LIGHT PAINTING TOOLS FROM THE 3D PRINTER
Almost a year ago, I wrote an article on this topic. You can find it here. https://www.lichtkunstfoto.de/en/light-painting-tools-aus-dem-3d-drucker/
Since then, a lot of filament has run through my 3D printer and I have been able to gain a lot of new experience and knowledge. I will share these with you in this and a few other articles. In this first part I will explain the basic technology and try to help you decide whether you should buy a 3D printer or not.
My first 3D printer, an Anycubic I3 Mega S, gave up the ghost after about 15 months of continuous operation. To get it back into proper working order, I would have had to spend almost as much money as the new printer cost. So I bought a new one, a Creality Ender 3 V2.
And to answer the question in the headline right away, I certainly don’t want to do without a 3D printer any more. In the picture you can see a small selection of the things I have printed so far: a backlight scanner for the Fenix FD65, a lid for the e-cigarette (the scatterbrained Light Painter lost the original lid), a holder for colour filters for the Fenix FD65 and a coil for EL-Wire. The 3D printer has also served me well beyond light painting. Among other things, I printed a new housing for the car key because the old one was broken. The Japanese car dealer only stocks the complete key including electronics for a high two-digit amount. The material for the key cost just 15 cents and then the machine consumed maybe 6 cents worth of electricity.
HOW DOES A 3D PRINTER WORK?
This is exclusively about FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) printers, i.e. those that melt material in layers to form a model. I can’t tell you much about all the other printing methods because I have only worked with FDM printers so far. For home use, printers with liquid printing material that is selectively cured with UV light would be interesting (SLA, STL or DLP). All other printing processes are rather unsuitable for home users.
The classic structure of an FDM 3D printer can be seen clearly in the two devices in the picture below. The print bed moves in the Y-axis, the print head moves on a rail in the X-axis, this rail moves in the Z-axis. There are also other designs where the entire print bed moves in the Z-axis and the print head takes over the movements in the X- and Y-axis, or even only in the X-axis, or printers like the Anycubic Predator where all movements are carried out by the print head and the print bed is fixed.
Basically, however, the functional principle is always the same. The model is built up layer by layer. The print head “paints” the first layer of filament onto the print bed, then moves up by the previously defined layer height and melts the second layer onto the first. This process is repeated until the final height of the object to be printed is reached. The extruder (at the end behind the left X-axis) pushes exactly the right amount of filament to the print nozzle. For this to work precisely, the extruder should be calibrated accurately and the temperature selected to match the filament. If the filament does not melt fast enough in the nozzle, it will jam and ultimately not enough filament will end up on the print bed.
In order for the print to function properly, many factors must interact with absolute precision. All movements in all directions must be accurate to a hundredth of a millimetre, the amount of filament conveyed must match the speed of movement, the line width and the layer height exactly. The individual layers must fuse together in a durable manner so that the printed object is stable. If the melting temperature is incorrectly selected or if there are gaps between the layers due to imprecise movements, the object falls apart or is at least hardly mechanically resilient. If there are imprecise movements in the X- or Y-axis, there will be an offset in the object, and above a certain size the object will be unusable. With smaller offsets, it just doesn’t look as good.
Layer heights of 0.08 to 0.3 millimetres are common. With a layer height of 0.3 millimetres, the printed object usually has a rather rough surface. With these dimensions, you can already see that the aim is to achieve the greatest possible precision. If the axes or other parts of the printer are not at the right angle or are loose, if moving parts do not move smoothly or are hindered in their movement by dirt or foreign bodies, the print will go wrong.
Most machines have a heated print bed to improve the adhesion of the object to the print bed. Some materials cannot be processed without heating, they do not adhere to cold substrates. Again, the temperature of the bed must match the filament. PETG barely holds at 50°C, it needs to be hotter. PLA flows away on the bed at 80°C. So too hot is not good either. The filament manufacturers give values for the temperature of the bed and the print nozzle. So you are not completely in the dark, usually these values are at least a good starting point.
CAN I OPERATE A 3D PRINTER?
Before you transfer money to an online dealer, you should think about whether you can and want to operate the object of your desire at all. Without a certain technical expertise, a lot of patience and learning money in the form of misprints, this will be very difficult. In addition to the purchase price, there are also costs for the filament, spare parts and other things. But first you should think about the location of the printer. All 3D printers cause a more or less strong operating noise. Some filaments develop toxic gases during printing, other filaments stink during melting. A 3D printer is therefore unsuitable for the bedroom.
The ideal place to operate a 3D printer should meet the following requirements:
- The operating noise should not disturb anyone. Either no one usually stays in this room or the printer is enclosed to minimise the noise. In addition, an insulating mat under the printer is useful.
- It should be neither very cold nor very warm. In the best case, the room temperature should be 18 to 22°C throughout.
- The room should be as draught-free as possible or the printer should be placed in an enclosure.
- The room should be as free of dust as possible.
- When printing ABS or other toxic filaments, adequate ventilation is necessary.
- If possible, the printer should be set up in such a way that it is easy to access all sides so that in the event of a fault it is not necessary to dismantle the enclosure or similar.
- The printer should be neatly aligned with a spirit level. Ideally, the surface should be level in all directions.
In addition, you should plan space for a few rolls of filament, tools and spare parts. And the holder for the filament roll also has to go somewhere. Depending on the position of the extruder on the left, right or above the printer.
YOUR OWN SKILLS
To be able to operate a 3D printer permanently, one thing above all is indispensable: Patience. Anyone who is impatient before, during or after printing will hardly achieve satisfactory results. First of all, the printer has to be adjusted and some settings have to be repeated from time to time. The print object must be created in such a way that it can be printed (reasonably). The settings in the slicer, i.e. the software that translates the object into the machine language of the printer, have to fit. It is usually not a good idea to print faster and “rougher” because you want to have the print object in your hands or use it as soon as possible. After printing, you have to be patient until the heating bed has cooled down so that the object can be removed without too much force. Otherwise there is a risk of damaging the object, or even worse, the print bed.
In addition to great patience, a certain amount of technical expertise and some manual dexterity is necessary. If you do not understand how your 3D printer works, you will hardly get a good print after a while. After some training, you should be able to recognise the possible causes of errors in the print and then be able to correct them.
There is no steep learning curve in 3D printing. The knowledge required to operate a 3D printer cannot be acquired in a few days, even if most current printers initially deliver good results “out of the box”. There are many sensitive, moving parts on every 3D printer. Most of them are only as sturdy as absolutely necessary. On the one hand to save costs in production, on the other hand to keep the mass to be moved during printing as low as possible. In addition, the printer works at high temperatures. Both of these factors cause quite a lot of wear. After some time, components have to be serviced or replaced. With devices in the lower price range, the mechanic does not come by and repair the box. This has to be done by the inclined plastic melter himself. The advantage is that with every repair you get a better understanding of how the machine works. And because something breaks quite often, the costs for spare parts, especially for widely used machines like the Ender 3, are very manageable. You don’t usually have to reckon with delivery problems. The online retailer will send the new extruder or the new hotend to your home the next day.
Whether a print succeeds as planned depends on many factors. Construction of the model, type and quality of the filament, levelling of the print bed, cleaning of the print bed, print temperature, print speed, flow, retract and dozens of other settings in the slicer. Only if you understand the interaction of all these factors will (almost) every print be successful.
And at the very beginning you have to design the part to be printed with a CAD programme. Suitable light painting tools are not usually available as ready-made files on Thingiverse.
NEED FOR PRINTED PARTS
Another important question to ask before buying; do I really need to print out the light painting tools I need? Or can I just buy them somewhere? Even if the purchased tools seem expensive at first, the self-printed things are often not a bargain in the end. At the latest when, especially in the beginning, you throw half the spool into the bin as a misprint every time. I don’t even want to talk about the enormous amount of time it takes to create the 3D model to the finished printed part.
- Do you know how to use a CAD programme? If not, you are not afraid of the effort to familiarise yourself with CAD?
- You have a good technical understanding and can understand the basic function of a machine when you see its inner workings?
- You are patient and don’t give up at the first problem? Loud swearing is expressly allowed 😉
- Are you prepared to keep acquiring new knowledge on the subject?
- You are aware that with every new filament you (almost) have to start all over again?
If you can answer all questions with yes without hesitation, you probably already have a 3D printer at home. If you can answer almost all questions with yes and can bear a financial loss of 200 to 250€, buy a “simple” 3D printer like the Ender 3. If you have answered all questions with no, you can actually stop reading this article.
WHICH 3D PRINTER SHOULD I BUY?
The current range of different 3D printers is almost unmanageable. To find the right 3D printer for your needs, it is helpful to think about the following aspects:
Of course, I can only spend as much money as I have available at the moment. And whether the professional printer for €5,000 actually delivers much better results than an Ender 3 for less than €200 is questionable. The expensive professional model will certainly be more durable and robust. In addition, the manufacturer, in contrast to the low-budget Creality, will be very concerned about reasonable support. However, I don’t need a professional printer to print light painting tools. I don’t want to work productively with the printer and sell the printed parts. In my opinion, the lower limit is the Ender 3 mentioned above. I do not recommend even cheaper printers. There are hardly any upper limits. One of the best 3D printers is still the Prusa I3 MK3S+. As a kit, Mr Prusa sends the package to your home for €749, fully assembled the printer costs €999. You can order the Prusa directly on the manufacturer’s homepage. If you often want to work with several materials at the same time in one print, the “Multi Material Upgrade” is worth a look. For 299€, the I3 is then automatically fed with up to five different, or of course the same, filaments.
I don’t need a large installation space for printing light painting tools. And if I do want to print something that is larger than the installation space, I divide the component into several parts in the software and join them together after printing. The larger the installation space, the larger the entire printer. So I need more space to set it up. In addition, the moving mass becomes larger. So you can’t run high printing speeds with most large printers. Most common home 3D printers have a footprint of about 220 x 220 x 250mm. If you often want to print larger parts, the Artillery Sidewinder X1 is worth considering. It has a footprint of 300 x 300 x 400mm. The printer performed well in relevant tests, even though I have not yet been able to experience a Sidewinder X1 live myself.
Every 3D printer can process “normal” filaments such as PLA or PETG. With PLA in particular, every print is usually successful on the first try, even if the printing temperature and some other parameters have not been optimally set. Other filaments place higher demands on the properties of the machine and also on the user. For example, to be able to print ABS, the printer should be placed in an enclosure because ABS reacts very sensitively to temperature fluctuations and especially to draughts. In this case, the component to be printed detaches from the print bed and the print is a case for the dustbin.
Printing flexible materials, which is very interesting for use in light painting, is also not quite as simple. Most simple extruders in entry-level machines are either unable to feed flexible material at all or only very unreliably. The material often gets stuck in the extruder or is pushed out the side. In most cases, this can be remedied by replacing or modifying the extruder. In the case of my Ender 3 V2, I printed a so-called “TPU Mod”. Since then, the machine prints flexible filament just as reliably as PLA or PETG. The cost of the modification was limited to the few cents for the filament. But even replacing the extruder with a “TPU-compatible” one doesn’t blow a big hole in the wallet. A conversion to a direct extruder system would also be advantageous for flexible filaments.
Some, more exotic, filaments require very high print and heat bed temperatures. Some printers cannot provide these high temperatures. Nylon requires up to 265°C and polycarbonate even 300°C printing temperature. With an Ender 3 with a standard hotend, a maximum of 260°C can be achieved, but in the long run I would not go above 240°C because otherwise the tubing in the hotend will melt at some point. But here, too, a modification helps. With a hotend that is completely made of metal, you can then also control the required high temperatures.
KIT OR READY-MADE UNIT?
With the Prusa mentioned above, you can choose whether to assemble it yourself or take the ready-assembled machine out of the box. With most other models you do not have this choice. Buying an (almost) fully assembled 3D printer may sound tempting to many beginners. Back then, before I bought my first printer, I was also put off by all the kits. From today’s perspective, I would advise everyone to buy a kit. On the one hand, you learn something about the functionality during assembly and have fewer problems later when you have to replace a component. On the other hand, most, especially the cheap, almost pre-assembled units are not necessarily neatly put together. Sooner or later you have to inspect the part more closely and tighten all the screws, etc..
It took me about 1.5 hours to assemble the Creality Ender 3 V2. I didn’t rush and drank coffee and smoked a cigarette on the side. Even a beginner will probably not need more than 3 hours for assembly, even if the enclosed instructions are not very useful. There are some good videos on Youtube about the assembly. If you get stuck, it will certainly help if you watch one of these videos. I will soon write a separate article on installation and commissioning.
SUPPORT AND COMMUNITY
A not so common or brand new model should rather not be bought as a beginner, no matter how good the offer may seem at first. There is hardly any useful information and assistance on commissioning and operation. In the event of a fault, you will hardly find a reasonable solution. Moreover, the supply of spare parts for such rare printers is more difficult and expensive.
The situation is quite different for printers that have been built for a long time and are sitting in thousands in some cellar, tinkering away. The new hotend and the new extruder are available on every digital street corner for a small penny. In many forums and Facebook groups, you can usually find a solution right away if the machine is acting up. However, one should not immediately blindly implement the first solution presented. There are also some busybodies in these groups who don’t necessarily have the best plan. Above all, you should always bear in mind that you are pretty much alone in these communities if you don’t print a zeirrat or funny tuning parts for the printer yourself. Those who use a 3D printer productively and print functional parts usually don’t buy a 200€ entry-level device, except for the light painter who doesn’t want to print every part 100 times within 3 days.
TECHNICAL ASPECTS AND QUALITY
All 3D printers under 500€ have some kind of weak point that sooner or later worsens the print result or paralyses the whole machine. The man from the Far East sells the devices so cheaply not because he is the Holy Samaritan but because he saves on materials wherever possible. Many of the “predetermined breaking points” can be repaired quickly and cheaply. With other weak points, however, it is more time-consuming and expensive. A new heating bed, for example, costs 30 to 40 €, but the replacement is done quickly. Replacing the mainboard or power supply can cost several hours of work, depending on the printer model.
Depending on the construction and quality of the guides and bearings, the 3D printers allow different printing speeds. The differences are sometimes enormous. With the Snapmaker A350, the stepper drivers sound as if they are about to explode when you print at 50mm/s, and the results are no longer particularly good. The Ender 3 V2 hardly makes an audible noise even at 120mm/s, and the print quality is, depending on the filament, not visibly worse than at 60 or 80mm/s. Creality states the maximum print speed for the Ender as 150mm/s, which is three times faster than the big Snapmaker. So with the same layer height and line width, the Snapmaker needs about three times the time to melt the same object onto the print bed. And since even quite small objects need several hours of printing time, one should also consider this aspect before purchasing. A reduction from 30 to 10 hours of printing time is tempting, isn’t it?
What kind of print bed is used could also be important, depending on what material you mainly want to print. On a glass bed, most filaments adhere well and can be easily removed after printing. Many users report dents in the print bed. In most cases, this is caused by the user. In rare cases, the glass plate, or the aluminium heating bed underneath, has a slight indentation in the middle even if it has been mounted and levelled correctly. A piece of aluminium foil placed in the middle between the heating bed and the glass plate can usually help. The adhesion of some filaments such as PETG or ABS is not quite as good on glass plates. I have had good experiences with FR4 and Pertinax, although Pertinax loses its adhesion more quickly and has to be sanded more often. I am currently printing with the Ender on a 2mm FR4 plate. All the materials I use adhere well and can be released after cooling without much effort or tools. Ideally, the component is loose on the print bed after cooling. Personally, I don’t think much of magnetic printing plates. On the one hand, I don’t really know why I should remove the print bed at all, and on the other hand, the adhesion is very strong, especially with flexible filament. There is a risk of damaging the foil of the plate when removing it with the spatula.
Most other parameters or equipment features are of secondary importance. Whether the machine has a filament sensor or not is completely irrelevant to me. I have never needed this feature. And when the spool of the Anycubic actually ran out during printing, the sensor didn’t notice. The spool is weighed beforehand if I am unsure whether there is enough filament left. The slicer calculates the amount of material needed to two decimal places. I either save the leftovers for smaller parts or I calculate when the spool is empty and then change the filament during printing.
I also don’t need automatic mesh levelling, although this method doesn’t actually level anything. The Snapmaker can only be “levelled” via software, the print bed is not adjustable. In automatic mode it does not work satisfactorily, sometimes there are “bumps” or “holes” in the print bed. And the less frippery is attached, the less can break. And in most cases you can retrofit the frippery quite easily if you think you need it.
Both parts were printed with the same filament roll. The print and bed temperature, the flow, the control of the component fan and all other parameters for the filament were identical. Only the printing speed was different. In the first picture it was 40 mm/s in the second 120mm/s. The part in picture 1 was melted by the Snapmaker, the part in picture 2 by the Ender 3 V2.
I can recommend the Ender 3 V2 almost without reservation. The print results are very good, the machine works very quickly and quietly. All replacement parts are easily available and don’t cost a fortune. There is a very large community. If you have a problem, you can quickly find a solution. Whether you want to spend the extra price for the V2 is more a matter of taste. The important differences to the simple Ender 3 are the better power supply and the 32-bit mainboard. The jammed drawer is quite useful for storing a few biscuits. The modified housing of the Hotend is rather annoying. The first time I unscrewed it, the pressed-in nut broke out of the thin plastic. After 1.5 hours, the Ender had printed a new, more stable housing.
The Anycubic I3 Mega S cannot quite keep up with the Ender 3. The construction made of steel sheets is not as stable and torsion-resistant as the aluminium profiles of the Ender. In addition, the Anycubic has some weak points. For example, the cable for the heating bed tends to break. I then replaced this with finely flexible speaker cable. The printing results with the Anycubic are good, but it is not possible to run at such high speeds as with the Ender. 100mm/s is the limit and the results at this speed are in most cases visibly worse than at the “standard speed” of 60mm/s. This machine is also widely used. This machine is also widely used and is supported by a large community.
These two machines are probably the most widely sold 3D printers, and there is certainly a reason for that. In addition to the low purchase price, good printing results “out of the box” and the large, active communities speak for the purchase of one of these devices. You certainly won’t go far wrong with the Prusa I3, even if you have to dig deeper into your pocket. Other units from the manufacturers mentioned above, such as the Ender 5 or the CR10 with its large installation space, are certainly worth considering. These have also been built for a long time and are therefore mature and widely used.
I can only advise against the Snapmaker, which is mainly used for 3D printing. This machine only delivers usable results at a very low printing speed compared to the printers above. I use the Snapmaker almost exclusively as a CNC milling machine or with the laser. Here the machine delivers really good results, even if a “real” CNC machine certainly works better and faster, it is absolutely sufficient for my requirements.
I hope this article was helpful for you and did not confuse you even more. The next article about mounting and setting up the new 3D printer will follow soon.
Always enough filament on the spool