5 tips for getting started with 3D printing

Imagine fitting a block of New York skyscrapers in the palm of your hand. Steve Fox did and, rather than just leaving the idea there, set about making his lilliputian vision a tiny, yet perfectly proportioned reality.

And so Ittyblox was born – a 3D printing project where he makes petite pieces of architecture. Some buildings are fictitious and some are based on real landmarks.

"The buildings I create are 1/1000 scale and can be printed in full colour," Steve explains. "The models I make for Ittyblox are all bound to certain rules: scale, dimensions and minimal thickness for printing."

The individual pieces need to be standardised because they are designed to be and fitted – Lego-like – into a baseplate. This means fans can collect individual buildings and construct their own cityscapes, boulevards and broadwalks.

Steve's fascination with 3D started when he was young. "I've been using 3D software since I was a kid," he says. That early introduction, he believes, gave him a distinct advantage as he grew up and his career took off.

3D Printed Building

Steve got a headstart by studying visualisation software early

He developed his skills through school and when he later studied architecture found he’d given himself a real head start when using visualisation software.

Describing the moment he realised the possibilities of 3D printing he says: "When I saw a documentary on 3D printing and found that models could be made within the same software I used, I was hooked."

Steve is clearly enchanted by 3D printing. The ability to send a digital model across the world and have it physically delivered is to him somewhat brilliant. "Try that with a painting or a sculpture," he laughs.

However, 3D printing isn't the perfect medium. Rather, Steve says, it presents new and unique challenges. Looking specifically at Ittyblox, Steve says he's had to learn about and refine his appreciation of scale.

If you haven't tried 3D printing yet, Steve shares his advice to set you on the right track.

01. Give it a try

When you haven't had much experience in 3D printing, you can expect too much of it in terms of detail and material. Have a few attempts before spending too much time on things that look great on a screen but not in real life.

3D Printed Building

Test your design by printing lots of the same model

Also, try to print the same model twice to see what differences occur because of the print process and not the design.

02. Don't buy a 3D printer yet

Sounds strange for a 3D printing artist I know, but it limits you to a device. Leave the investments in these expensive pieces of hardware to the 3D printing services.

3D Printed Building

Don't limit yourself to a 3D printer too soon

Also, you don't want to invest in a printer and find yourself committed to your investment and the limitations that come with it for the coming years.

03. Hack the constraints

Every 3D printer has its limits, either in finishing, material or minimum thickness. The trick is not to let these contraints have a visible impact on your designs.

3D Printed Tower

Clever use of colours can get round printer constraints

In the 
image above you see a thin wall around
 a watertower, though it is actually a cube with a small top sticking out.
 By making the top black, it looks like a thinner wall than it is.

04. Hollow when possible

Since filament can be expensive it's wise to spend some time hollowing your final model. When you already know exactly what shape you are making you can also choose to build it hollow instead of hollowing the final model.

3D printed building

Make your resources go further by printing hollow models

Substraction operations can lead to errors that may not be visible on screen but make the model unprintable, these include things like open edges.

05. Balance

Decide beforehand if you want your model to be freestanding or not. When you don't want your model to have a supporting base, you need to change the pose of that athelete before you start detailing it.

3D Printing Building

Decide if you want your model to be freestanding before printing

Many 3D packages have a calculation option that shows you where your model's centre of mass is.

Words: Steve Fox

With a masters in architecture Steve combines his passions for buildings and 3D modelling at Ittyblox. This article was originally published in 3D World issue 196.

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