, spheres, and tori. In a few minutes, you should have an object you’re happy with and can export for printing.

Fusion 360 is also free and web-based, but it is much closer to traditional CAD programs. There are many options and tools, and it’s a snap to create complex objects that can move, shift, and be assembled. However, because of Fusion’s complexity, you should be comfortable with CAD before leaping in. Autodesk (the company behind Fusion360 and Tinkercad) offers free online tutorials for their software platforms.

Filaments and materials

Filament is the material you will be using to create your printed object. It usually comes in spools of different diameters. Make sure you buy the right size filament for your printer and that the filament is compatible with your extrusion nozzle (the part of the printer that heats up and spits out the material onto the build plate).

There are about as many filaments and materials you can print with as there are lighting instruments available for a plot: a filament that can stretch, one that has wood dust mixed in so you can sand and stain your project, and even one that can conduct electricity (useful for prop making). Starting out, however, use either PLA (polylactic acid) or ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). These are basic plastics commonly used in product design and manufacture. The general rule of thumb is that PLA is cheaper, more rigid, and easier to print with, but ABS is a more durable material.

This starts to scratch the surface of 3-D printing. Once you’ve gotten some prop-, costume-, and set-making practice with this new tool, you can delve into any or all of these topics. Do you want a costume piece that can bend, stretch, and flex with your actor? There’s a material for that. Do you want to build a huge prop that can glow? How about printing a small-scale version of your set, instead of cutting your finger with an X-Acto knife for the thousandth time? 3-D printing can take your whole department up a notch, as long as you are prepared for what you’re getting into.

Read more Teaching Theatre.