Building a 3D Printer

WHY A 3D PRINTER?

Having a background in 3d modeling, 3d printing always seemed like a natural extension of what I’ve been doing for a while. It’s just taking what’s on the screen and bringing it into the real world, sort of like printing out a design. At least that was my initial thought. The price was always a limiting factor though to actually doing anything with it. And while I’d dabbled with 3d printing services such as Shapeways (http://shapeways.com), the expense and turn around time in using those definitely doesn’t lend itself to rapid experimentation.

As the price of machines came down, my interest started to peak more, but I realistically couldn’t throw down a few thousand dollars for what would ultimately be a fun toy. Lots of people do cool things with things like Makerbots or printers from Formlabs, but for me it’d be nothing to justify the money. But the topic was still something I kept up to date on, which is when I discovered the concept of the DIY 3d printer. I knew the market definitely existed (and was how most of the commercial desktop models started), but it was learning about the variety of all in one kits that piqued my interest. I had some basic experience with electronics via using an Arduino and Raspberry PI, and figured I could stumbled my way through a build document to assemble one myself. After some research I decided to go with https://www.amazon.com/REPRAPGURU-DIY-RepRap-Prusa-Printer/dp/B01E06IHJ0/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1478476573&sr=8-2&keywords=reprap+guru as it was based on the open source iPrusa design that was easy to find information about, the price was right at $299, and the kit manufacturer was located in the US and appeared to have easier to understand build docs as opposed to poorly dubbed youtube videos.

BUILDING THE PRINTER

I was still planning on putting this off, but was luckily enough to have a wonderful friend offer to purchase the kit, which showed up at more door in full IKEA like fashion. A large brown box with nicely organized and labeled pieces, complete with bags and bags of screws, nuts, and washers. The box itself contained no instructions, but did contain a document that points you to a Google Drive url to download everything you need. A little weird, but it is a cheap kit after all so I figured the edges of the process would be a little rough.

All in all, the build process was pretty straight forward. I’ll try to have some pictures below that show it in various stages of completion. All in, it probably took roughly 6-7 hours of just assembly and wiring, though it was done at night after work over the course of 4 nights or so. Assembly was straight forward, but a word to those doing something similar, be sure to read through the directions a couple times. It sounds obvious, and was something I did, but there’s definitely a few confusing parts that required me to go back and a couple steps and fix an underlying problem before being able to continue. Some of it was due to confusing instructions (there are instructions for old designs and new designs somewhat intermixed) as well as me mixing up parts that were incredibly similar but not quite the same. Ax example of this was the two acrylic pieces that extend upwards and support the top acrylic frame, and was something I didn’t realize until I was mounting electronics which wouldn’t fit because they were reversed.

One of the reasons I went with the kit was I figured half the fun would be just assembling the thing, and I wasn’t disappointed. Having little to know engineering experience, I’d always looked at 3d printing as this sort of magical process, but after assembling this, it’s honestly pretty mundane. It’s quite literally a bunch of stepper motors that can be positioned fairly precisely, some sensors that help them zero in where the motor is at any given point, a hot nozzle, and some supports to tie the entire thing together. That was it, and was really mind blowing seeing it all come together. Of course the really complicated process was the electronics and software that tied it together, but luckily that portion was more or less plug and play with downloadable software that allowed me to safety keep that within the “Oh it happens by magic” frame of mind.

CONFIGURATION

The thing’s build, the motors are moving, I’m ready to print, right? In this case, actually wrong. I knew there was some configuration needed, but it was amazing how fine tuned that needed to be, and how much it seemed to rely on trial and error and some intuition. Now most of what I mean by configuration in this refers to two things primarily — leveling that bed, and setting the initial height of the extruded.

Leveling the bed is about what it sounds like, making sure the bed is level in the sense that you don’t have one corner that’s higher than the other corners, so the machine can accurately print the same height across the bed of the printer (the big red piece on mine). What made more sense to me would be “making sure each corner of the bed is the same distance from the extruded when it’s directly over it.” I discovered this when I foolishly tried to use a bubble level to level the bed, only to make things worse, turn to the internet, and see that I was being much to literal. Instead, it looks like the best way, and the best that’s worked for me, and is taking a piece of paper, and dropping the extrude to a zero height above each corner, and put the paper between the extruded and the bed, tightening or loosening the screw for that corner until I could slide the paper around with only the tiniest bit of resistance. Super high tech and quantifiable, right? But sadly, that’s what worked for me, and has continued to work, and is something I have to redo after every few prints. But you know what, with that, and continuing to do that, as well as upgrading to a high quality 3d printing filament, the results have been pretty amazing, especially considering that you could buy maybe 8 of these for the same price of a Makerbot Replicator 2. I’d hate to assemble 8 of these, but if I was an engineering teacher, sounds like a great term project for a class.

So with that, I’m up and running and printing away. Hopefully soon I’ll have some more posts up about what I’m printing, and some tips and tricks around getting some good prints off these machines. This was a quick overview on the process, if you have any questions feel free to add them in the comments.