3D Printing: My First 3 Weeks with a 3D Printer

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After pondering over buying a 3D printer for almost a year I finally had ordered a Printrbot Play at the end of last year and about 3 weeks later it arrived in Switzerland in a pretty package at my door. In this post I’d like to share my experience with this specific printer and with 3D printing in general as far as I can tell after 3 weeks of owning one. I believe that in the first few days and week where we start using a new thing or relationship our mind perceives many aspects differently because we didn’t get used yet to the little oddities that are part of them. In this sense this post might help you with the decision to buy one or not. Please note: I’m not affiliated with any of the products I describe here and the text here reflects my personal opinion.

First Steps And Lessons Learned

I was pretty excited when I unboxed the package containing the printer. It was a very cute and sturdy device that would fit neatly on my desk. I was a bit disappointed by the small dimension of printer bed but I was the one to blame since I had known from the beginning that it was only 10x10cm. Maybe I should have sketched a box with these measures on a piece of paper before I had ordered the Printrbot Play but well, that was what I had ordered and it was what I had gotten… I quickly connected all the necessary wires, mounted the filament holder on top of the device, downloaded Cura from the web and followed the calibration instructions. Here already comes Lesson 1: don’t calibrate your printer with your 3 years old on your lap. It takes full concentration to not miss a step. I didn’t realize that I should have chosen the Pronterface UI and was looking desperately for the same dialog as they showed in the instructions. Also Lesson 2 is important: don’t underestimate the importance of the painter’s tape you use on the printer bed. It needs to be rough enough to allow the first layer of filament to properly stick to the tape. Since I didn’t have the blue painter’s tape I picked another tape I had in the house and apparently that was a bad choice. It was also a paper tape, but the surface was really smooth and the filament didn’t stick. So when I followed the calibration instructions I misinterpreted the results and calibrated the extruder wrongly. Since I had ordered the printer as ready built version it probably had been perfectly calibrated when it arrived and I spent a lot of time fixing something in the wrong place. TAPE IS IMPORTANT for cold beds!
After I had realized that I started getting pretty prints. It took be another week to understand that the little seam at the bottom of the model in direct contact with the tape wasn’t meant to be there. After I corrected that by setting the Z value 0.2mm higher my prints started to look perfect. But I also got more messed up prints since the cohesion wasn’t good enough and the cooling PLA warped in one corner. Lesson 3: a little seam at the bottom of your model means that the printer head might be too low.
My first complex print was a little robot. Since I didn’t want to wait for more than an hour for its completion I scaled it down. I was amazed by the quality of the print. I also utilized my new iPhone’s time lapse feature to record the process:

First Designs

Since I knew that my wife wasn’t happy about me buying a 3D printer (“waste of money” etc) I need some quick wins to show that it wasn’t so useless after all. My first self designed project was to fix my daughters broken Mini Mouse watch. After my previous experience with SketchUp I decided to try something new: OpenScad. Unlike most CAD tools you program objects in OpenScad and what could be more convenient than programming CAD objects for a programmer than programming them? Luckily my daughter had two watches of the same built and only one of them had a broken part. So I measured the part of the working watch and designed it in OpenScad. As you can see it took be a few iterations to get it right. But the beauty was that the iterations only took little time since the piece was really small. For the third iteration I also switched the color and it worked perfectly. My daughter was really happy that her watch was fixed!

It took me 3 iterations to get it right, but only about 30 minutes in total

The fixed watch on the top and the unbroken one

After this first success I set out to build something useful for the house. One bathroom door in my apartement is always closing by itself and I didn’t manage to fix it so my new tool had to fix it. Again I used OpenScad to design a door wetch and this time it was a hole-in-one. I think the funky color gives it the special touch it deserves…

Door Wedge in Action

Door Wedge in Lab

I was on a pretty good run and my first days with the 3D printer were very successful by my very own definition. Daughter happy, door fixed. What next? I decided to build something for myself. I wanted a tablet stand and designed it in OpenScad. I exported it from OpenScad to STL as usual, imported it to Cura and started the print while the Printrbot was connected to my Mac. Everything looked normal so I left the room to do something else in the appartment. When I came back the printer had stopped with an unfinished print. What had happened? As recommended I had set my laptop to not sleep when connected to power and to sleep after 10 minutes inactivity when on batteries. The problem was that I had forgotten to connect the laptop back to power so after 10 minutes of printing the laptop just went to sleep and the printer didn’t receive more commands and stopped.

Lesson 4: Don’t risk your print by a controller PC going to sleep. I had several options to deal with this problem: 1) always to remember to connect the laptop to power 2) turn off sleep even for battery mode 3) print using the SD card (AKA untethered print) or finally find a useful application for my RasperryPi first generation. I decided to give the RaspberryPi and OctoPrint a shot. What is that you might ask. It is a web application that allows you to control a 3D printer from your web browser even if the web app is hosted on a headless device such as a Raspberry Pi. I downloaded the ready firmware, installed it on the SD card, started the Raspberry Pi and within a few minutes I had done my first test print. I could even attach an old HD web cam and use it to control the progress of the print from another room in the apartment and to take time lapse videos.  And OctoPrint has another nice feature that I didn’t see in Cura: it shows you the current commands sent to the printer on a UI.
Web Cam UI of OctoPrint
So my new workflow looked like this: 1) design objects in OpenScad, render them and export them to STL format. 2) Open the file in Cura and use the slicer to save it in a printer specific GCode file. 3) Open the OctoPrint Web UI, upload the GCode file and start the print.  4) Open the OctoPrint web app on my smart phone browser and control the print from another room in the house. It sounds complicated but it is not!

Summary

Within a really short time I could make good use of my new 3D printer. US $399 + Shipping and Customs is not so much money compared to the tool that you get in your hands. The quality is great, the reliability is pretty OK (though not on the level of a laser printer) and with the available tool chain (OpenScad, Cura and OctoPrint) you can easily develop new objects that you can put right to use in your environment. I’m already working on some new projects and will let you know once they have reached presentable level.

Posted by squix78

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