3D Printing Experience

After having attended the last few Autodesk Universities in Las Vegas, I have seen first-hand the interest that 3D Printers are starting to generate within the manufacturing general engineering / 3D communities. The company MakerBot seems to very good at getting to where the enthusiasm lies I was also brought along by the emotion of the conference attendees to buy my first printer, a MakerBot Replicator X2. I have had almost a year to experiment with this technology would like to share some of the experiences I have found.

For those unfamiliar with the technology, the 3D printer works by heating plastic filament to a temperature where it can be extruded through a fine nozzle on to a platform. The software takes a 3D design object, slices it in to many layers extrudes the plastic on to each layer to “build” the object in 3D.

Experience 1: The Build Plate

The Build Plate is the platform on which the extruded plastic is placed in layers to create the 3D object. The plastic leaving the extrusion nozzle is at around 230°C generally, depending on the plastic material (whether ABS or PLA), the build platform is at 110°C. On top of the platform, it is recommended that Kapton tape is placed which gives a better sticking surface to the plastic allows the removal of the completed object at the end of the build process. This tape, to be perfectly honest, is a real pain in applying. I have found that the tape can handle no more than 10 builds before needing replacing getting the tape to be applied without any ridges, air bubbles or defects is very difficult within the relatively small printer enclosure. Many people have offered solutions ranging from a thin layer of glass, to using solutions of the plastic painted on to the tape through to replacing the platform entirely; all of which I have not had much success with. The platform needs to be perfectly flat the slightest error in either the levelness of the platform, the quality of the Kapton tape or the temperature of the surface can result in bad builds. I have found that I am running around 1 successful print to 2-3 failed ones, specifically because of the platform issues.

Experience 2: The Plastic Filament

The printer allows for the changing of the plastic spool of filament in to the heating element. This is useful if the spool containing the plastic filament is almost finished when it is possible (but not advised) to be able to change the spool in the middle of the build process by pausing the print then replacing the filament. However, I have found that before any build, remove any existing plastic filament, cut the end square with wire cutters allow at least a minute of filament to pass through the heating chamber to the extrusion nozzle immediately before the next build happens. When the plastic is in the heating chamber for a few minutes, I have found that the material properties change resulting in a higher risk of the next build failing near the beginning as the nozzle becomes clogged.

Experience 3: Dual Extrusion Nozzles the Use of Dual Colours

My personal experience learned here is …… don’t do it! I learned early on that just because a machine gives you the functionality, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work as you’d expect. I found that printing a component requiring different colours means that the computer code delays the changing of the nozzle between each colour. The nozzles seem to pause at the place one left off for about 5 seconds, then moves the next colour in to place. This pausing, when the nozzle edge is at 230°C, melts the plastic just laid down causes the heat to disperse to areas around the nozzle. This leaves ugly black areas of melted plastic over the print. I am awaiting a future release to the code that will eliminate this issue

Experience 4:

Have fun! There’s loads of 3D models on the internet to try to print, many of them free. I have printed the batman car, R2D2, some cheap plastic jewelry for the kids lots of other items. If you are not a 3D modeler but are interested in 3D prototyping, go to the website www.thingiverse.com to see lots of models that people have allowed you to play with free of charge. The free products from Autodesk ( www.autodesk.com ), including 123D Catch allow you to take pictures of an object from many angles, submit them free of charge to a website, have the cloud spin up a processing machine it will e-mail you back a 3D model for you to print out. The kids love it I’m introducing them to the concept of 3D, manufacturing the art of additive printing.

Conclusion

The Replicator X2 by MakerBot is an amazing machine, especially considering the price. Using the printer for the past year, I have reduced the risk of build errors to about 2-3 failures to 1 success; which is pretty good considering the initial problems I had in learning how to use the machine efficiently. The maintenance costs, plastic filament spool prices electricity consumption I have found all to be better than expected the results are very good. The experiences listed above give a flavor of the problems found the fact that they are surmountable to give some good quality results.

The simple message is to have patience as the technology matures, persevere with learning the nuances of the machine do not be afraid to send the issues or solutions found back to MakerBot to assist them in improving the machine for future revisions.
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