A few weeks with a 3D Printer: What I’ve learned

MakerBot Thing-O-Matic

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I’ve had my MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3D printer up and running for a few weeks now and thought I’d document some of the things that I’ve learned during this process. Hopefully these items will help someone else who’s interested in the world of 3D printing.

OctoCat

Keep in mind these thoughts are based on my experience assembling and using a MakerBot Industries Thing-O-Matic (serial number 4190) in June/July 2011. Many things, like the assembly instructions wiki, can change as well as the iterative design and manufacturing process used to make the Thing-O-Matic (ToM for short). Your ToM may or may not resemble mine depending on when you bought it.

Yes, it’s as awesome as you think it is.
I get asked daily about my 3D printer…it’s pretty wild to blow people’s minds when you explain what a 3D printer is and show them samples (I usually carry a few prints with me)…and you will get asked if you need 3D glasses to view the printed objects.

Mars Exploration Rover

I’ve been able to print some pretty complex objects…some with multiple hours of printing of multiple parts but the end results have been awesome. I’ve also been printing some very useful objects like this Arduino PCB holder which I used in a project that I’ll be posting about soon:

Printed Arduino PCB mount

A few technical notes:

Automated Build Platform (ABP) versus the Heated Build Platform (HBP)
The idea of the ABP is awesome – you hit print, the bot prints your item and then ejects it via a conveyor belt. It’s like magic.

Printing! In 3D!

It really is a cool concept. Except it caused me a lot of grief. Why? Printing with plastic requires a print surface that will hold it in place as subsequent layers of plastic are applied. I found that the conveyor belt would cause the prints to rock back and forth as the print head went over them causing curling and warping around the edges. Or worse case, it would cause the print head to knock the print free and basically lose it’s place in the print.

A-Mazing box

After reading extensive forum and wiki posts about the various platforms, I opted to assemble the Heated Build Platform. I had already ordered the aluminum build plate so I used that along with the 2″ 3M blue painters tape as a top layer. The difference in print quality once up and running was astounding. I then ordered the 4″ Kapton super wide tape which single handedly made for the best prints as of yet. Objects stuck perfectly in place on the platform with no warping, curling or knocked loose prints. I REALLY wish the ABP worked as well as the Kapton tape surface did. It’s like night and day. The only downside is that it can be trickier to remove your prints once finished since they are stuck in place really well. Just make sure to let everything cool for at least 90 seconds before touching it.

If you get one piece of useful advice from me it’s this: skip the (current) ABP and go with the HBP with aluminum build surface covered in Kapton tape.

Does the colour of the ABS plastic matter when printing?
Along with my ToM, I excitedly ordered a 1kg spool of green 3mm ABS plastic. Army green is one of my favourite colours and couldn’t wait to print in that colour instead of natural ABS or something else. Unfortunately, it seems (to me) that it’s possibly one of the worst colours to print with. After getting the ToM all dialled in, I printed a few whistles in natural and green. The natural print looks almost perfect and solid. The green one showed more imperfections and the layer lines were much more obvious. My theory is that it has to do with the pigments used in the ABS filament but I have no idea. I wasn’t able to find any definitive listing or table of ABS colours and their optimal printing speed/temperature/etc. I just received some ‘safety orange‘ and ‘nuclear green‘ ABS filament and like the natural, the prints are near perfect using the default 225 degrees for the print head. I tried all kinds of temperature settings with the regular green and none made a difference.

Installing better lighting
One of the things that first attracted me to the MakerBots were the intense lights I’ve seen many of them have installed in them. I scoured the MakerBot site and couldn’t really find any specifics of ‘pimping out your bot’ but fortunately, Greg @ MakerBot.ca filled me on how it works. So I ordered a set of green LEDs.

LED lighting installed in the MakerBot

Using the MakerBot LED light strips, I simply peeled the 3M tape backing off and stuck them in place around the inside top of the MakerBot. Unfortunately, there is practically no documentation about installing the leds so I had to figure it out for myself. The LEDs are 12V so I used one of the extra lines from the power supply that wasn’t being used. I also printed a button casing for a switch that drops into one of the unused holes on the top of the ToM that I’ll wire up next time I want/need to open the electronics bay (the bottom of the unit).

I also installed, using a mount that I printed, some LED lighting under the Z-Axis:
LED lights installed around print head

but have since removed it because the LEDs were too bright and would wash out any photos/video as well, the mount got in the way more often than I’d like when trying to either shoot or monitor the print process. I’ve ordered a meter of the LED light strips in white that I’ll mount in the front sides of the ToM and use that for more even lighting while making timelapse videos or shooting photos.

Geek

First thing you should print: some kind of spool management helper!
My ToM came with an unspooled (but coiled) pack of natural ABS. It worked great for awhile just sitting on my desk until I started doing some serious printing then it all went to hell. It uncoiled itself, rather violently on my desk and I wasn’t able to get it all tidy again until I had to cut it to untangle it. It can also cause damage to your printer if it has to work too hard to pull filament into the drive and I’ve had a few close calls – usually from not paying attention to the filament as it unspools.

Printed filament spool holder

Even the spooled ABS isn’t 100% trouble free. I had similar issues with it so I printed some spool holders that attach to the frame of the ToM and things are much more under control now. I’ve also printed a heavy duty filament spool for my unspooled filament which I used to wrangle the natural filament that I have and it works great and it gives me options for having lots of colour options on hand for printing.

Millennium Falcon

So to wrap up this post, I’ll conclude by saying that I’m really enjoying my MakerBot. It really does seem like this is a technology just about to really take off. It’s not currently for everyone since it does require a lot of care and maintenance but for those willing to spend the effort, it’s very rewarding and a lot of fun. It’s been a fantastic learning opportunity for me as well.

I’ve got no shortage of objects that I want to print from the Thingiverse and I’m just starting to dabble in some of the 3D software packages out there for creating my own objects.

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