Experimenting with 3D Printing

By Kevin McAllister

I’ve been following developments in 3D printing for a while, and in December I purchased a MakerBot Replicator 2, my first 3D printer. Investing in a 3D printer felt like the next logical step. I’ve been modeling my designs entirely in 3D for a few years now. It has some great advantages including the ability to quickly create drawing sets and never having to “draw” a section view ever again. Since I was already doing half the homework involved in 3D printing, why not take the next step? I chose the Replicator 2 for a variety of reasons — it was marketed as the first prosumer 3D printer, MakerBot has a track record, having shipped a few models already, and there is a large online community associated with their products.

The day I unpacked and set up the printer was an exciting one. It’s desktop sized, much like an office sized laser printer. It comes pre-assembled, whereas many of the cheaper 3D printers are still in kit form. It took less than an hour to be up and printing. I started by printing some of the sample models from the included SD card. Technically, the printer is little more than a motorized miniature glue gun, where the “glue” is actually PLA, a biodegradable plastic, but it’s very magical to watch as something so detailed is created from nothing. Even after several months, I still find myself fascinated by the process. And so is our dog — he gets up and runs over to watch every time I turn it on!

Next it was time to print something I had created. There are a few steps involved, starting with a 3D model. The software I draw in, Vectorworks, could theoretically export the needed STL file. It turns out it sort of can, but not without problems. I ended up using a Vectorworks –> Cinema 4D –> STL workflow to get well-behaved model files. The next step is to “slice” the model. The printer works by drawing individual horizontal slices, as thin as 0.1 mm, one at a time, moving the print platform down between every layer. There are various slicers out there, including MakerBot’s own, which is where I started. It takes the 3D model, slices it into layers and outputs a print ready file. It was even more magical seeing the printer create something I had designed myself, much like the experience of seeing your set full size in the shop for the first time.

So far, my experience with my 3D printer has been great. There are some challenges however, and I’ve had to experiment a fair amount to get useable prints. It turns out each object has its own inherent challenges — whether it’s a lack of smoothness, loss of fine details, drooping plastic where there isn’t enough support structure, an object that doesn’t stick to the build plate or a print job that fails entirely part way through because of an error in the model. There are many tools and resources available online, and between those and methodical experimentation, I’m constantly learning how to improve my prints.

I’ve printed one show model so far. It was a box set with columns, walls, doors, stairs and some simple furniture.


3D printed white model for Sisters (Gateway Theatre) fully assembled.


Some simple 3D printed 1/4″ scale furniture.

I printed it over a couple of days, in pieces and with a fair amount of trial and error to get the small details to print well. How long does each piece take to print? It varies depending on the size and detail, but the wall with the French doors took 24 minutes. I learned that 1/4” scale is somewhat challenging — it’s hard to get the small detail to turn out — and that 3/8” or 1/2” is easier and results in an incredible amount of detail. The only limitation is the maximum print size, which is about the same size as a loaf of bread. The first model stayed white, though gesso adhered to it well, so I expect painting the plastic won’t be too hard. The PLA plastic also comes in a variety of colours.

Where the Replicator 2 excels is with repetition. Furniture is a prime example where I can model once and print as needed. A simple 1/4” chaise takes about 20 minutes to print. I’m also curious to explore 3D scanning for figures. I’ve downloaded a few scanned people from the internet, and they have printed very successfully. I can see myself investing some time in building a library of furniture and figures, so the Replicator 2 can pay for itself in more than entertainment value.

Is owning a 3D printer for every designer? Not yet. But we’ll all use 3D printed objects in our work before too long, whether it be model pieces, printed props or printed costume pieces.

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