I Love 3D – Part 1

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

It’s been a long time since my last post and I’m so excited that my first post back is this topic… Cause I’m loving 3D! Not 3D cinema… 3D printing!

This all started thanks to my wife who, in retrospect, probably regrets forwarding me an article about gun legislation vs the new and inexpensive consumer grade 3D printers hitting the market. This article basically pointed out that new gun legislation is going to be ineffective since people will be printing guns very soon (and they are). But what really stood out to me was that this article indicated 3D printers were available as low as $500. Five hundred dollars!!!

This began my journey into the world of 3D printing. As there is SO much to share… I decided to break this post into 3 parts… Or you could say the 3 dimensions of 3D printing!

Part 1 – The Technology

Part 2 – Basic Applications

Part 3 – Advanced Applications

Part 1 – The Technology

There’s a load of information out there already… And I don’t want to be redundant. At the end of this section I will include a couple links for other information.

In this section I want to focus in a more subjective way on my experiences. When I started looking into 3D printing I saw that printers for consumer use were avail starting at $500 and going up to around $2500. These printers use a process of extruding ABS plastic in thin layers… It’s an additive process wherein two motors (X & Y) move an extruder, a third motor (Z) raises or lowers the table or bed from the extruder, and a fourth motor (E) drives a plastic ABS filament into the extruded where it melts and gets pushed out in very small amounts onto the table.

This process differs from higher end 3D printers which use stereolithography (laser into a solution that hardens when hit by light) or other proprietary techniques. Incidentally, a company called Formlabs just began shipping a desktop stereolithography unit for $3200. Although the precision is higher, the parts are intended more for rapid prototyping rather than use.

Back to my story… So I did some research and decided on a printer from Solidoodle. It seemed to offer the largest print area (8″ cubed) and the most advanced control from a software side. Price for the printer was $799.00. The down side is that there is an 8 week waiting period for a Solidoodle printer… So if you are anxious to get into this new world of printing… Place your order now or look at other manufacturers.

The Solidoodle printer is very basic… Not polished like some of the other offerings. It’s a sheet metal frame…not polished at all. In fact you have to be careful with the sheet metal… It’s sharp. I’ve cut myself a couple times. But a little tape along sharp edges will do the trick.

What’s cool about the Solidoodle unit is that they have used 3D printed parts in the design. Ultimately that is where this entire push came from… The idea of creating a machine that can self replicate. This is just the start.


Getting Started:

My printer was finally ready to ship while I was on location in Chicago… So I had it shipped to the hotel. In retrospect, the housekeeping service must have thought I was crazy. The machine comes pretty bare bones with the printer, power cord, one piece of paper with instructions on assembling the filament holder, a sample bit of green filament, and a USB cable.

Now, the Solidoodle people are making a big effort to increase their support, documentation and videos…but you can imagine my surprise at the limited information in the box.

I’m obviously anxious to get started, so I dig in… and I don’t want to get too deep into my trials and tribulations… But there were definitely growing pains. I’ll go over this briefly.

The first hurdle I ran into was software. I found the Solidoodle site to be a bit outdated when it came to software. Here’s what you need to know about the software. First, you can print from either your Mac or your PC. In both cases you will need to intall the printer drivers (yes, even for Mac) and then install Repetier Host (whichever is the latest version). All of the software is free and independent of Solidoodle. I’ve used the program both on the PC and Mac side and they are pretty much the same.

Link for drivers
Link for Repetier Host

Included in the download and install of Repetier Host is a program called Slic3r. You can configure and run it from Repetier… So it’s pretty seamless. Slic3r basically takes your STL files (a generic 3D file that you can output from your 3D design program or download free from a site like thinginverse.com) and breaks them down into code for printing (this printer uses gcode… A very basic language for CNC machines… I use it on my mill). Don’t worry though… You don’t have to learn the code.

Here’s basically how you operate the software:
1) Open Repetier & click “connect”
2) Load the STL file (in PC version click “load” at top, in Mac version you need to select “Add STL” on the first tab.
3) Click the slic3r tab, select your presets, and select “slice”
4) Once its finished slicing you simply click “Run Job” at the top

As I mentioned you can tweak Slic3r settings from the Repetier app. Click on the Slic3r tab and select configure. This will launch Slic3r and you can start tweaking. The PC version comes with presets for Solidoodle which is nice… Not sure why the Mac version doesn’t but you can easily add these yourself. If you are using the Mac version, just try and get your hands on the PC version and copy all the settings manually. It would be nice if there was a presets file that you could just copy over… But this is not the case.

I’ve tweaked my settings a bit… But the most important tweaks to share would be to go to the section where you can add custom code and add the following… In the first field (for the beginning code) add “M140 S95″ and in the second field (for the end code) add “M140 S40″. This will tell your printer to turn the bed header on and set it to 95 degrees Celsius at the beginning of the job and then turn it off when done printing. I always manually turn my bed heater on ahead of time since it takes a while to heat up… But at least if you forget… this helps… And since I always print unsupervised, it turns the heater off for me at the end.

Perhaps the most common and pervasive issue people have is getting the print to stick to the bed. The model I purchased has a heated bed which is supposed to help… But doesn’t solve the problem entirely. The solution is a combo of: bed calibration height (z-tab); heated bed; and hair spray (yes, hair spray… Specifically Suave Extra Hold). Also, I’ve recently started rubbing some steel wool across the kapton covered bed just before spraying the hair spray.

That brings me to the kapton. The bed is covered with kapton tape. This is supposed to help adhesion of the part to the bed. However, when you combine the aforementioned tricks to get a better stick… It becomes very difficult to remove some parts. So much so that you have to use a putty knife to pry it off. And when you do that you will eventually destroy your kapton. The people at Solidoodle claim the kapton is NOT intended to be an expendable… But I don’t see how it can’t be. So I’ve gone ahead and bought a 6″ roll of kapton. It doesn’t cover the 8″ bed along one axis… But I couldn’t find 8″ rolls of kapton. I change it every dozen prints or so. Sometime less often.

Finally, one last hurdle. The printer kept clogging or jamming on me. By this I mean, the filament would stop feeding through the extruder. I spent days if not over a week troubleshooting this… And I finally figured it out. Let me preface this by saying I really like the guys at Solidoodle. They have been eager to help me. They have even called me on the weekend to help figure things out. I like their machine. I think it’s a great unit for the price. That said, I found that the filament I was buying from them was the problem. This might not be the case for other users, but I found it to be too soft. The gear that is used to bite into the filament and push the plastic through the extruder was ripping off bits of plastic and getting clogged constantly. No amount of tweaking would fix this. I realized this when I received a roll of filament I had ordered on Amazon from a company called Octave. The moment I opened the box I knew there was something different about it… And it printed perfectly. Since then I haven’t had to clean out the extruder gear once.


Now, lets get to the good part… Printing in 3D! See above my first successful print ever. I took this to set and showed everyone. I was so exited.

Printing in 3D is amazing. It’s so liberating. I have a comprehensive shop in my house. A mill, lathe, bandsaw, drill press, belt sander, and a TIG welder. Probably spent $25,000 on it all. For $800 I have a machine that does it all… By itself… Unsupervised… In a fraction of the time it would take for me to fabricate conventionally.

Of course it is only plastic… So there will certainly be applications that require aluminum or steel. But there are plenty of things I had wanted to make that work great in ABS! And for those things that need to be in metal… To be able to prototype first in plastic is huge. I can’t tell you how often I spent weeks fabricating something only to realize I overlooked something… Then got mired in the process of salvaging the work (if even possible).

Keep in mind, it is only an $800 piece of equipment. And as you are all aware… You get what you pay for! Some of the drawbacks are as follows:

1) Since it prints in layers, the parts are weaker with the grain than against the grain
2) Overall, keep in mind the tensile strength of plastic is significantly less than aluminum
3) The precision is only 0.01 roughly.
4) The finish is only smooth on one surface, the surface the is against the bed. The rest of the surfaces have a ribbed finish.


That said I’ve done some amazing things with it. Here is a list of must haves to compliment the printer:

1) Most important… Hair spray (suave extra hold)
2) Helicoil set… This is critical if you want to install any tapped holes. You can tap the parts without helicoils, but they wont be very strong. Helicoils aren’t cheap but god it works good!
3) Acetone, which melts abs, is useful for cleaning
4) Alcohol for removing the hairspray from the bed
5) Filament obviously
6) Putty knife for removing parts
7) Roll of kapton

In the next part I will get into describing the applications for which I’ve used the printer. Stay tuned!

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