What Is 3D Printing and How to Build a 3D Printer step by step?
3D printing is more formally known as additive manufacturing, since a print is created by making an object one layer at a time, adding on material until it is done. More traditional subtractive manufacturing starts off with a block of, say, wood or metal and takes material away as the part emerges.
Both techniques shine in certain areas, but 3D printing is particularly useful for creating complex objects, making unique or custom items, or generating prototypes during the design phase of a project.
We could argue that “3D printing” has been around for eons since every sandbar is built from sand washed up on it. In terms of the lineage of current machines, though, Chuck Hull developed the first 3D printer that used a robotic mechanism to control a laser in about 1984, subsequently commercialized by 3D Systems about five years later.
This technique, called stereolithography (abbreviated SLA), is still very much in use today, though very much evolved — it uses a laser to solidify an object out of a vat of liquid resin layer by layer. In this blog, we have to explain How to Build a 3D Printer step by step
Since then, other technologies have evolved which can most usefully be organized around the feedstock they use. We give you a quick overview of printers that use powders and resin, which are mostly used in more expensive, commercial applications. Then we move on to consumer, desktop 3D printers that mostly use plastic filament on a spool as feedstock.
Commercial 3D Printers
Many commercial grade printers use one of a set of technologies that we call selective binding. These printers fuse a fine powder (such as gypsum, nylon, or even metal) either by using heat to sinter or melt the powder particles to fuse them together or by depositing a binding agent (glue or solvent) to make layers of powder adhere to previous layers.
Typically, the process starts by coating an empty build platform with a fine layer of the working powder. Printers have a print head consisting of either a lens or set of mirrors to focus a laser onto the surface of the powder or an inkjet for depositing binding agents onto it. This head fuses one layer’s worth of the material at a time, sometimes laying down ink to color the object at the same time.
Then another thin layer is laid up on top of this and so on until the print is done. The user has to dig the finished print out of a bed of powder and vacuum off the excess powder. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printers work this way, as do direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and most full-color printers. Printing metal is complex and for some technologies requires filling the build chamber with argon or nitrogen.
Another set of technologies uses selective solidification, in which a liquid is selectively turned into a solid, typically by using an ultraviolet light source to activate polymerization in the liquid resin. SLA (described earlier) was the first example of this, and the Form 1+ printer is a lower-cost example now on the market.
Digital light projection (DLP) printers use a projector to harden an entire layer at once. There are now several DLP printers aimed at the consumer market (a search for “DLP 3D printer” on your favorite search engine should give a list). However, the resin hardens when exposed to UV light and requires some care in handling. Managing this makes DLP printers harder to deal with than the ones we are about to describe.
Beyond the printers using plastic, some are being used to extrude food or concrete, and medical printers create tissue substrates for new organs. People have been deploying 3D printers in many applications and size scales.
Desktop 3D Printers
The MatterControl program is intended to control 3D printers using a technology variously called Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). This type of machine melts a thermoplastic filament and extrudes it in a sticky, viscous form through a moving nozzle (and/or onto a moving build platform) one thin layer at a time.
This extruder works like a high-tech hot glue gun. Layers typically are about 0.1 to 0.3 mm thick. This type of printer now can be purchased in a variety of configurations, and the rest of this blog is focused on these. (The print is a result of the process of 3-dimensionally scanning your trusty author Rich’s body and creating a printable object.
Types of Filament-Based 3D Printers
Many different types of 3D printers use thermoplastic filament as the feedstock for 3D printing. Typically the filament comes in spools or cartridges; the printer in Figure has a spool next to it on a device that allows it to unspool freely. Most printers work by precisely feeding filament into an extruder, which has a cold end that somehow moves the filament and a hot end that melts the filament.
The molten material (usually somewhat viscous) then comes out of a nozzle. Nozzle diameters are typically in the range of 0.5 to 0.3 mm. A smaller diameter nozzle does not necessarily mean a print can be of higher resolution; as you will see, there are complex overall design tradeoffs both in the way the printer is built and in the way you elect to use a printer to create something.
Some conventions are common to all printers. For example, they all have some sort of build platform, a flat platform on which the print builds up a layer at a time. This platform may be stationary, or it may move in one or more axes. One way or another, material needs to be laid down in three dimensions. Different designers will argue at length about the virtues of different designs, and new ones come out almost daily. We show you a few illustrative examples to give you an idea of the general varieties.
Some design features are common to almost all lower-cost printers. Most use stepper motors, which are very reliable and precise motors that move something in predetermined steps—for example, 5 microns at a time. Printers are commonly open-loop, meaning they have very limited ability to take corrective action if something goes wrong. If you tell a printer to try to print in thin air, it will do it. This control simplicity makes it easy for hobbyists to create and develop their own printers but can cause frustrations and add operational complexity.
Many 3D printers are Cartesian printers. This means that they are arranged such that they have a frame with three axes at right angles to each other (conventionally called x, y, and z, with the z-axis being the vertical one). It is also a direct drive extruder in which the filament is pushed into the hot end with an actuator that is connected directly to the hot end.
A cartesian printer that moves its platform in one axis (the y-axis, toward you in the picture), moves its extruder from right to left to give movement in the x-axis, and then the whole x-axis is moved up and down to give layer by layer z motion.
You will notice that a tube comes out of the extruder; this is called a Bowden tube and it guides the filament to the extruder from a drive gear at a distance. Bowden extruders can sometimes give higher performance because less of the mechanism has to be moved around.
The other major category of printers is the non-Cartesian printers, the most common of which are delta, or delta bot, printers. These machines are descendants of pick and place machines—robots that are used in factories to pick things up and move them around. Deltas have the advantage that their build platforms are stationary, but their extruder movement is very complex.
There are also other designs such as polar printers (in which one or more axes rotate rather than move linearly) and a variety of other experimental systems. Non-Cartesian printers have to convert the Cartesian coordinates provided by slicing software into ones appropriate for their own mechanical systems, but this is typically done internally by the printer’s firmware and is thus mostly transparent to the user. For the most part, these design features will not significantly affect how you would interact with MatterControl, if the software supports them.
Tips for Building a Delta Printer
Building your own 3D printer can be a really cool project. Building a 3D printer requires basic mechanical skills and the ability to work with wiring (crimping and soldering). It also requires a certain set of tools to build the printer. There are a number of things you can do to help make the build more productive and successful.
Organize Your Small Parts
One of the most time-consuming things I’ve experienced is finding the right small part—be that a bolt, nut, washer, or that one small grub screw among 50 small screws of the same diameter. The best thing you can do when building your printer is to organize your small parts using a plastic storage bin with a number of small compartments. If you purchased a kit that has the hardware included, or perhaps you bought a hardware kit, it is worth the extra time to organize the small parts in this manner.
I use a storage bin with a hinged lid. This means that I can stop my work at any time, close the lid, and put the project away. If you plan to buy trays for small parts, get one that has a lid. This tip alone may help you avoid the most dreadful case of missing or scattered small parts if you drop something.
If you plan to build more than one 3D printer (that is, make it an obsession), you may want to invest in a set of storage trays for storing an assortment of bolts. For example, I have storage trays with a wide variety of 2mm, 3mm, 4mm, 5mm, and 8mm nuts, bolts, washers, and more. Not only does this make it easier to find the size bolt you need, it can also be cheaper, in the long run, to buy your small hardware in bulk. This could be considered overkill if you are building a single printer, but a necessity if you plan to build many.
Read the Instructions
If your vendor has provided you with a set of build instructions, be sure to read through them, front to back, at least once. If this is your first delta printer build, read through the instructions several times so that you are familiar with each step.
This is important because it will decrease the possibility that you will miss a step or perhaps assemble parts in the wrong order, or worse—in the wrong orientation. If your manual is very detailed, it is even more important to read through it thoroughly. Do not be tempted to assemble by the photo.
That is, do not build your printer relying only on the photos as a guide. There is often much more information in the text; the photos are normally provided for checking your work and may not explain everything you need to know.
For example, if you fail to correctly orient some of the parts, especially the Rostock Max v2 or Kossel Pro, you could find yourself disassembling the entire frame to get that one lousy nut in place. Yes, it does happen. Reading the instructions can help avoid this and similar calamities.
Lastly, reading the instructions will help confirm you have the correct tools for the job. Most build instructions include a required tools list at the front with no master list. Check this against your own toolkit to make sure that you have everything you need. This too will help avoid frustration late in the build when you discover your own hex key is just a wee bit too small, forcing you to abandon your build in order to acquire another tool.
Use a Clean, Clear Workspace
This is one tip that can save you some consternation if planned in advance. Make sure that your choice of workspace for your build has no other small parts, tools, animals, or projects that can interfere with your build. It also helps to choose a workspace where you can leave your project in place should you not be able to finish it in one sitting.
It also helps to clean the workspace before you lay out your parts. You need not be able to eat off the surface, but it should be clear of any dirt, debris, grease, and other contaminants. Keep in mind that smooth rods, and certainly bearings, will come oiled. Placing these on a dirty worktop will result in the transfer of the dirt to your printer. You do not want that.
As to how large a workspace you will need, most delta printer components can fit on a typical folding table–sized workspace (approximately 30"× 60"). However, I do not recommend using a folding table (especially if you may need to move the table) unless you can secure the legs or the table is very sturdy.
Your work habits may also be a factor. If you like to keep your workspace clear, you may want to store parts in boxes (or the shipping box) stacked in order of the build instructions. That way, you can remove only the parts needed. I found this particularly helpful when building the Kossel Pro. Keep in mind that every kit has stages where you will need to set aside a partial assembly. Leave some room for those.
Also, keep in mind the type of frame your printer uses. This is an important point if your workspace happens to be the family dinner table. Your family may not appreciate the character your metal frame printer inflicts on the wood surface. Thus, you should consider covering the workspace to avoid scratches or choose a different workspace to build your printer. You can also use self-healing cutting mats. Some have foam backing that protects the surface.
Lastly, make sure that all liquids, beverages, and other messy things are well clear of your work area and parts. Accidental spills can be quite a bother to clean up, especially if you need to dry off a hundred little bolts and nuts, or worse, your electronics board.
Check the Bill of Materials
If you purchased a kit with a bill of materials, lay that aside and refer to it as you unpack your kit. This helps to ensure that you aren’t missing any parts, but it also helps you take inventory of the parts. Lay each part or package of parts on your workspace. Try to arrange them in order of the build instructions.
If your kit came with small hardware such as nuts and bolts, be sure to count them to ensure that you have enough to complete the build. Do this the same day you receive your printer kit. Contact customer service if you are missing any parts so that you won’t have to stop in the middle of the build. Most vendors will send you extra in case you lose one or thirteen small nuts and washers.
Lay Out Your Tools
Once you have read the instructions and checked the bill of materials, you should assemble and lay out those tools you will need for the build. I like to keep mine in small trays to make them easier to get to and easier to put away, should I need to stop before I am finished. You could also use a pegboard (or something similar) mounted on your wall to keep your work surface clear and organize your tools at the same time.
It can be frustrating to spend a lot of time contorting your hands into position to place a nut on the back of a component, only to realize the bit driver is out of arm’s reach or has the wrong bit installed. Keep your tools close by.
Keep Your Hands Clean
If your frame has laser-cut wood parts (like the Rostock Max v2), be advised that some of these parts may have ash on the cut edges that can transfer to your hands, and in turn, to other things—like your clothing, or face, or your white cat. If this doesn’t bother you,8 then you can safely ignore this tip.
However, if it does, you should also consider the fact that small hardware, bearings, and rods often have a thin coat of oil applied by the manufacturer. Unless you want to transfer that oil to your plastic and wood parts, you might want to keep a damp washcloth (preferably one your spouse won’t mind having oil get on it) and some paper towels to clean up after handling the parts.
No Duct Tape Allowed
That’s right. Duct tape is strictly prohibited. OK, maybe just one small piece—but that’s all you get! Joking aside, there really is no (reasonable) reason to use questionable bonding practices such as duct tape to join parts of your printer together.
On the other hand, zip ties may be an alternative worth considering. They are tidier and can be removed easily. In fact, I’ve used zip ties to secure parts on my printers when I didn’t have the correct length bolt. If pulled tight, they can be very strong.
Give Me a Break!
If you find yourself getting frustrated or trying to rush through a build step, stop and give yourself a break. Sometimes stepping away from the problem—even overnight or over a weekend—can work wonders in solving your particular frustration. I recommend taking a break every two hours or so. Do something different during that time, like talking to your family and friends so they don’t think you’re a complete nerd. But they still might.
Don’t Force Components Together
Test-fit all parts before bolting or snapping them together. Some parts fit together easily only one way but can be forced together the wrong way. Just ask any parent the day after Christmas what this means.
Don’t Stray from the Plan
If you are like me and are always thinking about ways to improve your printers, don’t be tempted to alter the design or build midstream to add some gizmo or upgrade you found on Thingiverse. While these upgrades and convenience accessories may improve your printer, adding them before the printer is finished can be more trouble than you expect.
For example, if you add a new Z-probe in place of the one that came with the kit, and you encounter problems when calibrating the printer later on, how do you know there is something wrong with the kit and not your new addition?
Also, if you need help from the vendor and you’ve deviated from their instructions, you may not find they are as sympathetic as you’d expect. And you should expect them to request you remove the upgrade as a first step in solving the problem. It is best to wait to add embellishments.
Keep an Engineering Logbook
Many developers, engineers, and scientists keep notes about their projects in paper notebooks or digital notebooks using apps like Evernote (http://evernote.com/). A voice recorder can also be handy in catching those impromptu ideas when you don’t have time or it is too dangerous to use pen and paper. Some people are more detailed than others, but most take notes during meetings and phone conversations, thereby providing a written record of verbal communication.
If you aren’t in the habit of keeping an engineering logbook, you should consider doing so. You will find a logbook especially handy for building a 3D printer if your build will take more than one sitting. Not only can you record what you’ve done—settings, measurements, and so forth, but you can also record your thoughts on what worked and what did not. Perhaps more important for a project that requires more than a few hours and a single session is having a place to write down where you are and what you need to do next.
Naturally, you can use any type of notebook you desire; but if you want to class up your notes a bit, you can purchase a notebook made especially for keeping engineering notes. These typically have subdued gridlines and sometimes text areas for recording key information like the project name and page number. Two of my favorite notebooks include the small project-sized notebooks from SparkFun and the larger Maker’s Notebook from Maker Shed.
This section contains tips that are related to assembling the frame of a delta printer.
Cleaning Bolt and Rod Holes
If the hole or shaft that a bolt or rod must pass through is too small, you can make the hole larger (also called reaming) by using a drill bit of the correct size. For plastic parts, in particular, be sure to use a bit that is only marginally larger than the existing opening.
Some parts in delta printers require bolts to be snug in their slots. For example, the bolts in the optional roller carriages for the Mini Kossel need to be snug fit. Reaming these out so that the bolts slide in easily can affect how the carriage performs.
It is also important to use the drill bit manually instead of popping it into a high-speed drill and letting the bit eat away at the plastic. As tempting as this may be, it can be hazardous to the structural integrity of the part.
There are two reasons for this. First, plastic parts are built with several layers on external surfaces. If you drill beyond these layers, you will expose the internal fill volume, which typically has a fill of 50% or less, and weaken the part.
Second, a drill bit can easily bite into the plastic, putting excessive pressure on it. If the drill is spinning very fast, the bit can heat up and melt the plastic. Either of these can result in broken parts. If the opening is significantly smaller, you may need to either use a smaller bolt or correct the part and reprint it. It is always better to use a smaller bolt if possible.
Delta printers that use vertical frame members made from metal rods or extruded aluminum that is bolted to plastic connecting parts are assembled according to a specific measurement and alignment. If your printer requires measuring the position of a component, be sure to measure twice—once as you are assembling it and again after you’ve tightened the fasteners.
This can help you avoid ill-fitting parts. You should also check the frame for alignment—that is, the parts are assembled with the correct orientation to one another (e.g., right angles are 90 degrees) and the parallel subcomponents are indeed parallel.
If your printer is made from laser-cut wood, acrylic, or a composite, it is likely the design uses nut traps cut into one piece of the material. The idea is you use a bolt through one piece threaded into the nut held in place in the nut trap. This works really well and is an excellent alternative to nails and other error-prone fasteners.
However, it can be maddeningly difficult to keep the nut in place if the nut trap is larger than the nut itself. In other words, the nut trap won’t hold the nut in place long enough for you to thread the bolt. This makes it frustrating to work with nut traps in pieces oriented so that the nut falls out.
To combat this, you can place a small piece of blue tape (You did buy a roll, didn’t you?) on the side facing the direction of the earth’s gravitational pull (er, down). This way, you can put the nut in the nut trap and it won’t go kerplunk! into the inner workings of your printer.
Another method is to use a pair of needle-nose pliers to place the nut in the nut trap and hold it there while you thread the bolt through. In this case, you grip the outer edge of the nut and hold it firmly.
If you make a mistake and over tighten a bolt, you could strip it. That is, the threads can cross, making it difficult to remove the bolt. If this happens when the nut is in a nut trap made from plastic, it can also damage the plastic.
This most often happens with smaller 3mm and 2mm bolts. When it does happen, and you cannot get the bolt to unthread without damaging the plastic or wood, you can use a small metal file to cut the bolt off. You can also use a small bolt cutter to cut the head off. However, you should not use an electric hobby tool with a cutting wheel for bolts in plastic. The bolt could get hot enough to melt the plastic and ruin the part.
Locate Lost Nuts and Other Small Bits
Given the small size of 2mm and 3mm nuts and bolts, and their proclivity for falling onto the floor and disappearing under furniture,12 you may be tempted after the first dozen or so cases to just ignore it and let the vacuum cleaner find it later. Avoid this temptation and keep close tabs on the small hardware!
I did this once myself. I looked and looked for a missing 3mm nut and never found it. I even used a magnetic pickup to reach behind my workspace, but it simply wasn’t there. That is until I powered my printer on. Yes, you guessed it. That small nut had fallen into my electronics and shorted out my Arduino Mega board. Well, at least two good things came from this. I saw some very interesting smoke, complete with a small light show, and I learned the importance of always locating that lost little bit of metallic hardware.
Build Your Top and Bottom Frame As Completely As Possible
With a delta printer, the top and bottom frame components typically house most of the components for the printer. The bottom frame often has the electronics, power supply, and sometimes the cold end (extruder). Depending on the printer you chose to build, the top can also contain a number of components, such as the electronics, LCD, or a spool holder.
I’ve found completing the installation of these components into the frame section as a unit much easier before you join them with the vertical frame components. If you need (as is often the case) to rotate the frame to get to a particular nut or bolt, it will be much easier if you don’t have the two sections connected (or the towers connected to the bottom).
When I built my first delta printer, I often had to turn it upside down or on its side to complete some installation. Not only is this inconvenient, but if your build instructions had you align the towers or adjust some other frame component, mishandling your frame can undo that careful adjustment.
Add Extra Nuts
If your delta printer is built with aluminum extrusions that are designed to capture nuts (like the OpenBeam 1515 extrusions), you will want to add a couple of extra nuts in the channel for each exposed frame section. Sometimes your build instructions will tell you how many nuts you need to add, but not always.
This is important because delta frame vertices block some of the ends of the extrusions, making adding nuts impossible. Some designs, like the Mini Kossel or Kossel Pro, have frame sides with special cavities that allow you to add nuts, but the interior and exterior facing sides are still blocked. The only way to get nuts into these blocked channels is to loosen the frame, which is generally bad since it requires you to recheck your alignment and can even affect calibration.
Not only will having extra nuts make assembly of required parts easier, it will also help you in the future should you decide to relocate a component or add an upgrade, or you just want to bolt something to your frame. I like to add nuts and secure them with grub screws so they don’t rattle around while the printer is printing.
Working with Oiled Parts
I will talk more about keeping your printer’s moving parts oiled as part of a regular maintenance regimen, but it is also important for assembly. The smooth rods, bearings, and even some of the bolts and other hardware come from the factory with a light oil covering them. Resist the temptation to clean this away. Your smooth rods need to be damp with a thin layer of oil on most bearings.
Naturally, this oil will transfer to your hands. I have already discussed the need to keep your hands clean, but handling the rods themselves makes that complicated.
However, you can wear a tight-fitting rubber, Nitrile, or similar latex gloves when handling these parts. This allows you to work with the oily bits and still have clean hands for handling the other bits. I keep a box of Nitrile gloves on my worktop for just those occasions.
Keep Smooth and Threaded Rods Clean
A related tip concerns keeping the threaded rods, bearings, and smooth rods free of dirt and other debris. Using gloves can help in this endeavor, but the best way to keep them clean is to store them in a plastic bag or under a sheet of plastic during assembly. This way they won’t accumulate dust and debris from your build, like particles of wood, bits of plastic, and so forth. If they do get dirt or dust on them, use a lint-free rag to wipe them clean. Reapply a thin coat of oil once a part is installed.
Before cranking down your belt (or cable) tensioners until you get a high E note from plucking the belt, leave a little slack until your printer build is complete. Chances are you will have to adjust them again anyway; so leaving a little slack saves you from having to do it twice. Plus, if you have to adjust the axis in any way during the build, you won’t have to loosen it first.
Once the build is complete, the belts should be tight enough so that there is no slack, but not so much that they produce music. Too tight and it will bind the idler pulley and overheat or excessively wear the stepper motor.
Align Pulleys with the Belt
This is one area most instructions fail to illustrate or even mention. When building a printer that uses belts for axes movement, you need to align the pulley, idler, and fixed belt mounts so that the belt does not wander on the idler, or worse—the drive pulley. There is a very easy way to do this. Once you have the axis assembled, sight down the belt and check the alignment as it moves. The belt should not move to one side or the other. If it does, you must adjust the location of the idler or pulley.
The method I use is to loosen the idler and the pulley and then move the axis back and forth (up and down for delta printers), adjusting the idler and pulley as needed. Once I get both aligned, I tighten them in place. This makes for a smoother moving axis and can also improve part quality.
Don’t Stress the Plastic
During assembly, it may be tempting to flex the axis to align the rods and the axis ends. This is normally the case for an axis that uses press-fit connections for vertical frame components, like the Mini Kossel (aluminum extrusion) or Rostock (smooth rods). If you need to do this, take care. Too much flex will likely result in broken plastic.
If you hear a creak or crack, you’ve gone too far and have just broken the bond between the filament layers or the filament itself. I recommend using a file or drill to enlarge the opening until the part fits snugly, without resorting to the use of force. And never, ever use a hammer to pound metal parts into plastic.
Take Care with Mounting the Accessories
When upgrading your printer with cooling fans, spool holders, and similar features, take care to ensure that the mount does not interfere with moving parts. For example, if your delta printer uses roller carriages and you want to mount something on the vertical frame components, be sure to give the carriage enough clearance so that the rollers or the carriage are not obstructed.
Similarly, if you mount something on your effector, be sure that the effector (with delta arms attached) can move throughout the build volume and that the Z-probe deployment process continues to work correctly. Sometimes you have to get a little creative to overcome these issues if space is a premium.
For example, I designed a part-cooling fan for one of my Mini Kossel printers that used a hose to connect the fan to a nozzle suspended from the effector. This was the only way I could use a large fan and still mount it on the effector.
This section contains tips for assembling the electronics for your printer. If you have little experience with electronics, you might want to reread some of these before working with the printer’s electronics.
ESD Is the Enemy
You should take care to make sure that your body, your workspace, and your printer are grounded to avoid electrostatic discharge (ESD). ESD can damage your electronics. The best way to avoid this is to use a grounding strap that loops around your wrist and attaches to the frame of the equipment you are working on. You can also grasp a ground source such as a metal water pipe, but that may be inconvenient. Grounding straps are more convenient and are inexpensive.
Test Your Components Separately
Whenever possible, it is a good idea to test your electronics components prior to assembly. This can add significant time to your build, but it is worth it. This is especially true if you either bought your kit from several component kits or sourced them yourself. I used to trust that certain components—like power supplies and Arduino clone boards—were rarely dead on arrival (DOA); that is, despite being new, they don’t work or work incorrectly.
Thus, it is a good idea to plug in the power supply and check its voltage when the item arrives. But be sure to test the components individually. If that power supply is putting out too much voltage, you could damage other components.
You can test your Arduino and RAMPS simply by installing the shield on the Arduino and connecting it to your computer (and loading the firmware). I sometimes do this when I use components from vendors that I haven’t used in the past.
You can take this tip to an extreme and wire up all of your electronics, and then run tests like moving the axis (to see the motors spin), checking the hot end for proper heating, and even checking the LCD panel for proper operation. This process is called bench testing, and savvy electronics enthusiasts do this as a matter of practice.
If you do nothing else, I recommend testing the power supply. It is the one component that can quickly ruin a build—either by not working or working too well. A quick test can avoid that unpleasant (and depressing) moment of stolen eureka when you flip the switch on your newly built printer, only to have nothing happen.
Don’t Rush Assembly
Rushing the assembly of your electronics can be very bad for the life of your equipment. For example, if you mistakenly plug in a component the wrong way, you could risk burning out the component, or worse—shorting out your RAMPS or similar board altogether. Especially if this is your first build, take your time and study the instructions carefully to make sure that you’ve got everything wired and connected properly.
You Cannot Use Too Many Zip Ties
Well, I suppose you can, but that would be a lot of zip ties! That aside, don’t hesitate to use zip ties to tame your wiring to keep it clear of moving parts or parts that get hot—or that may otherwise interfere with the normal operation of your printer.
You should also avoid the temptation to cinch everything up before you’ve done the preflight checks. Imagine the frustration level incurred if you have to take your RAMPS apart to change the orientation of one wire connection. Similarly, I would not let your wires lay about wherever they fall. Aside from keeping them away from moving parts, it makes for a more professional build to have all the extra wire bundled up and tucked away.
Cutting Wires to Length
You may also want to avoid the temptation to cut wires to length if your kit requires you to make your own cables or to attach the connectors. There are two reasons for this. First, if you discover you need to reroute a cable to add an accessory later, you may find the cable is too short to accommodate the accessory, forcing you to redo the cable.
Second, if you ever have to replace your electronics board with another, where the connectors are in a different location, you may not be able to if the cables are too short. It is best to leave them a little long and bundle them with zip ties.
Cut Zip Ties Close to the Nub
This is something you may not think about. When you use as many zip ties as most printer kits tend to, the point where you cut off the excess can vary based on how fast you go through the build. For example, if you are in a hurry to trim the zip ties, you may not position the side cutters close enough to the nub, leaving a small, often angled bit of tie sticking out.
This isn’t a problem with really small zip ties (but it might not look as nice), but with larger zip ties, especially those made from hard plastic, it can be a problem. I have scratched my hands and arms on zip tie nubs several times. I could have avoided those minor injuries if I had taken the time to cut the tie off closer to and flush with the nub. It also looks a lot neater.
Use High-Temp Wire for Heaters
The heaters on your printer (the extruder hot end and the heated build plate, if provided) can generate a lot of heat. You must use special wire designed for use in heater circuits. The wire is often labeled as being high temperature (or it gives a temperature rating). If you bought a kit, make sure that the vendor has included high-temperature wiring for the hot end and the build plate.
Use ESD Shielding for LCD Cables
I have found that some LCD panel components are sensitive to radio interference from other wires. I had this problem on one of my early Prusa printers. It seemed that if I got anywhere near the printer when it was printing, the LCD panel became corrupt. This didn’t seem to affect the printer, and I traced it to a small electrostatic discharge. Despite grounding everything properly, this particular LCD panel was very sensitive to EMI. You can combat this by making sure that your LCD cables are routed away from wires carrying mains (5V or 12V) power.
The best method is to wrap the LCD cables in EMI shielding. I use peel-and-stick wire wrap that has a braided core and an aluminum inner sheet. McMaster sells a variety of shielding. Be sure to mark your cables! Once you wrap them in the shielding, it may not be obvious which end corresponds to one on the other end. I use a small permanent marker to mark both ends of one of the cables (most LCD panels use two cables).
If our printer kit does not include a self-contained power supply or if you plan to use a typical LED 12V/30A power supply, you will need to take care with how you wire it for plugging into your household power—that is, the AC power connector should be deliberately protected.
A popular method is to use an AC plug with a switch, such as IEC320 C14 (or similar), and mount that to the printer in some manner—either as part of a cover for the power supply or as a separate mount. I’ve used both and I can say I feel a lot safer with those AC wires tucked away.
Even if you don’t have an enclosure-like mounting point, keeping the higher voltage wires covered is always a good idea to avoid accidental experiments in hair follicle growth.
Another reason may be to avoid accidental shorts. For example, I have a cover I made for one of my Prusa printers that cover the end of my LED power supply. Incorporated into that design are the power plug and switch. When I mount the plug, the wires on the back that connect the switch and lead to the power supply get compressed. Clearly, if one of those connectors came loose, it could cause a short.
Cables that attach to moving parts such as the print bed, extruder, and some axes are sources for failures from repeated movement. For these areas, use a stress relief mechanism to keep the wires from flexing at a single point. One way to do this is to use plastic wire wrap around the bundled cables. This keeps the cables from flexing in one place, which can cause them to break. You can find plastic wire wrap at most hardware stores, as well as automotive parts stores.
spread the Load
If you are wiring your own power supply, be sure to use a different lead from the power supply for each major component. Use two leads for your RAMPS (most have two sets of mains power) and one for your accessories. If one of those accessories is a heater, use a separate lead for it. Some people wire the RAMPS to the same output lead from the power supply. Depending on how powerful your power supply is, it may not matter, but it is always better to distribute the load.
Flame Bad, Heat Good
I have seen experienced, well-educated electronics gurus use a match or a butane torch to shrink heat- sensitive material (also called shrink wrap). Don’t do this! Use a heated air gun on the shrink wrap. An open flame, even from a match, is not a well-controlled heat source and you can damage your wiring, frame, and especially plastic components instantly if you get the flame too close.
While professionals with years of experience may be able to get away with this, hobbyists and novices will likely not fare so well, especially if you make a mistake. Keep in mind that open containers of acetone and similar substances can exude invisible, flammable vapors. A match or a torch can and will ignite these vapors if you are not careful.
Label Your Wiring
I like to use a bit of blue tape to label my wiring so that I keep things organized and to get them plugged in the correct spot! This is especially helpful if you route wiring through a common access port or hole in the frame. And it is made worse by kits that use the same colored wire for everything.
Once I’ve routed the wiring where it needs to go, I peel off the labels, but you don’t have to. So long as they do not interfere with cooling or moving parts, you can leave them in place. Smaller labels are better; this one was made larger for illustration. You can find more sophisticated (and nicer) labels from some online 3D printer component vendors.
Electronics Fan Controller
I always run a fan on my printer electronics. I’ve found the stepper motor drivers and sometimes the power components tend to get hotter than I prefer (if you can feel the heat with your hand, it’s way too hot). Not only can this result in odd behavior like missed steps or poor print quality, it can also result in overheated and failed electronics.
You can also use an infrared thermometer to measure heat in components. Not only are these touchless, but they help keep your hands away from parts that can burn you.
Electronics that are exposed are not as susceptible as electronics in an enclosure (most good enclosures incorporate a fan) or electronics that are cocooned in the extra wiring. In both cases, you need a fan blowing across the cooling fins on your stepper drivers to ensure that they do not overheat.
However, while simply adding a fan is easy, you need to consider how you want to mount the fan. That is, you must consider which direction the fan is blowing air and ensure that the airflow does not blow across your print bed. This equates to extra cooling, which may be harmful if you are printing with ABS, as it can cause cracking and lifting.
It may surprise you to read that not all fans run at the same speed or have the same airflow qualities. While you should use a high-quality 12V axial fan, some move more air than others. I like to use the higher specification axial fans along with a small circuit to control the fan speed.
Printed Part Scaling
Printed parts can be a source of frustration if the part is slightly out of scale. If the part is more than 1% to 2% too large or too small, you will want to consider reprinting it. If your printed parts came with your kit, contact your vendor and request new parts. This may not sound like a lot of variances, but consider 2% of a part that is 100mm wide results in a part that is 102mm wide, which is enough to cause assembly issues.
A related issue is when the holes in the part are not the correct size. Sometimes this is due to extrusion width issues or maybe just a small undersize issue on scaling. In this case, reaming out the part as described previously can solve the issue.
However, if you find that you are removing a lot of plastic when resizing the holes, you may have a problem. If you remove enough material, you could reduce the integrity of the part and it could fail when you tighten a bolt, or it could be a source of a bolt that comes loose.