Dan Baines

Fairy Rings and Monstrous Things

Studio equipment I couldn't live without - Part 1

18 months ago my wife pulled out all the stops for my 39th birthday and bought me a 3D printer.  Our trip to Boston a few months earlier saw us wander into a Makerbot store to escape the cold and from that point I knew I wanted one.  When you first own a 3D printer it's akin to winning a large sum of money, what do you buy first or rather what do you print first?  The options are quite overwhelming.

My previous tools had been more traditional.  If I wanted to build a steampunk clockwork mechanism I would have to source the components or cast new parts in resin.  If I needed an enclosure for a circuit I would have to trawl the Internet for a supplier of the nearest size which would undoubtedly be too large or a fraction too small.  The 3D printer solved these issues for me but it wasn't love at first sight.  I was shocked to discover that good 3D printing, in its current form at least, takes some degree of skill and knowledge to get it right.

Initially I had no idea what to print, nothing of any use anyway.  The obligatory bunny rabbit, Lego blocks for the kids and other random trinkets flooded from the studio.  Only one in three prints were what I would consider good.  The others had warped, misprinted of just ended up as a huge tangle of melted filament.  I had to teach myself everything from scratch and by learning the hard way you tend to learn the best way.

My wife did her research well and I ended up with the Up Plus 2 printer from Printme 3D in London.  It's a great machine and I can get a perfect print from it 99% of the time but in order to get this far I've got through hundreds of meters of ABS and hours of wasted machine time.  I'll share a few tips with you that I've picked up along the way that might help you finally get that perfect print.

Enclosure 

The Up printer has no enclosure and this is a big issue when you work in a cold drafty studio.  Due to temperature fluctuations and breezes from the opening and closing of doors I found that prints lifted and warped.  To solve this I purchased a huge 50 liter container made by Really Useful Boxes, made a level stand and flipped the box on its side.  I drilled a couple of holes for the USB and power cables and made a new home for my printer.  This provides a stable environment isolated from external forces that can disturb the printing process.  The boxes are really heavy duty and also make a great platform for my laptop which controls the printer.  

The interior of the enclosure is not 100% level so to rectify this I purchased a large chopping board from Ikea and installed this using a spirit level before placing the printer inside.  There was also enough surplus space to add a filament roller with bearings which I also printed.

Most of my printing is done at night so I installed some led light strips to illuminate the work area while the rest of the studio lighting can be switched off.  The eerie green glow not only pimps your printer but serves a purpose in low light.

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Printing Plate

I just couldn't get on with the supplied perf board printing plates that came with the Up.  After trying lots of alternatives the best solution I have found was to make my own from 1mm steel sheet.  For about £15 you can get about 10 or more plates cut to fit your print bed perfectly.  I then cover the plate in blue tape and get a perfect print with no lift every time.  You may want to experiment as the metal plate is much heavier than a traditional perf board but the Up does not struggle with the additional weight.  You could use aluminum but this bends easily and a slight kink in the metal will throw your nozzle height out.

I always print with no raft and minimal support where possible and heat the platform to 100 degrees C before each print run. 

Levelling 

This took me a while to figure out correctly.  The Up has an auto calibration facility for level and nozzle height which is temperamental to say the least.  After a couple of replacement calibration modules and no significant increase in reliability I decided to calibrate it manually.  It was the best move I ever made.  It took a day of tinkering and finding the right way to gauge nozzle height and get an eye for a level platform but it paid off.  Give me 5 minutes and a folded piece of paper and I'll give you a perfectly level platform.

Heating 

To get my print plate to the right temperature quickly I place my thick leather cutting gloves on the platform to insulate it.  I also extrude just before I hit print so that the nozzle is already nice and hot and the first  'nose wipe' sticks well.

 Printing Tips

Prints with large surface areas and corners such as boxes are prone to lifting.  To minimize this I always rotate my object so that the smallest surface area is on the print bed.  So instead of printing a playing card box for example laying flat I would rotate it so that only the shortest edge is on the print bed.

If you get a misprint look at why it misprinted.  A visual inspection will probably tell you what went wrong so that you can rectify it before your next print run.

If you use blue tape make sure you replace it after every print.  If it becomes tough to remove just heat your plate up to 90 degrees and it'll peel away very easily.

Once you've calibrated your platform level and nozzle height make sure that your print plate goes back the same way if you remove it.  I clip the corner of my plates so they always go back exactly the same way they came out.  The clipped corner gives me a visual orientation guide.

If I need a part for a prop, instead of jumping on the Internet and searching in vein I just take 5 minutes  and think to myself "can I print that part?".  75% of the time I've either found the part I need on Thingiverse or I've created my own in Sketchup.  I'm also in the process of mastering Blender which can export .stl files.

Nearly every prop I've made in the last 12 months has a 3D printed element that normally would've taken lots of time and money to source.  It's the one piece of kit in the studio that gets turned on first thing in the morning and off last thing in the evening.  So thanks to my wife she has revolutionized the way I work and if I had the studio space I'd have a whole array churning out parts day and night.  My gifts to her on the other hand are not quite as spectacular and she's still not forgiven me for the steam mop I gave her for Christmas.