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TweakTown's Guide to 3D Printing: Part 1 - What makes up a 3D Printer?

By: Charles Gantt | 3D Printers in Maker & DIY | Posted: Mar 29, 2013 7:22 pm

Control Software




Rounding our list of what makes up a 3D printer is control software. This is the programs that slice up our 3D files into layers and spit them out to the machine in a language it can understand. I am going to cover two slicing programs and three control programs below. The important thing to remember is that all of these work well and you will need to figure out what works best for you.


Slicing Programs




Slicr - Slic3r a tool that converts a digital 3D model into printing instructions for your 3D printer. It cuts the model into horizontal slices (layers), generates toolpaths to fill them and calculates the amount of material to be extruded. Slic3r is bundled with the most important host software packages: Pronterface, Repetier-Host, ReplicatorG and has been supported/funded by almost all the main 3D printing companies in the world. Slicer works very well and is what I use on my printer. My only issue is that it's estimation of print time and filament used is a bit overestimated, but that is something I am willing to live with.




Skeinforge - Skeinforge is another slicing program that is mostly used in the Makerbot line of printers, and utilizes Python scripts to convert your 3D model into G-Code instructions. It takes the settings you set and uses them to turn your 3D model into a toolpath for your 3D printer. This toolpath is generated as GCode, which is then converted to .x3g or .s3g before it's sent to your bot. You can set things like layer height and extrusion temperature quite easily, but Skeinforge has a lot more settings behind the scenes, and you can edit these manually by opening up the Skeinforge interface. Skeinforge is pretty complicated, and it can be very confusing, but getting familiar with even a few of the settings can let you do all kinds of cool things with your prints.


Print Control Programs




Printrun / Pronterface - Printrun consists of printcore, pronsole and pronterface, and a small collection of helpful scripts. Printrun has become the default control software for 60 percent of all enthusiast level 3D printers due to its powerful yet simple to use interface called Pronterface. It is pre-packaged with Slic3r and is able to control all RepRap and Makerbot based 3D printers. I have been using it since its inception and feel that this is the best control software currently on the market. It is entirely open source and is freely available for download from Github.




Replicator G / Makerware - These are the control software offered by Makerbot. Replicator G is very similar in functionality to Pronterface, but lacks some of the more in-depth control that Prinrun features. It has been replaced by Makerbot's next-generation software, MakerWare. MakerWare features a new slicing engine called MakerBot Slicer which is said to be up to 20 times faster than Skeinforge. MakerWare lets you drop as many models as you want into the virtual build space, and its simple yet powerful interface lets you move, rotate and scale your models easily. When it comes time to choose your print settings, we've refined the process while still leaving the control in your hands. This software is closed source and can only be used on MakerBot printers unless you are up for some extensive hacking.




Repetier-Host - A fairly new comer to the 3D printing game, Repetier is a redesign of what slicing and control software should be. Repiter is essentially an entire package. To run it you will need to download and install the Repetier firmware, and then install the host client to your PC. With the host software you can easily adjust the position of the object to be printed in relation to your print bed, as well as auto position items. I have been hearing a lot of good things about Repetier in the RepRap IRC channel as well as from friends in the 3D printing groups I frequent. For the moment I am sticking with PrintRun as I have my printer dialed in perfectly and do not want to change anything.



Final Thoughts




That basically covers what I consider to be major components of a 3D printer. There are other minor parts that you could consider like belt types, pully sizes, and ACME rods verses threaded rods, but for the most part, they all perform in the same ballpark, and are easily upgradeable in the future. I really just wanted to touch on what I feel are the most important things to pay attention to when you consider investing in a 3D printer.


In my next installment we are going to take a look at several kits, and preassembled 3D printers that are currently available on the market. I am going to do my best to compare them and offer my take on the pros and cons of each.


Finally we will look at the pricing point of each kit and I will make my pick for the best 3D printer kit and best preassembled 3D printer. Keep an eye out right here at TweakTown in the coming days for Part 2 of our 3D Printers Buyers Guide.

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