For Christmas one of my brothers purchased for my family (read that as “for Jan”) a Monoprice Maker Select v2 3D printer. This is a re-branded Wanhao Duplicator i3 V2.1 device. I had been looking at 3D printers for months (of course I was!) and Ed’s gift caused me to give him a big well deserved hug.

We used to hug all the time but in the past that would end up with one or both of us on the floor and our parents yelling “STOP FIGHTING!”

3D printers are good for easily fabricating small plastic objects from your computer. I’ve been using mine to create a few small items and print lots of free designs from Thingiverse.

An introduction! What are 3D printers?

They’re computer controlled precision hot glue guns but instead of a glue bead it sets a small line of melted material. And they print on a small area or bed.

3D printers are a complicated version of a glue gun

Photo by _bekahhogue

A hot glue gun takes a solid glue blank and the metal tip of the gun warms up. This melts the end of the glue stick and you apply a bead of glue by squeezing the trigger. Melted glue is extruded out the nozzle and onto whatever you want to  put glue on.

3D printers do exactly the same thing but it typically uses a thin plastic filament. The nozzle takes a 1.75mm filament, melts the end and extrudes it via a 0.4mm metal nozzle. The nozzle is attached to a pair of rods and a drive belt. The drive belt (the X axis) is moved by a stepper motor.

The height of the nozzle (the Z axis) is controlled by another pair of stepper motors. The nozzle outputs onto a horizontal heated bed which has a stepper motor to move forward and backwards (Y axis). That’s all you need to output melted filament to print one layer at a time.

The bed is heated because the extruded filament needs to stay put. That heat helps keep it in place and adhere to the bed. When the printer tries to put layer on top of layer, the old material has to be where it thinks it is. In the past people have used glue sticks, hair spray or blue painters tape to coat the bed and get their print to adhere. My printer’s heated bed came with a layer held on by adhesive called BuildTak.

Printing Materials

3D printer material is a spool of filament and that comes in a variety of materials. My local Microcenter carries Inland filament in crazy quantities and I’ve stocked up already.

The easiest one to get started with is PLA or PolyLactic Acid, and yes I had to look that up. This material is based on sugar cane and when melted doesn’t produce toxic fumes such as ABS plastic does. PLA is easy to work with but it’s not as temperature resistant or durable as ABS. If you printed a cup holder and left it in your car in the summer then there’s a real possibility it will become deformed when it gets hot.

ABS is acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (and I looked that up too) and it’s the same material as many plastics in your household today. It’s a great material but the fumes are toxic and it’s prone to splitting or warping when printed. It’s temperature resistant once printed.

PETG (Polyethylene terephthalate) is an alternative to ABS. It’s durable and temperature resistant. I think it’s safe to use for applications such as food but it’s also finicky and I’ve not yet dialed in the settings to get really attractive prints in PETG yet.

There are other materials as well as a wood filament that you can sand and stain. I’m still a novice and I primarily print in PLA.

Slicer Software

When you download or create files for your 3D printer they will most likely be STL files. 3D printers generally cannot process those. The files need to be sliced into layers and code for each layer.

My printer is an open source Prusa i3 clone and uses G-Code to accept commands that tell the printer what, where and how to extrude melted filament. The file format for 3D prints is typically STL format which the printer doesn’t handle. You need to use software that slices your model into G-Code.

There’s a few but a quick one is Cura. This is one of the open source software slicers that lets you set the set parameters for the print job. It’s free and easy to use. And after a couple of weeks I broke down and purchased Simplify 3D which is closed source and licensed to me for my one computer.

Non-open source code isn’t something that I prefer but this commercial software saves me a lot of time. Cura is very good but I print a lot and a half hour here and there adds up.

Printing designs

You can print via a USB cable to the printer but I don’t think that’s a good idea. Instead save your G-Code output to a microSD card and via the printer menu print from that card.

Printing from your PC could be risky. If your PC goes to sleep or reboots due to a scheduled update then you’ll waste a lot of plastic. Some print jobs take hours to complete.

What next?

I printed many things from and for my printer. I’ve also setup OctoPi, changed the printing bed and other things besides. But all that is for another post. This one is almost 1,000 words as it is. 😉