Because I don’t have enough hobbies…

For something different and potentially useful, I made the jump into the world of 3D printing recently.  Did a heap of research in to the printers and found one at a good price point for an initial foray into this creative world.

While they aren’t as cheap as your average home paper printer, for the price of a mid range Inkjet, you can pick up a reasonable entry level 3D Printer.

There’s a catch though.  Unlike home printers, they are not even close to the stage of buy it, unpack it, print with it.  This is still very much a hobbyist or tinkerer device for those who like building, adjusting and tweaking things.  Think back 20 years, were you the type to build your PC from components or the type to buy a premade one and just turn it on and use it?  If you are the latter, then 3D printing is not yet for you.  Sorry, try again in a few years, maybe sooner.

These come in two forms.
1.        Purchased parts to improve the printer.  For example:
a.       Upgraded nozzles to handle the more abrasive exotic filaments (with wood, ceramic or metal in them) or to handle filaments that have a higher heat requirement.
b.       Upgraded motherboard with better features.
2.       Printed parts that you print yourself in a fairly meta printing manner.

So you have this shiny new printer and the first thing you print is generally going to be some form of testing/calibration model that gives you a base to start tweaking the settings.

This particular model tests lots of different abilities of the printer from fine details, tapered points, bridging and overhangs (where it’s essentially printing on thin air).

Having got that out of the way, I spent most of the rest of the weekend printing parts for the printer.  Firstly a mount for the webcam so that I can monitor prints remotely and also create some (hopefully) cool timelapse videos of the prints in action.  Because, seriously, watching it print layer (fractions of mm) by layer is only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry.  Printing can easily take hours for one thing.

Here’s where I hit the first snag.  I couldn’t get the camera mount parts to stay stuck to the print bed for the duration of the print job.  And as soon as they come unstuck, they get dragged around by the hot print head and you end up with a ball of spaghetti or worse unless you manage to catch it and stop the job.  While you can pause and resume a job, sticking a model back to the build plate in exactly the spot (to the fraction of mm) it came off from is next to impossible, so there’s no option but to start from scratch.

I expect the “waste” filament container to fill up fairly quickly.

Google is, like always, a very useful port of call and I soon had many browser tabs open across all manner of 3D printing sites to figure out how to resolve the issue.  Tweaked a few settings, opened up some of the advanced settings and tweaked a few of those also, and finally, another successful print.

Having printed the camera mount and set that up, the next discovery was that the default focus of the camera meant it looked like it was taken on a potato.  More googling and it turns out there’s a manual focus ring that you can adjust if you print yourself a tool for it.  Handy.

Finally some progress.  A few more basic printer parts produced, complete with build timelapse videos and I’m now at the point where I can look at printing things not specifically for the printer.

First up, some things for one of my other hobbies, D&D, a piece of terrain wall, mainly to see how it will look actually printed vs the pictures.

Then, after browsing Thingiverse (repository of many, many things to print), found a flying carpet miniature that looked really cool.  Definitely one of those “ I MUST PRINT THAT” items.  J

Turned out to be quite tricky, and it’s definitely my most complicated print job so far.  While 3D printers are good, they cannot print in space.  You can create bridges between two points and a certain level of overhang relatively easily, but when you have part of a model that, when printing layer by layer from the ground up, effectively starts in mid-air, that’s when you need to start adding “support” structure to the print job.  This is essentially extra printing that is done as part of the build to enable the “mid-air” parts to start from something.  The support structure is printed in a way that allows relatively easy removal once the model is printed.  Downside is more filament used and more in the waste container.  After playing with the model in the slicing software I had what I thought “might” work so figured on giving it a shot and not being too surprised if it failed at some point.

However, after a 6 hour overnight print job, I was pleasantly surprised to see that, other than some slight blobbing and stringing in places, it had actually succeeded.  Once the support structure was carefully removed, it actually looked pretty good for a first go.

Not going to get too cocky about it though.  I reckon there’s still many more failures to come.  That is, after all, half the nature of 3D printing at this point.

What I haven’t touched on yet is the raw materials.
Basically you need Filament.  This comes in many flavours.

The most common being PLA or Polylactic Acid.  This is the cheapest and most common.  Useful for modelling, prototyping and general use.

PLA itself comes in a few forms, many colours and some with additives like wood fibre, metal powder or carbon fibre strands.  These print the same, but appear like wood, metal or carbon fibre when printed.  The wood ones can be sanded and stained  just like wood also.  Presumably the metal ones polish up.

After that you get a number of differing plastic types, ABS, PTFE, PFE, TPU etc which will be familiar from your recycling can and can’t list.

I haven’t looked into these in any more detail as yet, but the filament is generally more expensive and the build parameters, temperatures etc are different.  However you can make things that actually have some strength to them.  Think prosthetics etc.

I’ve mentioned the waste a couple of times and there’s a couple of things to note about that.  PLA does break down and “biodegrade” but only in industrial environments where it can reach 60 degrees with the right level of moisture.  So don’t go throwing it into the home compost pile unless you want to be finding the same bits in the garden when you spread out your compost.

However, it is able to be re-formed into filament strands by heating it up to the right temperature and pushing it through an extruder nozzle of the right diameter.  While that’s not an infinite loop, you can also get bulk raw PLA pellets and mix the chopped up waste print with that to create perfectly usable filament.

That is the next step of my project now that the printer itself is up and running.

The other potential side benefit of setting up the extruder machine is that you can also look at some of the other currently non-recyclable plastics the household produces and turn that into filament also.

For example, ABS, PLA, Nylon, Polycarbonate, PET, Acrylic, Polypropylene, PMMA, PVA, PC, ABS/PC, TPU, TPE, PCL, PEEK, PAEK, LDPE from just one search.

I’m looking forward to seeing how much I can minimise and reuse the waste products, maybe long term not having to buy filament, except maybe the exotic ones (wood, metal etc).