A few months back, Kenco Innovation Labs purchased the Lulzbot Mini 3D printer. After hearing of the struggles other people have experienced with 3D printers, we have been pleasantly surprised with the user-friendly nature of this machine, and it has been enjoyable to use.
That said, being new to the world of 3D printing, we have learned a few things along the way that anyone getting started with the technology will find helpful.
1. 3D Printing is Not for Mass Production (yet!)
Let’s face it – 3D printing is slow. A simple business card holder took 3 hours to print at normal quality. The printers are simply not fast enough to produce large quantities of widgets. At this point, the perfect use is for prototyping and one-off custom parts. Instead of sending molds back and forth to overseas production facilities, taking weeks and even months to perfect a product, your R&D lab can immediately print any idea and quickly tweak it as needed, in real time. If you need a few custom-made components, 3D printing can save many thousands of dollars by avoiding a limited production run.
2. Purchase an Open-Source 3D Printer
Digital model files for replacement 3D printer components are available for open-source printers. The 3D printing industry is still in its infancy – it is little more than a cottage industry. With the exception of high-end models, many machines are made with cheap parts, or even 3D printed parts themselves (like our Lulzbot). With heavy use, parts eventually wear out, so we have taken the precaution of printing replacement gears for our little printer, just in case. Additionally, open-source printers may be easier to service or even modify by the end user.
3. Select a 3D Printer With an Active User Community
Manufacturer support tends to be a little lacking; it will be non-existent if you choose to modify or extend your printer. Before making a purchase, check out the forums for the printer. Good forums will have a thriving community of enthusiasts with many sub-categories filled with recent posts. These will be a valuable resource for learning more about your printer, and for troubleshooting if (when!) something goes wrong.
4. Good Filament Can Be Hard to Find
Filament – the spool of material that is fed into extrusion-type print heads to become the eventual printed object – is sometimes scarce or even unavailable. Your printer should print, at the very least, several types of material, most likely ABS, PLA, or HIPS plastic filament. We found many sources, even Amazon.com, were either the product was out of stock or running 1-2 months behind on many colors. Your mileage may vary, but we found eSun filament to be a very good product, with US Cutter as a reliable supplier for most of our needs. It is a good idea to also check the reviews. It is important that filament is of a consistent diameter and symmetry; poor quality filament can cause printing issues and even the failure of your extruder.
5. Keep the Filament Dry
Your filament shipment will most likely include a small white packet of desiccant - a moisture-absorbing substance. When not in use, filament should be kept in a sealed container or bag with the desiccant or, as some forums have suggested, dry rice. Filament will easily absorb moisture in the air, and as these bubbles of moisture pass through the heated printer head (often 400F - 500F), the superheated steam will cause tiny explosions, leading to inaccurate printing or even print head damage.
6. It’s All About the STL file
STL (STereoLithography) is a CAD file format specifically for 3D models and printing and is the format that your printer will most likely expect. 3D modeling software worth their salt will either natively export to this format, or can do so with the help of a plug-in. For example, AutoCAD and SolidWorks can produce STL files, and we’ve found Trimble’s Sketchup product to be a cheap (and free) alternative to produce basic models. The STL file only defines geometry – not color or texture.
7. Single Color Models Get Boring
The most basic machines will have one print head, allowing one filament color to be printed at a time. Sure, you can buy wild colors and even glow-in-the-dark filament, but the end result will still be an object of only one solid color, which can get tiring in a hurry. It is possible to pause the printer mid-print, switching in a different color and purging out the old material before resuming the print, but this process is still very limiting and a bit tedious. More advanced printers may have dual or even quad print heads to allow simultaneous, multicolored/multi-material printing. Higher-end printers have other technologies which allow better color control.
8. You Definitely Want a Heated Platform
When the printed plastic material cools down, it may do so at an uneven rate – the edges will cool down faster than the middle areas, causing noticeable warping. To prevent this, many 3D printers will have a heated platform or bed to keep the base of the object very warm - 200F or greater. After printing completes, the bed will cool down in a uniform manner, eliminating warping.
9. Helpful Tools to Have on Hand
- An Exacto knife to trim off loose strands and smooth down rough areas
- A variety of sandpaper weights to further smooth out rough areas
- Tweezers to grab stray bits of filament from inside the printer or on the printer head
- A bottle of super glue - you’ll inevitably break some of the more fragile models as you clean or assemble them
10. You’re Going to Make Mistakes...and That's OK!
Early on, we loaded an incorrect instruction set into our printer, causing the print head to temporarily “forget” its location and crash into the cleaning tray on the print bed. Oops! We’ve also printed large objects with a too-small base, which causes the base to detach from the heated platform during the print process and wobble as the print head moves back and forth, basically destroying the finished product. Mistakes like these are part of the learning process, but don’t be afraid to jump in and start learning.