3D printed: the experience

I’ve always have been fascinated by the realm of physical tinkering, be that something from pure radio electronics or micro controllers. I’ve been always insanely inspired by stuff Adafruit used to make, but they very often finish of their builds with 3d printed enclosures, and owning a 3d printer for some reason didn’t really seem like a thing I could do in the near future. So I just lusted at them at times, but that’s about it. I never really took the time to even read up on them, because it felt so out of my area of competence.

But something, that I would could not have imagined just a year ago, is that right now I would have two of them sitting near my desk.

How it started

It all happened so suddenly. My good friends works as a 3d printer engineer, he builds and services printers, and does a ton of 3d modeling. Visiting his house was always insanely fascinating for me, because I would always find something cool he has printed yet again, be that a simple toy or some cool fix/replacement part he has created. And as I’ve always been more on the software side of things, his hardware adventures always amazed me. I mean, I am no stranger to prototyping something on a breadboard, prefboard, or even designing a pcb in cad and making it with an iron in-house, but it was not my strongest skill.

For years I’ve been saying to myself, that one day I will get into all this stuff, that I will learn more about 3d printers, the process and how to model for them, but I never really had any reason to, nor did I do anything else but think about it once in a blue moon. That all has changed at the end of last year, when the friend in question asked me, if I would be interested in purchasing and building a few printers with him to resell. Without giving it too much of a thought, I’ve ordered with his help three kits from china, two of them being for voron 2.4, and a smaller one for voron 0, that I wanted to keep for myself. Honestly, thinking back to the situation, I’m shocked, that I didn’t even question his choice of printers, I just trusted him. And, I mean, I am not disappointed, vorons turned out to be amazing printers, very modern and slick, but it is very unusual for me to just accept something like that without doing ANY research what so ever, plus I’m very picky with the tech I use.

Once the kits have arrived, I started to get a grasp on the size of the project I got myself into. I had 3 giant boxes of parts, 20+ types of bolts, 0 experience in building anything out of metal, or anything, really. And on top of that, my friend decided to quit the project, due to time constraints. And so it began. I started building voron 0, and it took me around two months to get it fully built and printing properly, and then it was half-broken many, many times through out the year. I decided to start with it, since it was the smallest printer, and I assumed, that it would be easier to build.

Voron 0: when tiny yields issues

One of the first interesting things I’ve learned, is that a lot of hardware projects use T-Slot extrusions for the frame, allowing to easily slot in additional components by adding a nut on the side. V0 had me in tears over this, tho, because it uses M3-nuts, where as V2.4 uses T-head nuts, that you can basically insert anywhere, without having to take apart your whole frame, where as with a regular nut, if you want to slot it in, you need to remove everything from the slot, that would block it sliding in, and then place it back. Doesn’t really sound that bad, until you actually add 13 instead of 14 nuts, and then 100 pages of instruction manual later, you figure out that you are missing that 1 nut, and you have to take apart huge sections of your printer, because everything is so interlinked and very well held together…

But still, it’s a very cool solution, that allows you not to drill a hole every time you need to add a new part to your frame.

Another very cool part, that I’ve never heard before, is this this tiny piece of metal, called heatinsert. It is used to combine metal bolts with plastic parts, since printing small threads is not practical, and it won’t really provide a strong joint either. So instead of that, you just model a simple hole, and then you melt the heatinsert into the 3d printed part using a soldering iron. It has those threaded sides to hold onto melting plastic, and the inside of it is a standard thread. Very handy and smart solution!

Having worked on a very simple 3d printer before, I was very pleasantly surprised with how much more modern the controller logic has became. Almost a decade ago I’ve been piecing something together with an arduino mega as the main and only controller board, and as you could probably imagine, having a not-so-powerful 8 bit processor wasn’t quite enough to do even basic operations with the extruder effectively, circles looked jagged and sharp, etc etc. Voron rocks a board, that takes commands from another controller via USB or UART, and it controls all the fans, motors heaters and sensors, but does very little to none logic calculations itself. Meanwhile, on the other side of connection you could have pretty much anything, that runs linux, in my case it’s a cheap clone of a raspberry pi, since we are still experiencing a shortage of these. And with Klipper on a single linux instance you can control multiple printers, how cool is that? On top of that you get a ton of options for interacting with your printer, the most useful one being via a web interface. Yes, that means, that if you set it up correctly, you can access your printer from anywhere, just make sure you lock it up behind a password protected proxy or something like that. Long gone are the days, when you had to dump gcode files onto an SD card and then manually insert it into the printer, choose the file, adjust the settings on a tiny LCD screen.. Now I can control the print process from my phone, tablet, laptop, whatever!

The build process wasn’t very smooth for me, sadly. It makes sense, with how little experience I had with hardware before, but man is it annoying to search for a single screw you forgot to screw fully tight, causing the whole printer going nuts. It is wild how many things can go wrong, and how many things do go wrong. It is pretty common to encounter issues with a printer, that worked perfectly fine yesterday, but then it just refuses to even start printing, or it starts producing some artefacts. There are great resources, that help you debug print quality, but it is still hard enough with a pre-built printer, let alone the one you’ve cobbled together in your basement. The instructions for vorons are very stylish, very slick, it was a pleasure working with them. But it’s like with cooking, everyone skips steps, that you should know and understand from your experience. The amount of tiny steps, that I just did not know about, is staggering. Also, I just broke a ton of parts. I replaced a lot of fans, nozzles and heating blocks.

To this day I’m having issues printing with PETG on this printer, while ABS works just fine. I’ve installed this very cool looking extruder and some light strips, and overall it’s been a great decor piece for my working desk. It is such an immense pleasure working side by side with it, while it slowly adds layer after layer. Seeing a perfect first layer of white plastic appearing on a dark surface of the printer heat bed is one of my favourite sights ever. But pretty quickly I’ve realised, how tiny 12×12 cm print area is. Thankfully, I had 2 other kits just waiting there to be built, so I’ve began doing exactly that.

Voron 2.4: it’s massive!

I can not describe, how weird it feels moving from building a tiny box with cute tiny metal bones and tiny tiny bolts, to a massive half a meter sized cube, with huge M5 bolts and massive metal extrusions. It is an even cooler printer from the technical side of things, instead of having a single motor, that rotates a threaded shaft to raise the heat bed, it has 4 motors inside of it’s feet, that raise the XY movement system with extruder, instead of the bed. The bed is massive 35×35 cm, and it floats above it effortlessly. It rocks a inductive sensor, that helps it level itself against the bed, where as with the 0 you have to do that by hand. With such a big print surface, it also has the ability to scan a mesh of the bed, to adjust print height in different spots, because nothing is truly flat in this world, especially when heat is involved.

It was much easier for me to build this printer, due to the experience gained with the 0. But still, I was very new to this whole process, and I managed to break even more stuff, than the last time. One of the major troubles I had, is that the magnet on my printer’s bed broke, when I was trying to take off the metal print surface, and I had troubles finding a proper replacement.

One of the coolest parts of the whole build process was flashing linux onto the controller board, configuring klipper and seeing the massive monster move for the first time. And when I started printing the enclosure parts for the printer on the printer itself, I just lost my mind how cool it was!

Building the third printer was uneventful, even boring, because I already knew what lies ahead, and there was no sense of discovery when flipping to the next page of the manual.

3D modeling in CAD: it’s actually quite simple

I knew the moment would come, when I would have to tackle the beast of creating my own objects for printing. I dreaded this moment, I tried to postpone it as much as I could. But when the day came, learning to model in fusion 360 turned out to be really simple and easy to understand, even tho my experience with CAD before only included creating PCBS in Autocad Eagle. I was kind of forced to model an adapter part for my new extruder head, that was seemingly missing from all the repositories. So I found a part, that had the same hole layout from the old extruder, slapped it together with the extruder model, took some measurements, and somehow managed to get it working from the first prototype. The model was a mess, but it completely killed the fear of CAD in my head, and after that it was a smooth ride.

If you own a 3d printer, but never took the time to learn how to model your own stuff for it, instead of downloading stuff from the internet, you are seriously missing out! Also, I’ve been very surprised to find out how many STLs (3d model files) are hosted on Github, I never really considered that people would use it for much more, than just hosting your code.

What now

It is so wild to me, how much I’ve managed to learn about this completely new to me world of 3d printing in just under a year, and yet I also feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

It’s been a journey, that has been going in the background of my life, never really taking the front stage, and that makes it even more surprising to me how much I’ve discovered, while not committing that much time to it. I’m insanely glad, that I’ve finally started my adventure with 3d printing. It’s hard, annoying, frustrating, but at the same time it’s insanely interesting and inspiring. The feeling you get, when you just finished modeling something, and you just watch it appear in front of you in the real world, it is just indescribable!

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