Getting Up and Running with a 3D Printer

I recently received some money to purchase a 3D printer to aid my laboratory experiments. I thought that it would be good to share how I decided on the printer that I did and how hard/easy it was to setup. Currently I've only run a few simple test prints, but will be printing some mounting equipment for laboratory experiments within a few weeks.

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Choosing a Printer

When choosing a printer, there are many factors to consider. The consumer 3D printer movement is still very young, so there are many different designs available that require different amounts of tinkering to work and have vastly different capabilities. To help decide, I made a few requirements and decision points :

1. I must be able to print something that is at least 8"x8"x8". Print area is an important consideration and is one of the biggest influences on cost. With this print size I can make most prototypes, brackets, etc that we need. Larger parts can always be printed in sections and joined, but it's not the strongest or easiest thing to do.
2. Print material and method. There are printers that can print in many types of plastic and even in wood. Some printers fuse plastic in layers in an "addictive manufacturing" process. Others can fuse a liquid into a plastic with a process referred to as stereo lithography. Most consumer level machines with a large print area are the type that extrude plastic. There is a large matrix of advantages and disadvantages, but we will just leave it at this for now.
3. The final factor I considered is the development of the machine. Informally this is the "tinker factor." How much are you willing to modify and experiment with the machine to get increased versatility vs. how much do you want a machine that is a push button that just works? I've always been the tinkering type but there is a balance. Some more experimental and low cost machines are not as reliable as I would prefer, but something that is fully developed like the MakerBot line doesn't leave as much versatility. The other portion is the licensing of the software and hardware. I've always been a proponent of the free and open source movement. It's how we are going to advance science and technology. Companies like MakerBot are not fully open source and that just doesn't sit well as it prevents the community from fixing problems in a piece of equipment that was rather expensive.

With all of those considerations and lots of research, I decided on the Taz 4 printer by Lulzbot. You can purchase the printer from Amazon, but I decided to purchase through Sparkfun Electronics since they are a small(ish) business that really supports education and the maker movement. I ordered the printer within a few hours of passing my comprehensive exams and it was on the way!

Setting up the printer

I received the printer and followed all of the setup instructions. This involved assembling the axes and removing the packing protection. I've never done this before, but overall it was very straightforward and took about 45 minutes. The next steps were what made me nervous.

To get quality prints the printer surface must be level with relation to the print head track. There are various end stops and leveling screws to adjust. Using a piece of printer paper as a gap gauge, I just followed the instructions and had the print bed leveled in about 20 minutes. There is also a test print pattern that prints two layers of plastic around the base plate to let you make sure the level is right on. Everything must be kept clean and adjusted as with any precision bit of gear, but overall I was impressed with the design.

The printer ships with an octopus test print that was my first object. I loaded up the file and hit print. The printer ran for about an hour and at the end I had the print shown below!

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What's Next

I've got some plans for what to print next. Currently I'm designing some new brackets to hold sensors in place during experiments and a few new parts like shields and pulleys to improve the quality of some of our demonstration apparatuses in the lab. I'm sure some of the results will end up as their own blog posts, but you can always see what's new by following me on Twitter (@geo_leeman). I also would like to thank Hess energy and Shell energy for their support of various aspects of these projects and of course the National Science Foundation for supporting me and many aspects of my lab research. Everything I've said is of course my own opinion and does not reflect the views of any of those funding organizations. Next post we will likely return to more general topics like seeing trends in data or go back and look at more Doppler radar experiments.

Update!

I was able to print my first laboratory parts, a set of brackets to make a magnetic holder for a displacement transducer.  I will be posting the cad files to my github account under an open license.

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