3D printing basics – From the idea to a physical part

3D printing basics – From the idea to a physical part

There are a couple basic steps involved when using a 3D printer to turn your idea into a real object. This is how I do it.

One of the basic questions about 3D printing often is “How do you actually print something?”

Basic 3D Printing Workflow

I’m Tom, and i’m going to show you what my workflow looks like.

So last week i crashed my RC car and broke some parts of the steering assembly. I have already printed a replacement for the suspension arm, so all i need now is a new castor arm to make it driveable again.

Now, when printing something, you’ll always start out with a digital file. You can either download one from sharing sites like thingiverse or youmagine or make your own. Since the search on these sites didn’t turn up any ready-made files, i’ll model the part from scratch.

I’m using a scan of the original part as a rough guide and calipers to get the dimensions right. The good thing about 3D printing is that you can iterate quickly when doing designs like these – you simply print one out as a prototype and improve the design from there.

Now, you don’t have to use Solidworks if you want to come up with your own parts – there are lots of free alternatives available, like FreeCAD, Sketchup or even Blender for more artistic parts. Basically, you can use any program that is able to export your part to the stl format, which then contains all the geometric details of the part you want to make. This is also the type of file that you can download from thingiverse or youmagine.

Now, to prepare the stl file for printing i take it through Netfabb to fix any errors that might be in the file and also to orient it for printing – i’ll pick a large flat area on one side to get the part to stick to the build platform. If you’re using a file from the internet, you can likely skip this step.


Next up is slicing the part – this translates the stl file into a gcode file, which contains all the commands that the 3D printer needs to print the part. This is also the point where you can set all the details about how it should be printed – for example whether it is going to be printed as a solid object or a mostly hollow one, how many copies you want to print and also which quality the print should be. For this one, i’m just going to leave the settings like they are and hit “export to gcode”.


The last step in printing a part is actually sending it to the printer. You can either copy the gcode file to an SD card and plug that into a printer, or connect the printer to your computer via USB. In my case, i have my printer connected to the network, so i can just open a browser and send it the file this way. Now all i have to do is click “print” and it will start printing. After it heats up, it lays down the first layer of plastic onto the bed and then keeps on adding layers until the print is done. This part was printed at a high quality setting and took about one hour.

So this print is almost finished. If you printed an artistic part or a simple functional part, you’re usually done at this point and go right to using the part you just made. Since this is a technical part and i need it to fit exactly right, i’m going to do a tiny bit of post-processing to make it perfect.

So that’s it – i fixed my RC car and didn’t have to order and wait for for a replacement part. The whole process for this part took a bit less than two hours including printing it, which is about as long as it takes to recharge a set of battery for the car.

That’s it for today – thanks for watching. Give me a thumbs up and subscribe if you like what i’m doing!

Software used:
Netfabb basic

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