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Exploring 3D printing at South

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By Preston Fossee ’16 | Associate Editor

What is 3D printing?

The International Space Station has recently received a new tool vastly increasing its versatility and productivity.  Taking their first step towards creating a “machine shop” in space, NASA has sent a 3D printer up to the space station.  3D printing functionality has exponentially increased in the past few years with its machines finding their ways into more and more consumers’ homes.

While 3D printers come in multiple forms, they most commonly utilize Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) modeling.  This is also referred to as Fused Deposition Modeling.  Both deposit layer upon layer of plastic to create a 3D model.  Current consumer level 3D printers are limited to printing plastic objects due to temperature considerations, but a wide variety of plastic materials are available.  Two commonly used materials are polylactic acid (PLA) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).  PLA is an easy to use material but is very brittle.  ABS is more difficult to print but produces stronger, more flexible prints.  More exotic materials exist with different properties, but in the end they are all still plastic and limited by that fact.  

Residing in the back of South’s library one can find a Makerbot printer apart of South’s Makerspace.  Makerbot was one of the original manufacturers of consumer level 3D printers and produces excellent machines.  It is an FFF 3D printer with 456 cubic inch build volume and 100 micron layer resolution.  A Dremel Idea Builder has recently been added to their 3D printing arsenal as well.  While it functions the exact same as the Makerbot, it is less than half the price.  This will be discussed later in the article.  

Grosse Pointe South's Makerbot Printer

Grosse Pointe South’s Makerbot Printer

Grosse Pointe South's Dremel Idea Builder

Grosse Pointe South’s Dremel Idea Builder

The printers at South have printed a wide variety of objects.  Grosse Pointe South’s aerospace engineering club utilized the 3D printers to entirely print their rocket designs.  Unique threaded nose cones and modular motor mounts distinguished their rocket from others in the model rocket community.  

3D printed parts for a rocket nose cone capable of holding two eggs.

3D printed parts for a rocket nose cone capable of holding two eggs.

How Does it work?

3D printing is often misrepresented as a futuristic and complex field that has only just begun to take hold.  However, the basic principles underlying almost all 3D printers have been around for decades in 2D printers.  In fact, parts from household 2D printers are often used to build 3D printer because they are so similar.

A 2D printer is operated by a stepper motor that moves a printing cartridge across the plane of a piece of paper.  The paper is then fed through the printer via another stepper motor.  This allows printing in two dimensions and the physical manifestation of anything two dimensional, such as documents and photos.  3D printing operates in exactly the same way, except that filament is used instead of ink, and that there are usually three more stepper motors involved.  

One stepper motor is used to push the filament through the nozzle of the printer.  This motor extrudes the plastic material of the print.  The other two stepper motors operate the Z-axis of the printer.  This is the axis that allows the creation of 3D objects.  The X and Y axis exist like 2D printers, and the Z axis moves the print head above the XY plane.  It is essentially like stacking a bunch of 2D prints on top of each other.

The movement of the axes in combination with the extrusion of the filament allows the creation of detailed objects.  Multiple software work together to control the printer and ensure that the motor movements create the desired object.  The first software used is the design software.  Autodesk Inventor is an excellent tool for creating complex 3D designs.  Once a model is designed, it is sent over to a slicer software, such as Ultimaker’s Cura software.  This software converts the 3D object into a printable code, called G-Code.  A third software can optionally be used to control the printer and send the code to the printer to begin printing.  These include Pronterface and Repetier-Host.  While it is not necessary to use these softwares, the provide manual control and monitoring of the printer throughout the entire print and can prevent disaster.

Pronterface providing a virtual representation of the 3D print taking place

Though these software prepare objects for printing, the printer itself has code that allows it to function when it receives printable code.  This code, called the printer’s firmware, varies depending on the printer being used.  The most common version is Marlin, which operates most commonly on RepRap 3D printers.  It is loaded onto an Arduino control board equipped with a shield special for 3D printing.  A shield is essentially an add-on for the Arduino control board, and many exist for many jobs.  The most commonly used board for 3D printers is the RAMPS board.

Heat is another aspect of 3D printing and is, among a few other things, what sets 3D printing apart from 2D printing.  To create a 3D object, the medium for creation must be melted and then resolidified.  Plastic is most often used for printing because it makes this task accomplishable.  The extruder must heat up to anywhere between 170 and 270 degrees celsius.  Optionally, the bed which the object is printed on can also heat up, usually to a maximum of 110 degrees celsius.  This helps prevent print failures as it keeps printed objects in a glassy state, granting them better adhesion to the print bed.  

With stepper motors, software, firmware, and heat, you have the essential components for and FFF 3D printer.  On top of this, all printers need some sort of supporting structure.  Basic printers often utilize the bare minimum necessary.  These models include Prusa and Kossel designs.  Why they may not look extravagant, they have the exact same functionality of higher cost printers.  Other printers posses a more appealing design.  These designs usually encase the printer in a housing to hide the electronics and mechanical components, and usually involve buying the printer preassembled.  Preassembly of a printer adds to the cost, but eliminates many potential user errors.

Getting Started in 3D printing.

It is impossible to even scratch the surface of the complexity of 3D printing in one article.  Getting started in 3D printing is a large undertaking and it is essential to familiarize yourself with the 3D printer options available and understand your abilities before diving into this field.

Once you have a printer, the first thing to do after it is built is to calibrate it.  This is important not only to ensure you get amazing prints, but to ensure your printer does not possess some fatal flaw waiting to foil a 12 hour print.  Calibration involves testing all of the basic functions of the printer, and then making multiple test prints to ensure prints are the right size and good quality.  Printing an accurate circle is a sign of good calibration.  While there is too much to calibrate to fit it all into this article, researching your specific setup should reveal many sources with excellent guides on calibration.

After you have calibrated your printer, you are ready to print.  You will have all of the software you need already, so now all you need is a model.  Thingiverse.com is an excellent source of free models, and is a great starting point.  Once you begin printing your first model, do not leave the printer for an extended period of time.  Long prints can still fail even after a perfect calibration, and if it does fail you will regret it dearly if you are not their to stop the print.  Use your discretion when deciding how long you will leave your printer alone.  

After a few months of successful printing, you will likely have already started exploring upgrades.  Some interesting upgrades are dual-extruders, heated beds, auto-bed leveling, and even simply higher quality components.  There number of upgrades can seem endless if you have an open-source printer, so choose wisely!

3D scanners complement 3D printers well.

3D scanners complement 3D printers well.

3D printer buying guide.

There are more and more printers on the market every day and it can become difficult to determine which one is best for you.  Key things to consider are price, pre-assembly, build volume, resolution, heated-bed, extruder number, and printable materials.  To keep things simple, there are essentially two categories of printers, cheap models and expensive models.

For someone with no background in coding, design, and complex electronic assemblies, it would be wise to invest in a high-end pre-assembled printer.  While no printer will ever be issue-free, investing in a higher quality printer will make it much easier to enter the field of 3D printing.  Assembling and calibrating your own 3D printer can take months if you don’t know what you’re doing.  A pre-built printer can shorten that time to a couple of days.

Some examples of high-end models come from Makerbot, Ultimaker, Lulzbot, and Craftbot.  The best thing to look at when deciding on a printer are user reviews.  Ultimaker and Craftbot have consistently received good reviews with a printer relatively inexpensive compared to the others in this category.  Makerbot and Lulzbot printer also receive good reviews, but are more expensive.  Lulzbot is hallmarked by functionality and versatility with a massive build volume, while Makerbot is more about looks and reliability.  

For someone with experience building small machines, coding basic software, and using 3D printers, buying an unassembled 3D printer can save a lot of money and propel one’s understanding of 3D printing to the next level.  While building it will take longer than a more expensive printer, it will cement all of the 3D printing principles into your understanding at some point in the process.  Additionally, unassembled printer can usually be shipped in smaller boxes and for cheaper.  While cost is the obvious benefit, you can also get a printer with features far better than higher-end competitors, build-volume being the most notable feature.

Prusa and Kossel model printers are the most common ones that require pre assembly.  There are many manufactures of these printers and it is essential to ensure you choose one that provides high quality parts.  It is possible to buy a printer for under $200, but the parts included are cheap and most likely will not work.  User reviews are the best judge as to the quality.  Makerfarm is an excellent retailer of unassembled Prusa model printers.  While it is more expensive, the parts are quality and user reviews are phenomenal.  

Even though 3D printing has developed rapidly in the past years, it still has plenty of growing to do.  Many limitations exist when printing, such as material and time.  Additionally, certain 3D models simply cannot be printed because of their geometry.  3D printers are extremely useful but it is important to study the field and insure that it will meet your expectations.

A lesser known fact is that 3D printers can also play music!

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Exploring 3D printing at South