In my day job, there are a number of us that are interested in 3D printing as a hobby, and we’ve all at some point built a 3D printer. So, I thought it could be handy to ask this group just what they wish they had known when they started out, to hopefully save some of you out there the headaches we encountered.
Start with a kit-built 3D printer. My first 3D printer is/was a scratch-built Prusa clone. The time from gathering together all the parts to my first extrusion (and notice, I didn’t call it a print) was probably about 9 months. As of today, it’s still sitting on my kitchen counter, awaiting cable management.
For comparison, my 2nd printer is a kit that arrived on Friday, I started building on Sunday, and I had my first extrusion today.
I’d also say read the directions through before you start building. You don’t need to memorize them or anything like that, but having an idea where you’re headed before you dive in can save you a lot of headaches. There’s also generally an online build guide for some of the very popular printers; consider checking them out beforehand too. That said…
Don’t treat the build instructions as the end-all, be-all. It’s very much a process you have to think about as you go through it. And it’s the reason you check the instructions first. My kit printer’s build instructions wanted me to attach the control board to the frame, bolt the cover onto it, and then reach in through the sides to make all of the wiring connections. This is clearly not the best way to go about it.
Usually, the rule of thumb is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. With 3D printing, I’d say it’s a little different. I’d say “Be sure it’s broke before you try to fix it.” It can be tempting to think that because you got your first printer working, you know exactly what it’s going to take to get the next one going, and any differences are therefor the printer’s fault, but there are a lot of different designs for printers, and they don’t all work exactly the same. Experiment, but a Delta-style printer is going to be different to operate and debug than a RepRap, which will be different from a CoreXY -style.
Don’t assume that buying a kit (or even a fully built printer) will guarantee a perfect print out of the box. 3D printing is very much a tinkerer’s hobby. Every slicer and printer is different, and it’s a process of trial and error to figure out how everything is going to work together. Personally, I keep a grocery bag hanging off the back of my chair to throw the various spaghetti monsters that result from a failed experiment.
There are really only 2 tracks for 3D printing, and when you decide to get into it, you must ask yourself “Do I want to build/tinker/modify a printer?” or “Do I want to print cool things, RIGHT NOW?” Certainly, you can change your mind, as you learn more about the hobby, but answering this fundamental question will dictate what type of printer you should get at the beginning.
Let go of your fear!
You will break things, you will have (many) failed prints, you will screw many things up along the way… the key is going into this hobby knowing that from the beginning, accepting it, and jumping right into the wild world of 3D printing fails. 3D printer parts and filament are relatively cheap, so you can break things and fix them for very little cost. [Editor’s note: Plus, if you have a 2nd printer, you can frequently make the parts you need to fix the first]
As a hobby, 3D printing breeds community. When our prints fail or we’re rebuilding our extruder for the 5th time, that community gives us people to ask advice, or a sympathetic ear to vent our frustrations to.
With that in mind, in the community, there is a lot of give and take: early on you will be taking from the community, things like firmware, .stl files, tips, tricks, etc. But eventually, you should give back somehow, once you have some knowledge and confidence. You can answer questions in 3D printing forums, help out at a local makerspace, post designs/files to Thingiverse/MyMiniFactory/Youmagine/etc., share your projects via blogs or YouTube, or get your kids/nieces/nephews interested via CAD, mechatronics, etc.
Finally, be open to change: sure it may take a little effort, but change out or add a component every now and then to improve accuracy or capability (or just for fun). different bed materials, nozzles, part cooling fans, filament sensors, etc. are all cheap and easy changes that take a little time but can improve print quality or experience… with the benefit of forcing you to learn more about your printer along the way
My main tip would be to start with a kit of some sort for the first printer build. To go with Levi’s last tip, that kit could/should be as open-source as possible (this does assume that, in line with Levi’s first tip, one has chosen the “build/tinker/modify” path – not sure if that is the Red Pill or the Blue Pill…). Building a printer completely from scratch can be fun, and it has the advantage of allowing one to include higher-quality parts than what may come in a kit, but having a kit with a plan to follow would help save some frustration early on. Building a printer from scratch would be a good second-printer-task, because then one can print various parts on the first (from-a-kit) printer, instead of having to rely on the kindness of strangers (or not-strangers) to print the pieces for the initial build.
That leads to my other piece of advice, which is to have a plan. Going into it with only a notion of what you want to do means that when you do make a mistake it’s going to be of the “Great, now I need to redesign” type, rather than the “Whoops, plugged in the endstops backwards” type. You’ll still make mistakes along the way, but it’s easier to learn from them if you have an idea why you did something first.
I wish I would have had someone to explain the vocabulary of 3D printing to me before I got started. Things like steppers, hot ends, relays, and voltage dividers can all be pretty intimidating if you don’t speak the “language” of 3D printing. The vocabulary is something you develop over time, but it can be very helpful to learn from others who have built or worked with printers before. There are also good resources online, like this guide from Ultimaker.
Read the symbols on the controller board and try to understand the wiring configuration that way. When you look online, there are a lot of diagrams that look helpful at first, but really do not convey enough information to help you really understand your board.
You are going to be tempted to play with every setting on your printer. The trick is understanding what settings are configurable and what settings are definitive. Some settings have much more sensitivity than others. Don’t assume everything can be tinkered with indiscriminately, but also don’t be afraid to experiment.
Learn the software. You don’t have to learn the code by heart, but studying the firmware configuration file will go a long way to helping you understand how your software works with your hardware.
My biggest advice is buy a reputable kit for your first printer build. You are not Aperture Labs, you do not have to build your science from the ground up. Stand on the shoulders of 3D printing giants (like Prusa!).
I have a little bit of a different perspective on 3D printing, because I’ve been exposed to the industrial side as well as the hobby side. I don’t care if you’re a newbie or a seasoned additive manufacturing researcher, 3D printing never goes the way you expect it to, at least not the first time. This is a new manufacturing technique, and I’m sure that when vacuum forming or welding was first emerging there was just as much trial and error in the process, even for the pros.
Don’t be discouraged if your print doesn’t come out right the first time, just step back and study what happened and why. Also, don’t discount your ability to contribute to real additive manufacturing research, even as a hobbyist. There is a lot we still don’t understand about this technology, and new applications are emerging every day.
The same problems you are facing may be one of the “big rocks” researchers at institutes like America Makes are studying. Be a part of the community, share what you learn, and help others, because your contribution to additive manufacturing may be more significant than you think!
So what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out with 3D printing? What has been your most epic fail, or success? Share with us in the comments below.