3D Printing Typography

When we think of printing typography our thoughts naturally wander to posters, signs, billboards, newspapers and other manifestations of words in print. With the advent of 3D printing we can breathe a third dimension into this historically flat form of communication. With 3D typography we can make things like cake toppers, name plates, word sculptures and more!

While there are many ways to make 3D printable type this is an easy 10 step method using a basic vector program to layout our design and a browser-based 3D modeling program to make it 3D.

- Adobe Illustrator (CS5 or later)
- TinkerCAD Account

- 3D Printer or 3D Printer Service Bureau (Shapeways, Sculpteo, etc..)

3D Printable Type in 10 Easy Steps

1. Open up Adobe Illustrator and create a new document.

2. Using the Type Tool (the one with the little T) type out your message and pick your fonts.

3. Right click on the letters you just typed out and from the pop up menu choose "Create Outlines". After this step you wont be able change your font choice because the "Create Outlines" functions this turns the words you just typed out into vector shapes rather than type tool addressable letters.

4. Make all of the letters overlap. You can do this by moving the whole letter to overlap with another or using the newly created points on the letter outlines we can drag just certain pieces over.

5. Making sure all of your letters are overlapping in at least one spot use the Shape Builder Tool to combine all of the letters into one word shape.

6. Save your file as an .SVG

7. Open a new TinkerCAD Project.

8. Navigate to the "Import" menu on the right side of the TinkerCAD workspace and import the .SVG file you just created.

9. When TinkerCAD finishes importing your .SVG file scale it to the appropriate size and under the "File" menu download the .STL for 3D printing.

10. Send your .STL to your 3D Printer and enjoy your 3D printed type!

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Understanding Shells, Layer Height and Infill

Getting great products out of a 3D printer requires an understanding of the settings that will ultimately dictate how the object feels in your hand. Those settings are the number of shells, infill percentage and layer height which directly control the density, surface finish and durability of the final print.

Shells and Parameters

Examples ranging from 0% to 100% of 3d printed infillIf we think about each printed layer of an object as a two- dimensional drawing laid out on the X and Y axes, then the number of shells on the object refers to the number of times the outline of the drawing is retraced. If the printer only traces the outline once, it is said to have one shell, if it retraces the outline a second time then it is said to have two shells. They are called shells because they are the outer most layer of the object and ultimately the part of the object we see and interact with.

The more shells on an object, the stronger it is. However, adding shells will also increase the print time significantly. Shells are also referred to as perimeters in some software and documentation.

Rule-of-thumb: Use fewer shells when prototyping or printing decorative objects, use more shells when printing items that will be put under more stress.

Layer Height

The number of layers in a print, or the object’s resolution, is determined by the layer height setting. Layer height is measured in microns (one millionth of a meter).

High-res objects use many very thin layers to create a smooth object. With high-resolution printing it becomes difficult to see individual layers in the object because layers are printed as thin as a sheet of paper at a thickness of just 100 microns (0.1mm).

Low-res objects are made of fewer, thicker layers. These objects feel rough to the touch and contain layers that are more visible to the eye, like sediment or the rings of a tree.

Items intended for display purposes are typically printed in high resolution, while prototypes and everyday objects can usually be printed at lower resolutions and at faster speeds.

High-resolution objects take longer to produce than low resolution ones. This is because for every one layer of a low-resolution object, there could be 5 times as many layers in a high resolution object. Each of those layers is extra time spent printing, but they can make a substantial difference in visual quality.

Rule-of-thumb: Use a bigger layer height for prototyping and rapid production, use a smaller layer height for display objects and more-accurate tolerances


Infill is the material used to fill the empty space inside the shell of an object, it refers to the density. Infill is measured by percentage, so an object printed at 100% infill will be 100% solid. More infill will make an object stronger, heavier, and slower to build. Likewise, less infill is lighter and quicker to build.

A 3D printer can extrude infill in several patterns. Some slicing engines create a grid pattern while others will use hexagonal or other geometric patterns. Items printed for display purposes rarely need more than 10%-20% infill, but functioning mechanical parts and pieces that will take more abuse will need 75%-100% infill.

Rule-of-thumb: Use less infill on test objects and prototypes that wont be subjected much stress, use more infill on functional mechanical parts and objects that need to be durable.

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Steps to clear a clogged 3D-printer nozzle

Most popular 3D printers on the market -- Makerbot, Ultimaker, Cube, etc -- use a process called Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), where objects are made by the gradual depositing of melted plastic, one on top of the next. As any plumber will tell you, where there is liquid moving through a tube, there is bound to be the occasional clog. Since 3D printers work just like this, if you own or operate one, then chances are you will eventually run into a clogged nozzle.

Nozzle clogs happen for any number of reasons, but they are always frustrating. Some degraded filament may have gummed up the extruder, or a bit of a dust bunny could have wedged inside. This will cause all sorts of issues, from poor flow, to jamming or no flow at all. Regardless of the reason or resulting issue,  you've got to get your nozzle clean. Chances are, if you are like me, you have scoured the internet looking for information and found suggestions like jamming utensils into your nozzles hole, or creating an insane inferno with a blow torch in an attempt to remove the offending clog. Well here's what I have discovered to be the best way to remove a clog.

So your nozzle is clogged, now what?

The best way to clean a clog from a 3D printer nozzle is to soak it up using molten filament, and then pulling it out once it begins to harden. To do this, you will need Nylon Filament (which can be purchased at Taulman3D). It makes the ideal filament for cleaning because of it's slippery nature and viscosity, which helps in removing more of the clogged matter than PLA.

Nozzle Cleaning Steps:

1. Heat the nozzle to 200C

2. Run Nylon filament through the extruder

3. With Nylon in the nozzle, reduce the temperature to 135C,  and once there let it sit for a minute

4. Slowly but firmly work the filament out of the top of the extruder

The key is to slowly work the filament out, millimeter by millimeter. You will know that you got the whole thing back out when you can see the narrow plastic that made it into the tip of the extruder.

If you pull too hard, or yank the filament too violently, it will break off inside the nozzle and you will have to repeat.

5. Repeat steps 1-4 until the filament you remove from the nozzle comes out clean

Steps to a cleared nozzle

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"This is Automation" by General Electric, 1955

What is Automation?? Find out that and more in this 1955 educational video from General Electric

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SLIDE | Printable iPhone Slider

SLIDE, a 3D printable set of iPhone camera sliders for cinematic video. Learn more here - thing:74307

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Living with the Atom - 1957

In "Living With The Atom" the viewer learns about the discovery of the atom, its structure, its energy, and tests with atomic and hydrogen bombs.

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The Steam Locomotive

Promotional film from 1938, made by the New York Central RailRoad, explaining the in's and out's of the steam engine locomotive. Features the "Hudson" locomotive.

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Arteries of NYC 1940

A Video from the 1940's explaining the transportation routes leading into New York City and the details of future transportation and infrastructure planning. Roads, railways, subways, trolleys and waterways are examined with many scenes of downtown New York interspersed.

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Say Hello to the Avanti

"The 1963 Avanti was the last ditch effort of Sherwood Egbert to rescue the faltering Studebaker. Once again, the company turned to its ace in the hole, stylist Raymond Loewy, to conceive a car that would miraculously turn things around. He rented a house in Palm Springs and there with three young designers and with missionary zeal embarked on creating something new and revolutionary. The result -- the Avanti, got attention but didn't save the company. Studebaker was gone three years later."

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Rube Goldberg Explains Perpetual Motion & Gasoline

Rube Goldberg takes the time to explain how perpetual motion machines work and how gasoline is transfered to energy inside an engine

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Animation in the 1930's

From Paramount Pictures, a documentary showing how animation was done in during 1930s.

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What is 3D Printing and How Does it Work?

The phrase 3D Printing has popped up in the media everywhere from Jay Leno's garage to the cover of multiple tech magazines. Many people are curious to learn more, but given the adolescent stage of the technology there isn't much information to be found. Here I try to address that lack of information.
Q: What is 3D Printing?
A: The process of making a three-dimensional object from a digital model.
I've broken everything down into three main sections. In the first section I outline and explain the most popular types of 3D printing. The second section addresses the characteristics of 3D printed objects. Finally, the last part discusses current desktop 3D printer software.

Types of 3D Printing

Just like there isn't one way to print on paper (ie. laser vs inkjet), there are multiple ways of 3D printing an object. The types of 3D printing most popularly used in the industry are Fused Deposition Modeling, Selective Laser Sintering and Stereolithography.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is the most popular type of 3D printing on the market. If we pull apart the name...
  • Fused: to join or blend to form a single entity
  • Deposition: to put or set down in a specific place
  • Modeling: the activity of making a three-dimensional representation of a thing
... it becomes much less intimidating. FDM is a fancy way of saying it attaches layers of plastic on top of one another in order to make a thing. I typically refer to this type of printing as a "glorified hot glue gun" because it works the exact same way: The extruder pulls in plastic filament (or string) and pushes it through a very hot piece of metal which then 'extrudes' (or spits) it out in a specific pattern.

The other two industry popular types are called Sterolithography (SLA) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and both refer to a process where a laser or other focused light source is pointed into a bath of liquid plastic or resin that when hit with the light source will harden. The machine will draw layer by layer precise images in the liquid which will harden as it goes. When it is finished, you are left with a solid model. The biggest hurdles for SLS and SLA to overcome are the objects they produce are still very brittle, in addition to the high cost of this resin and technology relative to FDM machines.

Characteristics of 3D Printed Objects

A photograph can have high-resolution or low-resolution, where high-res is a lot of pixels very densely packed together so our eyes see one smooth picture, and low-res has fewer pixels and therefore the picture looks more blocky and less smooth.

High-Resolution Photo
Low-Resolution Photo

In 3D printing there are also high-resolution objects and low-resolution objects. A high-res object is one that has very very thin layers (some can be thinner then a slice of paper) so that you end up with a very smooth object where it's tough to see each individual layer. Whereas a low-res object has fewer and thicker layers, where you end up with a rougher object where you can very visibly see each layer.

High-Resolution - Beethoven Bust 
Low-Resolution - "Wells" The Robot

High-resolution objects take longer to produce than low resolution. This is because for every one layer of a low resolution object there could be 5x as many layers in a high resolution object. Each one of those layers is extra time spent printing but can make a substancial difference in visual quality.

3D Printable Materials

As FDM machines are the most popular on the market, the materials those machines use are also the most popular right now. The material, called filament, is packaged much like spools of thread but are much larger and have plastic instead of cotton "string".

Spools of PLA Filament
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), is one of the most popular plastics. It is traditionally used to make all sorts of plastic home goods and is the material of choice for LEGO. It's high performance in impact resistance and durability make it a versatile plastic. ABS is petroleum based and gives off a toxic fume when heated, this is not an issue with proper ventilation to the machine. ABS plastic slightly shrinks when it hardens which can cause an object to curl off of the build platform. To combat this machines incorporate a heated build platform; the equivalent of making your object on a hotplate.

The other most popular polymer is Polylactic Acid (PLA), a bio-degradable plastic made from corn. PLA is very strong and rigid; ABS is softer and more flexible. It's a popular choice for filament because as the plastic hardens it stays very true to its original size and does not require a heated build plate.

Experiments are being done with bleeding-edge materials like nylon, wood fiber, and polycarbonates by hobbyists in an effort to expand the library of materials for 3D printers.

SLS and SLA machines do not use plastic filament. Instead, they use a liquid resin (in this case an un-hardened plastic) that, when hit with the light source, hardens into a solid.

Although still in it's adolescence, 3D printing is quickly maturing and with it will come untold wonders.

Modeling Software - If you want to take a foray into 3D Printing, modeling is your first step. Historically, 3D modeling has been a challenging thing to do. The software has often been unwieldy and infuriating to navigate. Here is a list of programs that are helping to change that.

123D Design -
Part of a suite of modeling software by Autodesk aimed at beginners to 3d modeling. The whole suite is provided for free and has companion iPhone apps that allow you to make 3D models of real things with your phone's camera. 

Sketchup -

A Google-supported product, SketchUp is also popular, free and well documented.

Autodesk Inventors Fusion -

Of the four programs, this is the most dense and has the highest barrier to entry. Definitely more in the advanced category, this is free software that gives more precise control of the modeling once you get the hang of the interface.

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Before & After Etching

For a local Maple Syrup Farm with return bottles.

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Thoughts on ABS as a Filament

Additive manufacturing has been a popular topic lately. It was mentioned in President Obama's State of the Union address as an economic opportunity and appeared in Big Bang Theory in one of their schemes. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on desktop manufacturing and its trajectory.

The majority of '3D printer' manufacturers consider the capability to use ABS filament with their machines the gold standard.  They declare it to be 'experimental' and 'cutting edge' compared to other materials, but in fact the opposite is true. Allow me to explain.

First, a little history on of this type of manufacturing-- invented in 1989 by S. Scott Crump as a means of rapid prototyping, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is the technical term for describing a process that attaches tiny layers of plastic on top of one another in order to make a thing. I sometimes describe this type of machine as a "glorified hot glue gun" because it works the exact same way: The extruder pulls in plastic filament (or string) and spits it out through a very hot piece of metal in a specific pattern.

The first plastic filament that Crump used was Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), a popular plastic that is used to make all sorts of plastic home goods and the ever popular LEGO. It's high performance in impact resistance and durability make it a versatile plastic. ABS is petroleum based and gives off a toxic fume when heated, this is not an issue with proper ventilation to the machine. Part of the appeal of using ABS for injection molding is the plastic slightly shrinks when it hardens making it easy to pop out of the mold. However, this is exactly what makes it so difficult to use with FDM technology.

Here, shrinkage causes the object to curl off of the build platform leaving you with a warped object. A couple of things have been invented to combat this, the most effective of which is the heated build platform or build chamber. Which is either the equivalent of making your object on a hotplate or inside of box that you ran your hair dryer in. Both methods have been developed and refined since Crump's first experiments.

It's most frequently compared competitor is Polylactic Acid (PLA), a bio-degradable plastic made from corn. It is extruded at slightly lower temperatures than ABS but the biggest difference is it can be used at room temperature with little to no warp. PLA is very strong and rigid; ABS is softer and more flexible. When making complex moving objects in PLA you need to have very accurate tolerances as its strength makes it less forgiving.

ABS is a great material, from which more high resolution objects are being made everyday. This isn't experimentation though, this is refinement -- real experimentation is not in trying to do more with ABS, whose limitations are familiar to us, but in exploring new materials.

If we are truly trying to reach the next level of innovation whether it be in our ability to lower the cost of machines, make them more reliable, or expand their capabilities, all of it is hinged on our progress in material science -- On machines without a heated build element we can already use PLA, nylon, and wood based filament. With nylon its possible to make things ultra flexible, thin, strong and durable. The wood filament is cutting edge and makes it possible to cut, sand, or stain the object like regular wood. All are used at room temperature. These are just three materials that expand the capabilities of FDM technology and some of the most exciting innovations since Crump started.

If we remove the materials needed for a heated build element we have already lowered the price of the machine. With exploration of new materials, like the three I've mentioned, we can increase the reliability by focusing on materials that don't warp and have fewer sensitivities. With each new material, the properties of each expand the capabilities of the machine and it's application.  If we focus on finding cheap, renewable, and diverse materials we will be well on our way to the next generation of machines;

ABS was adopted for it's familiarity and has been successful for developing FDM technology. But the future of additive technology is about accessibility, affordability and capability, all of which the limitations of ABS fail to provide for. Machines that make useful objects reliably with very few sensitivities will win in desktop manufacturing. It's time we make way for the next generation.

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間 - Ma

Ma is the Japanese word for the space between two structural parts, the gap

Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
though the space between them
is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
though the space inside them
is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
though the space within them
is the essence of the house.