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What can you make with a 3D printer
David Roberson7 September 2021
Any technology exists to solve a problem or make our lives better – and 3D printing is no different. Before diving into all the technical details, let’s look at what you can make with a 3D printer.
True to its origins as ‘rapid prototyping’, 3D printing is still widely used for this purpose. With 3D printing, designers and engineers can print their digital designs and review them within hours.
There are different types of prototyping that you can make with a 3D printer. Designers can create multiple early concepts to set the direction of a product development process, or in later design stages create a realistic mockup to evaluate shape and form – for example how a phone feels in the hand.
And engineers can use diverse material options to perform functional testing of their prototypes, such as checking heat or impact resistance, or fit testing the design of a new part.
What else can you make with a 3D printer?
Beyond prototyping, a 3D printing is a powerful way to create functional parts and tools. Most plastic products are created by injection molding – a process where molten plastic is injected into a metal mold, where it sets in the desired shape. While this process can take as little as a few seconds and is easy to repeat, it takes much longer to make the initial mold and only becomes cost effective once you’ve made a lot of parts.
What if you only need a few hundred? Or you need them by the end of the week? That’s where 3D printing can help.
Prototipi concettuali iniziali per un supporto per tablet realizzati con la stampa 3D
Alcune parti sono abbastanza piccole da consentire di stampare più lotti in un singolo processo di stampa
As 3D printers have become more reliable and capable of printing with a wider range of materials – from strong glass or metal composites to flexible rubber-like materials – short-run manufacturing of small batches has become a realistic option.
3D printers give the producer more control and flexibility. If shipment of a component is delayed or there’s a spike in demand for your product, parts can simply be 3D printed so that production schedules stay on track. This is not only useful for manufacturing businesses, but helped to keep medics safe at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when PPE and other supply chains couldn’t meet demand.
Replacement parts are common on manufacturing and packaging lines where any problems and downtime can be very costly. If a part can no longer be sourced, or frequently fails and needs to be optimized, 3D printing means a replacement can be installed in a matter of hours.
Technically a type of functional part, 3D printed tooling is now so widespread it can be considered a category of application. Manufacturers can create and test new or optimized tools whenever they like, as well as custom jigs and fixtures to make the manufacturing process easier and more repeatable, for first-time-right results.
Models to explain concepts
As well as designing and making products, visualizing concepts in 3D is another great example of what you can make with a 3D printer.
Applications include architectural models of new developments, medical models for planning surgery or explaining procedures to patients, and visualizations for education purposes.
Strumento stampato in 3D utilizzato per una sostituzione nella linea di produzione
Architetti che verificano un modello stampato in 3D del loro progetto
Falling costs and the development of more compact ‘desktop’ 3D printers have also made the technology increasingly accessible over time.
Want to discover more?
Explore the world of 3D printing further by checking out our answers to these common questions:
What is 3D printing?
How to use a 3D printer?
How much does 3D printing cost?
And for an even deeper dive, the white paper below is free to download.
Understand 3D printing's biggest cost-saving opportunities in this guide, including:
• The 5 most popular applications of 3D printing
• How to go to market quicker than your competition
• Proven examples that bring over 90% savings
• And lots more!
3D printing for "dummies" or "what is a 3D printer?"
- 1 3D printing term
- 2 3D printing methods
- 2.1 Extrusion printing
- 2.2 Melting, sintering or gluing
- 2.3 Stereolithography
- 2.4 Lamination
- 3 Fused Deposition Printing (FDM)
- 3. 1 Consumables
- 3.2 Extruder
- 3.3 Working platform
- 3.4 Positioners
- 3.5 Control
- 3.6 Varieties of FDM printers
- 4 Laser stereolithography (SLA)
- 4.1 Lasers and projectors
- 4.2 Cuvette and resin
- 4.3 Types of stereolithographic printers
3D printing term
The term 3D printing has several synonyms, one of which quite briefly and accurately characterizes the essence of the process - "additive manufacturing", that is, production by adding material. The term was not coined by chance, because this is the main difference between multiple 3D printing technologies and the usual methods of industrial production, which in turn received the name "subtractive technologies", that is, "subtractive". If during milling, grinding, cutting and other similar procedures, excess material is removed from the workpiece, then in the case of additive manufacturing, material is gradually added until a solid model is obtained.
Soon 3D printing will even be tested on the International Space Station
Strictly speaking, many traditional methods could be classified as "additive" in the broad sense of the word - for example, casting or riveting. However, it should be borne in mind that in these cases, either the consumption of materials is required for the manufacture of specific tools used in the production of specific parts (as in the case of casting), or the whole process is reduced to joining ready-made parts (welding, riveting, etc.). In order for the technology to be classified as “3D printing”, the final product must be built from raw materials, not blanks, and the formation of objects must be arbitrary - that is, without the use of forms. The latter means that additive manufacturing requires a software component. Roughly speaking, additive manufacturing requires computer control so that the shape of final products can be determined by building digital models. It was this factor that delayed the widespread adoption of 3D printing until the moment when numerical control and 3D design became widely available and highly productive.
3D printing techniques
3D printing technologies are numerous, and there are even more names for them due to patent restrictions. However, you can try to divide technologies into main areas:
This includes methods such as deposition deposition (FDM) and multi-jet printing (MJM). This method is based on the extrusion (extrusion) of consumables with the sequential formation of the finished product. As a rule, consumables consist of thermoplastics or composite materials based on them.
Melting, sintering or bonding
This approach is based on bonding powdered material together. Formation is done in different ways. The simplest is gluing, as is the case with 3D inkjet printing (3DP). Such printers deposit thin layers of powder onto the build platform, which are then selectively bonded with a binder. Powders can be made up of virtually any material that can be ground to a powder—plastic, wood, metal.
This model of James Bond's Aston Martin was successfully printed on Voxeljet's SLS printer and blown up just as successfully during the filming of Skyfall instead of the expensive original
sintering (SLS and DMLS) and smelting (SLM), which allow you to create all-metal parts. As with 3D inkjet printing, these devices apply thin layers of powder, but the material is not glued together, but sintered or melted using a laser. Laser sintering (SLS) is used to work with both plastic and metal powders, although metal pellets usually have a more fusible shell, and after printing they are additionally sintered in special ovens. DMLS is a variant of SLS installations with more powerful lasers that allow sintering metal powders directly without additives. SLM printers provide not just sintering of particles, but their complete melting, which allows you to create monolithic models that do not suffer from the relative fragility caused by the porosity of the structure. As a rule, printers for working with metal powders are equipped with vacuum working chambers, or they replace air with inert gases. Such a complication of the design is caused by the need to work with metals and alloys subject to oxidation - for example, with titanium.
How an SLA printer works
Stereolithography printers use special liquid materials called "photopolymer resins". The term "photopolymerization" refers to the ability of a material to harden when exposed to light. As a rule, such materials react to ultraviolet irradiation.
Resin is poured into a special container with a movable platform, which is installed in a position near the surface of the liquid. The layer of resin covering the platform corresponds to one layer of the digital model. Then a thin layer of resin is processed by a laser beam, hardening at the points of contact. At the end of illumination, the platform together with the finished layer is immersed to the thickness of the next layer, and illumination is performed again.
Laminating (LOM) 3D printers workflow
Some 3D printers build models using sheet materials - paper, foil, plastic film.
Layers of material are glued on top of each other and cut to the contours of the digital model using a laser or a blade.
These machines are well suited for prototyping and can use very cheap consumables, including regular office paper. However, the complexity and noise of these printers, coupled with the limitations of the models they produce, limit their popularity.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Laser Stereolithography (SLA) are the most popular 3D printing methods used in the home and office.
Let's take a closer look at these technologies.
Fused Deposition Printing (FDM)
FDM is perhaps the simplest and most affordable 3D construction method, which makes it very popular.
High demand for FDM printers is driving device and consumable prices down rapidly, along with technology advances towards ease of use and improved reliability.
ABS filament spool and finished model
FDM printers are designed to print with thermoplastics, which are usually supplied as thin filaments wound on spools. The range of "clean" plastics is very wide. One of the most popular materials is polylactide or "PLA plastic". This material is made from corn or sugar cane, which makes it non-toxic and environmentally friendly, but makes it relatively short-lived. ABS plastic, on the other hand, is very durable and wear-resistant, although it is susceptible to direct sunlight and can release small amounts of harmful fumes when heated. Many plastic items that we use on a daily basis are made from this material: housings for household appliances, plumbing fixtures, plastic cards, toys, etc.
In addition to PLA and ABS, printing is possible with nylon, polycarbonate, polyethylene and many other thermoplastics that are widely used in modern industry. More exotic materials are also possible, such as polyvinyl alcohol, known as "PVA plastic". This material dissolves in water, which makes it very useful for printing complex geometric patterns. But more on that below.
Model made from Laywoo-D3. Changing the extrusion temperature allows you to achieve different shades and simulate annual rings
It is not necessary to print with homogeneous plastics. It is also possible to use composite materials imitating wood, metals, stone. Such materials use all the same thermoplastics, but with impurities of non-plastic materials.
So, Laywoo-D3 consists partly of natural wood dust, which allows you to print "wooden" products, including furniture.
The material called BronzeFill is filled with real bronze, and models made from it can be ground and polished, achieving a high similarity to products made from pure bronze.
One has only to remember that thermoplastics serve as a binding element in composite materials - they determine the thresholds of strength, thermal stability and other physical and chemical properties of finished models.
Extruder - FDM print head. Strictly speaking, this is not entirely true, because the head consists of several parts, of which only the feed mechanism is directly "extruder". However, by tradition, the term "extruder" is commonly used as a synonym for the entire print assembly.
FDM extruder general design
The extruder is designed for melting and applying thermoplastic thread. The first component is the thread feed mechanism, which consists of rollers and gears driven by an electric motor. The mechanism feeds the thread into a special heated metal tube with a small diameter nozzle, called a "hot end" or simply a "nozzle". The same mechanism is used to remove the thread if a change of material is needed.
The hot end is used to heat and melt the thread fed by the puller. As a rule, nozzles are made from brass or aluminum, although more heat-resistant, but also more expensive materials can be used. For printing with the most popular plastics, a brass nozzle is quite enough. The “nozzle” itself is attached to the end of the tube with a threaded connection and can be replaced with a new one in case of wear or if a change in diameter is necessary. The nozzle diameter determines the thickness of the molten filament and, as a result, affects the print resolution. The heating of the hot end is controlled by a thermistor. Temperature control is very important, because when the material is overheated, pyrolysis can occur, that is, the decomposition of plastic, which contributes both to the loss of the properties of the material itself and to clogging of the nozzle.
PrintBox3D One FDM Printer Extruder
To prevent the filament from melting too early, the top of the hot end is cooled by heatsinks and fans. This point is of great importance, since thermoplastics that pass the glass transition temperature significantly expand in volume and increase the friction of the material with the walls of the hot end. If the length of such a section is too long, the pulling mechanism may not have enough strength to push the thread.
The number of extruders may vary depending on the purpose of the 3D printer. The simplest options use a single printhead. The dual extruder greatly expands the capabilities of the device, allowing you to print one model in two different colors, as well as using different materials. The last point is important when building complex models with overhanging structural elements: FDM printers cannot print “over the air”, since the applied layers require support. In the case of hinged elements, temporary support structures have to be printed, which are removed after printing is completed. The removal process is fraught with damage to the model itself and requires accuracy. In addition, if the model has a complex structure with internal cavities that are difficult to access, building conventional supports may not be practical due to the difficulty in removing excess material.
Finished model with PVA supports (white) before and after washing
In such cases, the same water-soluble polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) comes in handy. Using a dual extruder, you can build a model from waterproof thermoplastic using PVA to create supports.
After printing, PVA can be simply dissolved in water and a complex product of perfect quality can be obtained.
Some FDM printers can use three or even four extruders.
Heated platform covered with removable glass work table
Models are built on a special platform, often equipped with heating elements. Preheating is required for a wide range of plastics, including the popular ABS, which are subject to a high degree of shrinkage when cooled. The rapid loss of volume by cold coats compared to freshly applied material can lead to model distortion or delamination. The heating of the platform makes it possible to significantly equalize the temperature gradient between the upper and lower layers.
Heating is not recommended for some materials. A typical example is PLA plastic, which requires a fairly long time to harden. Heating PLA can lead to deformation of the lower layers under the weight of the upper ones. When working with PLA, measures are usually taken not to heat up, but to cool the model. Such printers have characteristic open cases and additional fans blowing fresh layers of the model.
Calibration screw for work platform covered with blue masking tape
The platform needs to be calibrated before printing to ensure that the nozzle does not hit the applied layers and move too far causing air-to-air printing resulting in plastic vermicelli. The calibration process can be either manual or automatic. In manual mode, calibration is performed by positioning the nozzle at different points on the platform and adjusting the platform inclination using the support screws to achieve the optimal distance between the surface and the nozzle.
As a rule, platforms are equipped with an additional element - a removable table. This design simplifies the cleaning of the working surface and facilitates the removal of the finished model. Stages are made from various materials, including aluminum, acrylic, glass, etc. The choice of material for the manufacture of the stage depends on the presence of heating and consumables for which the printer is optimized.
For a better adhesion of the first layer of the model to the surface of the table, additional tools are often used, including polyimide film, glue and even hairspray! But the most popular tool is inexpensive, but effective masking tape. Some manufacturers make perforated tables that hold the model well but are difficult to clean. In general, the expediency of applying additional funds to the table depends on the consumable material and the material of the table itself.
Scheme of operation of positioning mechanisms
Of course, the print head must move relative to the working platform, and unlike conventional office printers, positioning must be carried out not in two, but in three planes, including height adjustment.
Positioning pattern may vary. The simplest and most common option involves mounting the print head on perpendicular guides driven by stepper motors and providing positioning along the X and Y axes.
Vertical positioning is carried out by moving the working platform.
On the other hand, it is possible to move the extruder in one plane and the platforms in two.
SeemeCNC ORION Delta Printer
One option that is gaining popularity is the delta coordinate system.
Such devices are called "delta robots" in the industry.
In delta printers, the print head is suspended on three manipulators, each of which moves along a vertical rail.
The synchronous symmetrical movement of the manipulators allows you to change the height of the extruder above the platform, and the asymmetric movement causes the head to move in the horizontal plane.
A variant of this system is the reverse delta design, where the extruder is fixed to the ceiling of the working chamber, and the platform moves on three support arms.
Delta printers have a cylindrical build area, and their design makes it easy to increase the height of the working area with minimal design changes by extending the rails.
In the end, everything depends on the decision of the designers, but the fundamental principle does not change.
Typical Arduino-based controller with add-on modules
The operation of the FDM printer, including nozzle and platform temperature, filament feed rate, and stepper motors for positioning the extruder, is controlled by fairly simple electronic controllers. Most controllers are based on the Arduino platform, which has an open architecture.
The programming language used by the printers is called G-code (G-Code) and consists of a list of commands executed in turn by the 3D printer systems. G-code is compiled by programs called "slicers" - standard 3D printer software that combines some of the features of graphics editors with the ability to set print options through a graphical interface. The choice of slicer depends on the printer model. RepRap printers use open source slicers such as Skeinforge, Replicator G and Repetier-Host. Some companies make printers that require proprietary software.
Program code for printing is generated using slicers
As an example, we can mention Cube printers from 3D Systems. There are companies that offer proprietary software but allow third-party software, as is the case with the latest generation of MakerBot 3D printers.
Slicers are not intended for 3D design per se. This task is done with CAD editors and requires some 3D design skills. Although beginners should not despair: digital models of a wide variety of designs are offered on many sites, often even for free. Finally, some companies and individuals offer 3D design services for custom printing.
Finally, 3D printers can be used in conjunction with 3D scanners to automate the process of digitizing objects. Many of these devices are designed specifically to work with 3D printers. Notable examples include the 3D Systems Sense handheld scanner and the MakerBot Digitizer handheld desktop scanner.
MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation FDM Printer with built-in control module on the top of the frame
The user interface of a 3D printer can consist of a simple USB port for connecting to a personal computer. In such cases, the device is actually controlled by the slicer.
The disadvantage of this simplification is a rather high probability of printing failure when the computer freezes or slows down.
A more advanced option includes an internal memory or memory card interface to make the process standalone.
These models are equipped with control modules that allow you to adjust many print parameters (such as print speed or extrusion temperature). The module may include a small LCD display or even a mini-tablet.
Varieties of FDM printers
Professional Stratasys Fortus 360mc FDM printer that allows printing with nylon
FDM printers are very, very diverse, ranging from the simplest homemade RepRap printers to industrial installations capable of printing large-sized objects.
Stratasys, founded by Scott Crump, the inventor of FDM technology, is a leader in the production of industrial installations.
You can build the simplest FDM printers yourself. Such devices are called RepRap, where "Rep" indicates the possibility of "replication", that is, self-reproduction.
RepRap printers can be used to print custom built plastic parts.
Controller, rails, belts, motors and other components can be easily purchased separately.
Of course, assembling such a device on your own requires serious technical and even engineering skills.
Some manufacturers make it easy by selling DIY kits, but these kits still require a good understanding of the technology. RepRap Printers
And, despite their "homemade nature", RepRap printers are quite capable of producing models with quality at the level of expensive branded counterparts.
Ordinary users who do not want to delve into the intricacies of the process, but require only a convenient device for household use, can purchase a ready-made FDM printer.
Many companies are focusing on the development of the consumer market segment, offering 3D printers for sale that are ready to print “right out of the box” and do not require serious computer skills.
3D Systems Cube consumer 3D printer
The most famous example of a consumer 3D printer is the 3D Systems Cube.
While it doesn't boast a huge build area, ultra-fast print speeds, or superb build quality, it's easy to use, affordable, and safe: This printer has received the necessary certification to be used even by children.
Mankati FDM printer demonstration: http://youtu.be/51rypJIK4y0
Laser Stereolithography (SLA)
Stereolithographic 3D printers are widely used in dental prosthetics
Stereolithographic printers are the second most popular and widespread after FDM printers.
These units deliver exceptional print quality.
The resolution of some SLA printers is measured in a matter of microns - it is not surprising that these devices quickly won the love of jewelers and dentists.
The software side of laser stereolithography is almost identical to FDM printing, so we will not repeat ourselves and will only touch on the distinctive features of the technology.
Lasers and projectors
Projector illumination of a photopolymer model using Kudo3D Titan DLP printer as an example
The cost of stereolithography printers is rapidly declining due to growing competition due to high demand and the use of new technologies that reduce the cost of construction.
Although the technology is generically referred to as "laser" stereolithography, most recent developments use UV LED projectors for the most part.
Projectors are cheaper and more reliable than lasers, do not require the use of delicate mirrors to deflect the laser beam, and have higher performance. The latter is explained by the fact that the contour of the whole layer is illuminated as a whole, and not sequentially, point by point, as is the case with laser options. This variant of the technology is called projection stereolithography, "DLP-SLA" or simply "DLP". However, both options are currently common - both laser and projector versions.
Cuvette and resin
Photopolymer resin is poured into a cuvette
A photopolymer resin that looks like epoxy is used as consumables for stereolithography printers. Resins can have a variety of characteristics, but they all share one key feature for 3D printing applications: these materials harden when exposed to ultraviolet light. Hence, in fact, the name "photopolymer".
When polymerized, resins can have a wide variety of physical characteristics. Some resins are like rubber, others are hard plastics like ABS. You can choose different colors and degrees of transparency. The main disadvantage of resins and SLA printing in general is the cost of consumables, which significantly exceeds the cost of thermoplastics.
On the other hand, stereolithography printers are mainly used by jewelers and dentists who do not need to build large parts but appreciate the savings from fast and accurate prototyping. Thus, SLA printers and consumables pay for themselves very quickly.
Example of a model printed on a laser stereolithographic 3D printer
Resin is poured into a cuvette, which can be equipped with a lowering platform. In this case, the printer uses a leveling device to flatten the thin layer of resin covering the platform just prior to irradiation. As the model is being made, the platform, together with the finished layers, is “embedded” in the resin. Upon completion of printing, the model is removed from the cuvette, treated with a special solution to remove liquid resin residues and placed in an ultraviolet oven, where the final illumination of the model is performed.
Some SLA and DLP printers work in an "inverted" scheme: the model is not immersed in the consumable, but "pulled" out of it, while the laser or projector is placed under the cuvette, and not above it. This approach eliminates the need to level the surface after each exposure, but requires the use of a cuvette made of a material transparent to ultraviolet light, such as quartz glass.
The accuracy of stereolithographic printers is extremely high. For comparison, the standard for vertical resolution for FDM printers is considered to be 100 microns, and some variants of SLA printers allow you to apply layers as thin as 15 microns. But this is not the limit. The problem, rather, is not so much in the accuracy of lasers, but in the speed of the process: the higher the resolution, the lower the print speed. The use of digital projectors allows you to significantly speed up the process, because each layer is illuminated entirely. As a result, some DLP printer manufacturers claim to be able to print with a vertical resolution of one micron!
Video from CES 2013 showing Formlabs Form1 stereolithography 3D printer in action: http://youtu.be/IjaUasw64VE
Stereolithography Printer Options
Formlabs Form1 Desktop Stereolithography Printer
As with FDM printers, SLA printers come in a wide range in terms of size, features and cost. Professional installations can cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and weigh a couple of tons, but the rapid development of desktop SLA and DLP printers is gradually reducing the cost of equipment without compromising print quality.
Models such as the Titan 1 promise to make stereolithographic 3D printing affordable for small businesses and even home use at around $1,000. Formlabs' Form 1 is available now for a factory selling price of $3,299.
The developer of the DLP printer Peachy generally intends to overcome the lower price barrier of $100.
At the same time, the cost of photopolymer resins remains quite high, although the average price has fallen from $150 to $50 per liter over the past couple of years.
Of course, the growing demand for stereolithographic printers will stimulate the growth in the production of consumables, which will lead to further price reductions.
Go to the main page of the Encyclopedia of 3D printing
How a 3D printer works, what can be printed on a 3D printer
The 3D printer is a technology that allows you to create real objects from a digital model. It all started in the 80s under the name "rapid prototyping", which was the goal of the technology: to create a prototype faster and cheaper. A lot has changed since then, and today 3D printers allow you to create anything you can imagine.
- What is 3D printing?
- How does a 3D printer work?
- What can be printed?
The 3D printer allows you to create objects that are almost identical to their virtual models. That is why the scope of these technologies is so wide.
What is 3D printing?
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process because, unlike traditional subtractive manufacturing, 3D printing does not remove material, but adds it, layer by layer - that is, builds or grows.
- In the first step of printing, the data from the drawing or 3D model is read by the printer.
- Next is the sequential overlay of layers.
- These layers, consisting of sheet material, liquid or powder, are joined together to form the final shape.
With limited production of parts, 3D printing will be faster and cheaper. The world of 3D printing does not stand still and therefore there are more and more different technologies competing with each other on the market. The difference lies in the printing process itself. Some technologies create layers by softening or melting the material, then they provide layer-by-layer application of this same material. Other technologies involve the use of liquid materials, which acquire a solid form in the process under the influence of various factors.
In order to print something you first need a 3D model of the object which you can create in a 3D modeling program (CAD - Computer Aided Design) or use a 3D scanner to scan the object you want print. There are also easier options, such as looking for models on the internet that have been created and made available to other people.
Once your design is ready, all you have to do is import it into the Slicer, a program that adapts the model into codes and instructions for a 3D printer, most of the programs are open source and distributed free of charge. The slicer will convert your project into a gcode file ready to be printed as a physical object. Simply save the file to the included SD card and insert it into your 3D printer and hit print.
The whole process can take several hours and sometimes even days. It all depends on the size, material and complexity of the model. Some 3D printers use two different materials. One of them is part of the model itself, the other acts as a prop that supports parts of the model hanging in the air. The second material is subsequently removed.
How does a 3D printer work?
Although there are several 3D printing technologies, most create an object by building up many successive thin layers of material. Typically desktop 3D printers use plastic filaments (1) which are fed into the printer by the feeder (2) . The filament melts into the print head (3) which extrudes the material onto the platform (4) creating the object layer by layer. Once the printer starts printing, all you have to do is wait - it's easy.
Of course, as you become an advanced user, playing with the settings and tweaking your printer can lead to even better results.
What can be 3D printed?
The possibilities of 3D printers are endless and they are now becoming a common tool in fields such as engineering, industrial design, manufacturing and architecture. Here are some typical use cases:
Create custom products that perfectly fit your needs in terms of size and shape. Do something that would be impossible with any other technology.
3D printing allows you to quickly create a model or prototype, helping engineers, designers and companies get feedback on their projects in a short time.
Models that are hard to imagine can be easily created with a 3D printer. These models are good for teaching others about complex geometry in a fun and useful way.