More Adventures in 3D Printing

- - posted in making things

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been 3D printing up a storm with my home-made RepRap Huxley printer. Now that it’s been over a week and I have the printer about as perfectly calibrated as I can get it right now, I have some advice for aspiring 3D printers out there. Follow me below the fold for all the advice you never asked for and more!

Rule 1: Not for greenhorns

If you’re thinking of buying a RepRap, either fully assembled or as a kit like I did, you should fully inform yourself of all the steps required to bring it to life and to get it printing perfectly. You wouldn’t be looking at RepRaps if you didn’t want to expend that kind of effort, right? I had a coworker a couple of jobs ago who bought a kit and was able to build the basic frame of it but when it came down to hooking up all the wiring and the exotic new kind of extruder he’d bought, he was clueless. Don’t be that guy! If you aren’t the kind of person who delights in tiny details, if you’re the kind of person who can’t be bothered with intricate mechanical things or tedious and error-prone wiring, then go buy a Makerbot and save yourself the trouble if you can afford one. And if you can’t, either learn how to do the mechanical and electrical stuff necessary, or just go pay someone else to print things for you as you need them. Tl;dr version is this: building and commissioning a 3D printer is not for greenhorns. If you don’t know what a greenhorn is, you are probably not qualified to do this kind of thing.

Rule 2: Read everything, and I do mean everything

On the official RepRap site there is an excellent wiki that you should treat like your bible pretty much regardless of what kind of printer you have. The information in there, particularly the information about how to calibrate your 3D printer once you’ve built it, is priceless and I would be absolutely lost without it. Even if your printer already came to you fully assembled and calibrated, you should at least read the official calibration documentation and also Triffid Hunter’s absolutely essential calibration guide from the same wiki. Read the contents of those articles in full before going through those processes, and do them in order when you calibrate, because each step affects subsequent steps in ways that won’t be obvious at first.

Rule 3: Use precision tools

Does your workshop have a good pair of Vernier calipers? No? Get some, now. Do you own a solid, well-made outside micrometer that measures in millimeters and hasn’t been dropped or damaged? No? That’s not as essential as the calipers but it will help tremendously to know just how close you are getting with your calibration, to have some precision tools to measure the models you make. I use a box with 0.5mm walls to calibrate layer height, for instance (the same one that’s recommended in the calibration guide mentioned above) and it really helps having a micrometer to measure that small. Most of all, you must measure the distances between smooth rods very precisely. Every pair of smooth rods must be exactly parallel; I do not mean within 1% of parallel, I don’t mean 0.1% of parallel, I mean that you must not be able to measure any deviation from parallel. If you can, adjust it until you are at the limits of precision for your tools (for a good micrometer, this will be about 1/1000th of an inch).

Rule 4: Do not become discouraged

Don’t be discouraged if your prints don’t come out right or if they’re messed up somehow. Every person who did this before you experienced those same issues and many of them have written in that wiki how to fix all the problems that you’re having. There is also a very active forum and a lot of different places around the Internet to get information to help you out. If you build a RepRap, you are part of a huge global community of people who are all cheering you on as you go.

Remember: if you were the kind of person who demands instant gratification, you wouldn’t be building a RepRap to begin with and you’d’ve just bought yourself a store-bought 3D printer and been done with it by now. You bought the ticket, now take the ride. Just think of how cool it’ll be once you have a magical make-me-things machine in your house. Don’t lose sight of that goal, and don’t be discouraged by your (probably) very crappy first prints. They will get better soon if you just work at it a little more.

In conclusion

It can be a pretty tedious and intense process to build a 3D printer by hand. You may even have people question why you’d want to do that instead of just buying a store-bought one and calling it a day. You might even have someone bring out that old chestnut, that classic “wow you must have a lot of time on your hands!” line that never gets old I’m sure. If someone ever says that to you, remember, they are just jealous that you have more interesting things to do in your spare time than they do. They’ll keep watching their sitcoms and putting ships in bottles or whatever normal people do with their spare time, and meanwhile you can now create durable plastic objects out of thin air, so I think you know who the real winner is there. Just keep making and keep building, space cadets.