Creative Printing

A few months ago I reached a point with one of my projects where I wanted to house some electronics. A quick Google search showed me that the easiest way, by far, of producing such prototypes would be 3D printing them. Hence I’ve taken my first step towards 3D printing for neuroscience research.

A colleague of mine had produced prints in the past, by sending 3D print files to a third party that printed them for him, for a fee. While this was of course an option, I always prefer to do things myself, so would rather buy a printer and do it in-house, provided the cost wasn’t extortionate. And it turns out the printing technology has advanced far enough that you can get decent quality 3D printers starting from about £250, which was definitely within our budget.

A quick aside here, in case there are any readers unfamiliar with the basics of 3D printing. Everyone will be familiar with “regular” printing; using the example of an inkjet printer, there’s a nozzle that squirts out tiny spots of ink across a sheet of paper to produce the desired pattern. Imagine that instead of ink, the printer is squirting out small blobs of plastic across a flat surface; it then rises up a short distance and prints another layer of plastic, and then up some more and prints another layer, and so on. This lets you produce 3D plastic objects of any shape, with the caveat that each layer needs to stick to something, so you can’t have floating bits.

Where the resolution of a print onto paper is determined by the size of the ink spots and how precisely they can be printed, the resolution of a 3D print is determined by both the size of the blobs (which depends on the size of the nozzle that squirts out the molten plastic), and the precision of placement, particularly with regards to the vertical step size.

What I have described here is classic filament printing; an alternative uses UV-curable resin instead. In this case, the plastic is printed into the desired shape by successive curing of the resin using a UV-light LCD screen. For reasons I won’t go into, resin-based printing methods tend to have better resolution than the filament prints; they are also faster and more reliable. And, as the costs are comparable, I went for a resin-based printer (the Elegoo Mars, which has very good reviews and was supposed to be the best budget printer).

Great, so now that I had a 3D printer, I just needed to print some stuff! Turns out this is the tricky bit, in particular getting to grips with 3D design software. As University staff, I have access to a range of software, including AutoCAD, which is great but also very complex.

After some trial and error, I found that I could make the 3D renders I wanted using basic geometric shapes (mainly cylinders and cuboids), so long as they were aligned and then use merge/subtract functions to produce more complex shapes. See below for the first object I designed – a simple hollow half cylinder for my housing.

3D render of my first custom designed prototype housing.

The next step is to turn the 3D render into a printable format, using “slice” software, which adds any necessary struts and then converts the 3D object into a series of 2D printable slices. And then the actual printing is fairly straightforward, and the objects were very good quality.

All in all, I was pleased with 3D printing, and have found it very useful. And now that I have the printer, I have found myself designing and printing things in other aspects of my life, including printing a replacement bobbin holder for my wife’s sewing machine, which she was ready to throw away entirely because she was unable to buy a replacement for this critical part.

I also downloaded a high quality 3D render of a dragon, which I printed and gifted to my toddler – he was very excited by it. I highly recommend anyone reading this to look into investing in a 3D printer themselves, I guarantee you will end up making useful things you had never though you would.

Finally, I’m excited to start 3D printing for neuroscience research kit, and have started a section of my website to sell the things I’ve designed..

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