What are the best 3D printing tools to help you get the best quality prints? Pinshape guest writer Brett Turnage is here to share his top 5 tools and why they make his life easier and print quality better!
1. 3D Printing Bed Surface
There have been many articles that start off with “Ditch the Blue Tape and…”, but I can say from experience that if you have not already, you should seriously consider ditching the tape and buying a 3d printing bed surface. You will ultimately save money and time since you won’t have to constantly replace your tape and hairspray, and you will save even more time because you won’t be spending time removing tape and residue from the bed or from the bottom of your printed part.
The two off the shelf bed surfaces that I tried extensively are BuildTak and the Zebra Plate from PRINTinZ. BuildTak is a thick film that you apply to your bed surface, whereas the Zebra Plate is a flexible plate that has two bed surfaces of different colors on either side—one black and one white (that’s why it’s called Zebra!). Now, I love BuildTak and that is the surface that I used on both my machines exclusively for months. The main benefit I found with the BuildTak sheets is that I do not need bulldog clips to hold it down. Both of my machines are in heated chambers so I don’t have a lot of room for clips. I also don’t like that I lost some build area due to the clips hanging over. One negative aspect of the BuildTak sheets is that on my small machine, I have gone through 9 BuildTak sheets. On my large machine I am still on the first sheet. That’s a 9:1 ratio! Why is this happening?
The reason is adhesion. My smaller machine has a standard 200x200mm bed (7.8”x7.8”). The larger machine is a 360mm circle, or 14 3/8”. The adhesive on the BuildTak sheet on the larger machine generates more force than the smaller machine and thus can withstand printed parts that require more force to remove. I get a really nice pressed down plastic with no gaps on my bigger machine, and because the force to remove the printed part is less than the force of BuildTak’s adhesive, the BuildTak sheet does not rip or damage. Since the smaller machine has a smaller build area, prints require more force than the BuildTak sheet can generate and so it tears. That’s why I have to constantly replace the smaller machine’s sheet whereas the larger machine is still on its first sheet.
Recently I switched the smaller machine to the Zebra Plate, and this change is permanent. Now that I have a larger machine, I’m not so focused on using all of the smaller machine’s build area. The fact that I don’t have to replace sheets constantly is a big benefit for my sanity, printing, and my budget. If I get an object that’s really hard to remove, I can pull the Zebra Plate out of the machine and utilize its special feature: bending the bed to dislodge hard prints! Although the Zebra Plate is a thick plate and not a film, it’s flexible. It was designed to be bent in order to break the adhesion between the printed part and the bed surface so a quick bend is all it takes to remove your prints. Be sure to bend it back in the other direction to bring the surface back to flat.
For my large machine, after months of use I have just two small areas where the bed ripped. Instead of replacing the entire sheet I can just cut those areas out and replace them. Not a problem since 4 sheets for that machine cost $90.
For the Zebra Plate, my recommendation is to slowly walk up the bed of your printer with your hotend. Do lots of test prints and make sure that you don’t accidentally input the wrong height on your Z-height or you will ruin one side of your Zebra Plate and it will just be a one-colored zebra… and who wants that? It’ll be an outcast amongst its herd (okay, enough with the bad jokes).
I would recommend both 3D printed build surfaces, but until BuildTak uses a stronger adhesive for the smaller machines/sheets, I would suggest the PRINTinZ Zebra Plate if you are using a standard bed (200x200mm) and you don’t mind bulldog clips and a smaller build area.
2. Bontech Extruder
I’ve been dying to write about the Bondtech Extruder ever since I started writing articles for Pinshape. Why? Because I believe it’s the single most important innovation that has hit 3D printing in years. Everything that your FDM printer prints relies on one thing—a properly functioning extruder. You need an extruder that can reliably push out filament, without it binding, stripping filament, or slipping, and still be able to be used a variety of materials. You also need it to be mountable on either direct drive or bowden style printers. That is what the Bondtech Extruder offers.
I built my machines and using printed extruders is very popular. My printed extruder worked fine until I started really pushing my machines with long prints. They often failed because it would slip or the plastic would elongate over time—it was unreliable. I purchase a Bondtech and all of those problems went away. The extruder uses two drive gears that pinch the filament on both sides, an SLS-printed body that is attractive and so precise that the filament is held perfectly straight as it goes through the system. It’s coupled with a very powerful geared stepper, so it produces lots of force to push the filament down and through the hotend. The Bondtech QR has a quick release so that you can easily change filaments. I love this extruder so much that I bought a second one for my new machine. For any future machines that I’ll have, I’ll be putting the Bondtech Extruder as the first thing I’ll need to get for it.
Now, I mentioned earlier about people who were hold-outs for blue tape and hairspray, but I was a hold-out on slicers. I used the same free slicer that I have been using for years, even though it took forever to slice models, and even though it would crash multiple times in a day—even when all I did was load a model to its virtual build space! Although it did me wrong on so many occasions and our relationship was fraught, I stayed with it! As that song goes, “You may not be with the one you want, but love the one that you’re with.” I subscribed to that, but the final straw was the poor retractions and the blobs on my prints.
I couldn’t do it any longer, and I finally switched up and bought a license to Simplify3D. Simplify3D has been around for a few years, and many people use it.
One of the most wonderful features in this slicer is the retractions while moving. My Delta required retractions of 5mm, and with Simplify3D I got blob-less, perfect prints. I also love how easily I can place supports. But the real thing that impresses me about this product is how it plans out the path of how it will create your model. It slows down on delicate areas, instead of flying though it like a madman. It moves with purpose and is very careful on how it prints your part. And that was right out of the box. The only alterations I made were some ending scripts, temperature changes, and retraction set to 5mm. If you print a lot, or if you really care about making the best prints that you can have, spend the $150 for a license to Simplify3D. They also have a 1-month money back guarantee, so if you don’t like it, you can return it. For me, this was the best $150 I’ve ever spent in 3D printing (the Bondtech was about $175 so I didn’t contradict myself haha!).
4. Wireless Printing
Once again, this is one of those things that we all used to have to do, but we don’t any longer. Before, it was assumed that you had to have your printer, next to or attached to a computer. Now, there are many different alternatives for wireless printing including cloud based printing services. I’ll cover the two that I have used: Octoprint and Repetier Server.
Both Octoprint (Octopi) and Repetier Server are Linux based programs that run on the Raspberry Pi family and other similar microcomputers that you can hold in your hand (both have version for Mac and PC). Octoprint was the first program that I tried and there is a very good video that Tom Salanderer made which walks your through the setup. Its interface is clean and attractive and it’s a very good program to have. You can enable video functions by attaching and enabling the Raspberry Pi native ribbon 5mp camera, and it’s just fun to use. I would have stayed with it, if not for issues with Octoprint and then later, Repetier Host (the firmware that I had switched to more recently). I jumped ship over to Repetier Server.
Repetier Server is still in Beta, so at the moment, anyone can download it and can use all of the features. When the Beta ends, there will be two versions: a free version, and a licensed version that has better features. The setup on this program was confusing at first. Where some official documents would say one thing and others would say the opposite. The main reason for this was oversight. The developers work on programs so much that they don’t realize that most people don’t know Linux, so when you just say download this .deb (debain) file, it doesn’t tell users what they have to do to unpack it. Since unpacking a Linux file is not like installing a program on a PC or Mac where you just double-click an icon, I and many other users were left confused about what to do next. I finally figured it out by searching Google for how to unpack and install debian files and I created a YouTube video to help future users avoid the frustration.
Once you have this program going, it’s amazing! You’ll get ETAs of when your part will be completed. You can upload firmware wirelessly to your machine, and access the EEPROM settings to change features— all while in the program. I’ll never have to plug in hardlines into my machines ever again! Currently, the webcam service is not as good as Octoprint’s. It uses a Linux webcam script that another person created and it just embeds it into the program. That is a knock on the program because to get it working requires typing in a page of Linux scripts, which really makes you miss Octoprint’s quick one button webcam approach. But this is Beta and hopefully they will fix this when the full version comes out. Currently I have to type in “sudo shutdown-h now” via a SSH client to turn my Raspberry Pis off.
Both programs are must-haves and will seriously benefit your printing experience. If I have to choose a winner it would be hands down Repeiter Server. I love it, and would never go back or look for an alternative program.
5. CAD Programs (create your own models!)
Rapid Prototyping is what 3D printing used to be called. I still have friends who are in the manufacturing business who exclusively call it by that name. Nowadays, it’s viewed as almost a toy (by some) or a hobby that you print figurines and models out with. That can be fun, but I think it’s important to realize that you have a tool— the same tool that many companies pay $40,000 or more for. So to fully take advantage of the tool, you should learn how to create your own .stl files.
Last month, I learned how to use Blender. It’s a free program that is really easy to use. I bought a one-month subscription to CGCookie.com and watched a few online videos. Soon enough, I was able to create my car chassis: the RS-01 OpenRC Fully Adjustable Suspension Chassis. It won second place in the Pinshape OpenRC Contest. I did all of that in 3-days!
Blender is great for making simple shapes, but when you want the real deal CAD experience, you’ll need to use a parametric modeler that uses parameters to create parts. Instead of starting off with a primitive shape (a cube, circle, etc.) you start off with a sketch and after you perfect that 2D sketch, you extrude it and turn it into a 3D shape. The benefit of a parametric modeler is that when you want to change a feature like a hole to a larger diameter, the program just adjusts the model. The parametric modeler that I switched to was AutoDesk’s Fusion360. It’s an amazing program, and it’s the little brother to AutoDesk’s larger business program Inventor. Fusion360 is a paid subscription for business, but for makers, hobbyists, and students—it’s free.
Now, I wish I could say that Fusion360’s video tutorials were as thorough or detailed as the ones of CGCookie, but they are not. They move fast, and don’t walk you step-by-step from creation to the final finished model, but they are still helpful. The online video tutorials are also free. By the third day of using Fusion360, I started trying to build my own car. On the forth day, I had to rebuild it all over again, although this time I built the car in six hours! I did all of that within 2-weeks. If you feel that learning CAD is daunting, then just try a video or put in 15 minutes a day. Trust me, you will soon be building your own parts and finding enjoyment in seeing others download and print things that you designed. I can tell you that it’s a pretty cool feeling. So whether it’s Blender, Fusion360, or some other program, LEARN IT! Turn your machine into a tool.
From my experience, all of these tools helped me become a better maker so feel free to try them out and if you have any additional tools to add, feel free to leave a comment!
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About the Author
Brett Turnage is a composites expert who runs his own company specializing in automotive carbon fiber manufacturing. He uses 3D printing and 3D scanning for prototyping and for product development.
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