Sunday, June 8, 2014

Lessons for a Beginner in 3D Printing (from a Beginner in 3D Printing)

They say that the hardest part is getting started.  I couldn't disagree more.  The hardest part, of accomplishing anything, is perseverance.  When things break, when something goes wrong, when the outcome is not a desirable result, it is disappointing.  And disappointment defeats the energy and motivation we had at the start.  It can be so difficult to pick up the pieces (quite literally in the case of 3D printing), and start over.  So yes, the first step is to get started, but there are bigger challenges to face than that.  

I recently spent some time at my local TechShop giving 3D printing a whirl for the first time.  I am happy to say that I did complete two small projects, but it was not without trials and errors.  I had taken their mandatory class a couple months before, so I was a little foggy.  As I got started, I successfully fed the plastic into the machine based on my experience in the class; we all had to practice doing that and I was comfortable with the steps.  What I was not comfortable with was creating a design from scratch (for us un-savvy creatures, this may require a different class), and the "how to make it go" part.  A lot of time in the class was spent on the software, moving the object, turning it, etc., and there wasn't a lot of time spent on the printing aspect.  Even still, I would recommend taking a class at TechShop or similar before trying to 3D print somewhere or at home, even if its not required in your circumstance.  It may be well worth a trip to one of the cities that has a TechShop, just to get a foundation in the use of 3D printers before setting out on your own.  Here are some tips to prevent silly missteps and issues for a first-timer trying out 3D printing.  

1 - Use an SD card that is formatted for the 3D printer.  
Unfortunately I learned this lesson the hard way.  My print job was about a fifth of the way through when the machine pulled down the table and retracted the printer head, with an error on the screen referencing a problem with the SD card.  So the strange thing was that it had started printing just fine, but stopped while working.  The error did say that if this was the first time it had occurred, to try again, but I didn't want to take my chances.  I used the SD card provided in the kit, and it worked seamlessly from then on.

2 - Make sure you know which file format the 3D printer uses.  
I had notes referring to an older model which said to use .s3g file format.  For the model I was facing (MakerBot Replicator 2), I needed to use .x3g.  What was frustrating about this seemingly easy problem to fix was that, assuming I had the design in the right format, I started troubleshooting other things like maybe the machine wasn't ready yet, or maybe it wasn't feeding properly.  Maybe, I thought, it just needed to process the design for a while.  I wasted so much time on this!  Then, when I looked at the SD card in the kit, I saw that all the files from previous users were .x3g, and quickly resolved that issue.  

3 - Feedback is pretty much immediate.
This is one thing I was unsure about, and I wish someone had just told me straight up, if the machine doesn't appear to be working, then its not.  When you click "Build from SD Card" and there's no designs listed, it means it doesn't recognize any files.  When you identify a file to print, it starts doing something right away (parts move and the screen indicates its warming up).  When the plastic isn't sticking to the table, the design starts coming apart.  There is very little user wait time involved in 3D printing; it is either working or waiting on you 98% of the time.  

4 - Don't try to do too much at once.
The first design I tried to tackle had four pieces to it, so I thought I was very clever to combine the pieces onto one file and arrange them so that they wouldn't touch or overlap.  But to my dismay, I had a number of issues during the print, and that meant that all four of the pieces had to be started over again each time I had an issue.  It would have been much smarter for me to start with one piece, deal with the issue, start it again, deal with that issue, and so on, then to have several broken, unfinished pieces because of just a couple problems.

5 - Prying completed objects off the table is tough.
I think I suffer from an unusually weak level of strength in my fingers and hands.  As such, I may have used the tools more than most.  But there are tools to aid in this endeavor, and I've learned time and time again that the right tool for the job makes the job much easier.  The plastic is pretty durable (depending on the design, of course), too, so I didn't stretch or hurt any of my designs as I pried them off.  I think this is another "good to know" point, because first-timers might be worried about breaking things.  

6 - The plastic coming out of the nozzle is not always easy to see.
I had a small panic attack during one of my earlier attempts to print, because I didn't see any plastic really coming out.  When I went to the back of the machine, the reel didn't appear to be spinning.  I got worried that the printer head was just going through the motions and not actually producing layers of plastic.  As it turned out, it was working just fine, I just couldn't really see it until it was done.  This technology is working at such a small scale that it's not always going to be clear to the naked eye that progress is being made, especially for flatter designs.  The first layer of plastic is generally pretty obvious, because its so different from the table below it.  But as layers get poured on, it becomes difficult to see the difference between a fresh layer and the layer below it, and thus, looks like nothing is happening in the short term.  So my advice is to trust the machine and let it do its job.  

7 - Use previews before printing.

I think this is especially important for beginners because it allows us to solidify our understanding of shells, fill, supports and rafts.  Being able to see what the design will actually print before printing it, and playing with the different settings to see how that changes the preview, is very advantageous for tactile-style learners like myself.  It also allows for a time estimation, so you know how long you can expect the machine to spend printing.  
8 - Ask questions.
This may go without saying in a lot of learning experiences, but I think it is especially important when working with a machine.  If something is going wrong, ask a staff member to help.  The TechShop staff were very helpful in solving some of the earlier problems I had in which the machine itself was acting up. 

9 - Keep trying.
It can be frustrating, especially if the problems you're having are because of the machine or something outside of your control.  But I truly believe that 3D printing is going to be really important in the future, and chances are, if you're reading this or trying it out for yourself, you probably agree.  So it is worth it to persevere and don't give up.  Take a break if you need to, or walk away for a little while (not while its printing of course), or call a friend to stand by you.  Do whatever it takes to keep going until you have a success under your belt.  It gets much easier once you know you can do it!  

And with that, here are my successes!  

Designs from and

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