3D Printing - from zero to hero*

3D Printing - from zero to hero*

* OK maybe not hero - but at least better than zero...

So around May 2019 I decided it was finally time to bite the bullet and finally invest in a piece of equipment which I've had an interest in for some time - a 3D printer. In this post I'm going to give a bit of a quick overview into my experience of getting into 3D printing and the experience I've had with it as well as some tips along the way for people starting into 3D printing or thinking about it. I'm also only gonna talk about FDM/FFF printers as thats all I've tried so far.

My First Printer
And here it is, my first printer... emphasis on first as this was really where the problem started.

I'll take a step back and tell you all about how this really started, basically a co-worker brought in a printer for some prototyping work in the office, I played around with it a bit myself and after a few weeks I was truly addicted! Before that I knew about 3D printing but I always assumed it wasn't for someone like me, a guy who can barely put a painting up. However after really getting to try it out I discovered it's almost the maker tool for people without any maker skills to begin with! I started looking for 3D printers, came across a deal for the printer pictured above (by the way its a Flashforge Adventurer 3 if you're interested) and here we are!

I'm going to try and keep this post focused on being generic so I'm not gonna talk too much about my experience with my first printer per say, I'm going to write a separate post about the FF Adventurer 3 in general.

My First impressions

So my printer is delivered, I get home and get to work on setting it up. In my case this was a relatively simple experience, all Flashforge printers are fully built units that come ready to go, get them out of the box, plug them in and you'll be up and running in no time! Please think about this when buying a printer, there are a lot on the market that are "kits" as in they come as many pieces and you have to build them up yourself, this can be a very in-depth process (I'm told).

I put my first print with all default settings and the PLA material that came with my printer, an hour later I had this:
My first print
Pretty basic I know, but this is the equivalent of your "Hello World!" for a new language, a small benchy (like benchmark ya know) boat to check out your printers capabilities!

So everything was going well and I immediately assumed I was a God of 3D printing and every 3D object I've ever wanted was now within my grasp...
OhGawdHelpMe
It most definitely was not. (this is months of mistakes BTW)

3D printing is a tool and like any tool you have to learn how to use it and what its limitations are. It took me maybe 1-2 months before I fully understood what I could and couldn't do with my printer, in my case I experienced a lot of issues that most people won't experience due to a lot of very custom parts used in the FF-AD3, most 3D printers on the market use common parts for the major components which means most issues have been solved already. As I said earlier I'm not going to talk much about my printer specifically, I'll do that as a separate post.

Expecting problems

So if you want to get into 3D printing you're going to experience some issues and I can probably list a few that you will definitely experience at some point, because i've had most of them.

  1. Bed level - your 3D printer needs to be nice and level for prints to work correctly. Its very likely you're going to experience issues with this and solving it is usually specific to the printer you've got. All I can say is have a look at this helpful guide. You'll find plenty of bed levelling prints for your printer specifically by typing in your printers name to Thingiverse and bed levelling.
  2. Hotend clogs - The hotend is part of your printer that heats the plastic to be extruded. This issue is far less common than the previous but very frustrating to solve when it happens. I generally only use one type of material, thats PLA and I don't experience a lot of clogs/jams, but they have occurred. You'll have to be prepared to do a little disassembly to access the top of your hot end to clear it with an allen key or a specifically designed rod for your printer.
  3. Extruder issues - The extruder is probably one of the most important parts of your printer, this pulls plastic off the reel and pushes it into the hotend. There are a few issues you can have here, like poor torque causing your extruder to skip, e.g. loss grip of the filament, which will cause all sorts of weirdness in your final print or jams where the filament just gets stuck in some way.

If you avoid all these issues (and many more lesser issues) you're onto the next step of things you need to learn about, slicing.

Slice it up

So your printer is running well and you haven't had any issues with your demo prints. Now you want to print something more complicated and you've loaded the 3D model into your slicing software to prepare it for your printer. There are a lot of slicers out there, from Cura, FF's own Flashprint or the Prusa slicer. The main function of a slicer is to convert your 3D model into a path for your printer to extrude plastic over. Until you see this in action its hard to really imagine what that means, heres a GIF that might help a bit.
printing

So this comes with a few difficulties, like for example how do you handle printing objects that are floating in the air, like say an arch between two columns in a building.
There are lots of ways to handle this and I'm not going to cover them here but I'll talk about a few things to watch out for when slicing.

  1. Temperature - your slicer will have a lot of temperature settings, like bed temperature (if you have a heated bed), printing temperature, initial temperature, final temperature... its a lot. I would say that for each material you use you should tune the temperatures, usually PLA lives in the 190C to 210C range, depending on your needs you may want to drop your temperature to help with print quality, or raise it to allow you to print faster.
  2. Speed - print speed is obviously important, its usually specified in mm/s, as well maximum acceleration speeds. I print at low speeds for models as it produces far superior prints and high speed for functional prints because it doesn't affect strength and I just want it done quickly, not too worried about the quality. Test this for your printer, I like 40mm/s for models, on my printers this works pretty well with low temperatures.
  3. Resolution - Your slicing software will have a layer height/resolution option, this is usually between 0.1mm and 0.3mm. This specifies the height of each layer in the Z axis and generally you go lower if you want more detail, higher if you want to print faster. I will say though think about what you are printing, if its a cube with no detail 0.2/0.3mm will produce the same result as 0.1mm, so its very much about what you are trying to print. It takes practice to know whats important here, but just print a few semi-complicated things at different resolutions and you'll get it.
  4. Supports - like I said how do you handle material thats floating in the air? Well here you need support material, basically sacrificial material which you'll remove when the print is done. Generally you want to avoid this as the print quality near supports is usually quite poor, its hard to hide the crimes of support material. It is obviously necessary sometimes, so just always look at how your 3D print sits on the print bed and make sure nothing is just floating. There is one other way which is bridging, basically quickly pulling strings of plastic across a gap, but its a bit more complicated and theres better articles about it out there, just know its a thing.
  5. Print position - I find no one really talks about this, but your print needs to sit on the print bed in some way, so when you're in the slicing software just look at your object and think about where you want the layer lines to be. The best resolution your printer can achieve is in the Z axis, as in moving up from the print bed. This can be anything from 0.1mm to 0.3mm resolution, whereas on the X/Y axis your printer can only produce 0.4mm resolution, or whatever size your hotend nozzle is. This is more of a thinking exercise, but keep it in mind.

So at this point you've got most of the tools you need to get some good 3D prints, yay! However if you're like me its not over yet, you might want to take this further and start post-processing, e.g. sanding or adding colour in some way - we're going to need some tools.

Tooling up

Earlier I said that 3D printing is a tool for people who aren't very capable makers - while that is true you will find that you're going to need to develop some maker skills to really get what you want out of 3D printing! if you are here and thinking about getting a 3D printer you are entering into a hobby, which inevitably ends up with you basically becoming a maker in some form, theres plenty of other tools you're going to need...

Tooling up
As you can see I've ended up building a bit of a supply of tools related to 3D printing, you don't need as much as I've gotten (so far) but there are a few tools that you're going to need no matter what, some may come with your printer, some not but I'll walk you through them and why you'll need them.

Untitled-1

So here's my main tools that I use just for getting models/prints ready, you probably know what most of them are but I'll just talk through what I use them for.

  1. Files - sanding/prepping prints is pretty important, removing support material or any mistakes during printing, these are great, just a set of silverline files that I use a lot.
  2. Pliers - useful for breaking away supports, rafts/brims and can help with jams, you don't want to get near your hotend when its near 200C!
  3. Vernier/Calipers - a very useful measurement tool, put something in between the teeth of it and it'll tell you how big it is. It has a lot of functions, a lot of different ways you can use it, theres a great video from Adam Savage on his tested Youtube channel about dial gauges (analogue calipers) and how he uses them.
  4. Stripping knife - these come in a few forms but stripping knives are what you want because they have a nice edge on them, these help clean stubborn bits off your print bed or remove stubborn prints.
  5. Wire snips/precision side cutters - I LOVE these. They are great for loads of stuff and I have them all around the house, basically you can precisely remove little extra bits of plastic with them. I highly recommend getting a few pairs of these, they're great for removing support material as well, they're also very safe to use compared to say scalpels.

So now you really do have all the tools to get great 3D prints! I really hope this has been helpful for you and you'll soon be getting fantastic prints all around your home.

Conclusions

So I've given you a bit of information about 3D printing. This is like a beginners guide I guess and I hope it will help some people. For me I overcame a lot of these issues in about 3 months and then I unfortunately came across a cheap 3D printer on Gumtree, a Flashforge Dreamer NX.

My new baby
Here it is, its became my new primary printer, it solves a lot of the problems I had with my first printer and it prints fast. I love both my printers, they both have their purpose and they've really given me the opportunity to turn into a bit of a maker. Recently I started painting my prints, you can see my paint collection so far in the pegboard picture; its been going well heres some of my latest work:

My Wingman
Here's a Wingman from Apex Legends, its not perfect but its not bad I think, I used a lot of tips for prop making and weathering from Adam Savage, he has some really great guides on his Youtube channel.

3D printing has really opened the doors for stuff like this for me and while I've maybe made it sound a little scary in this guide it has become an obsession, I love this hobby. For DnD minis and terrain design, super specific models, organisation with by CAD modelling specific holders etc, its amazing and will open these doors for anyone who decides to get into it. If you're a technical person you're going to want to get into 3D modelling as well and its a great skill to have.

If you have any questions get in contact with me, I'd be happy to help anyone get into this amazing hobby as well!

Michael Drury

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