I was lucky enough recently to score a 3D printer as an early Christmas present. I ended up with the Dremel Idea Builder, the same kind that Scott Hanselman has recommended previously. The beauty of this particular printer is that you can pick it up from your local hardware store (you know 3D printing is becoming mainstream when you can get it from Bunnings).
Like a lot of my technology acquisitions, I didn't need a 3D printer, but I wanted to learn some new skills related to this emerging technology. Specifically I wanted to understand more about the design of physical things, using 3D CAD software and just the mechanics of 3D printing itself.
About 3-months later and I think I'm finally starting to come to grips with the tools and the process and have managed to make one or two useful things.
Invaluable Useless Trinkets
One of the first things you are going to do when you unbox your first 3D printer is produce a bucket load of mostly useless trinkets for your desk. But don't dismiss this as a waste of time. Working with these models helps you understand the limits of 3D printing and figure out how things such as room temperature and print bed preparation impact the quality of the build.
Eventually the fascination with watching the extruder go backwards and forwards for hours on end and you start to think about what useful stuff you can produce.
Before you can come up with your own inventions you need some design tools. I started out with the 123D suite of tools from Autodesk. The primary tool you'll use is 123D Design which is used to sketch out your 3D model, but as you get ready to print you'll send your designs to Meshmixer which allows you to orientate your designs and even generate supports for more complex designs.
Right now I'm starting to learn Autodesk Fusion 360 which is a much more sophisticated tool which goes way beyond creating models for 3D printing and includes creating multi-part models and allows you to simulate motion.
There are really who main skills you pick up when getting started with 3D printing. The first is starting to master the environment in which you print. Unlike printing on paper, 3D printing with heated plastic can be quite challenging. If your room is too cold then you'll get warping. If your design doesn't make sufficient contact with the print bed it'll easily break off and produce a tangled mess.
Through a bit of trial and error I found that I can get a reliable print by layering blue painters tape over the top of the print bed. This means that I can easily remove the printed part and not damage the print-bed itself. The Dremel comes with replacable print-bed covers but I found it very hard to remove the models without marking the surface. I ended ruining two of the three provided covers and had to order some more (which took forever to arrive). Perhaps I'll try using them again now that I've got a better understanding of the materials that I'm working with.
The second skill that you pick up is 3D modelling. Not only do you learn specific tools (such as the ones I've mentioned above) but you start to think in terms of how a particular part is going to print and whether it will lead to a misprint. This will lead you to breaking up your designs into multiple chucks.
The genesis of this blog post was really an observation that I made as I was working on my most recent 3D printed project. Someone challenged me to produce a bracket that would support a small 8-inch tablet on top of a wall socket with a USB cable hanging out of it. The bracket had to be strong enough to allow someone to tap at the tablet.
Initially I had thought that I would replace the entire switch and fit the bracket onto the screw holes, but in the end I went with a design that just augmented what was already there.
The design process was definitely iterative. I started out designing a pin that could be slotted into the hole in the face plate and then the bracket would side down through the pin and lock into place on top of the entire face plate. The tablet would then just slide in from the top.
I probably did about 8-9 iterations of the pin and the bracket before I was happy with it, each time doing a print to test out the mechanics.
To me - this is where the true benefit of 3D printing, and any other rapid prototyping technique is - the ability to rapidly iterate. As a developer I'm used to being able to iterate several times a minute - code, compile, run, code, compile, run. It makes me feel sorry for integrated circuit designers who can only simulate their designs and have to send off their circuits to be printed. Depending on the sophistication - their cycles could take days to months.
Another observation that I made is how dramatically the nature of a software engineering job could change if the IoT pundits are correct in what they are saying. If IoT is going to be as pervasive as predicted then software engineers are going to have to acquire some "maker skills" which blends software, electronic components and various manufacturing techniques.
I'm not suggesting that these three roles will become one, rather I suggest that each of these roles will develop greater understanding and appreciation for the other roles, and even overlap in various ways.