Tuesday, March 5, 2024

3D Printing Revisited

As I covered in a post in January 2022, I'm a fairly new member of the 3D printing community. When getting started, there are many decisions that need to be made, as well as a variety of trials and tribulations for a newbie to 3D printers and printing.

Buying a Printer
There are many of them on the market with various features and a wide range of price tags. Bambu, Creality, Prussa, and Voron are just a few of the companies offering benchtop 3D printers. Most people recommend starting with a Creality Ender 3; in my case, I chose the V2 model. The V3 has since been released, and by all accounts it's worth the increased price tag, as some of the upgrades I mention below are included as standard in the new model.

Printers can also often be found on sale, either online through websites like Woot, or in stores such as Microcenter. Assembly and setup generally aren't terribly difficult, so long as you can use basic hand tools and follow printed directions.

One of the first upgrades most 3D printers usually get is replacing the extruder/feeder parts with metal ones, as well as replacing the springs and adjustment knobs for the print bed.

Ender 3 Upgrade Kit

When the Trouble Begins
Bed leveling, also called tramming, is one of the larger bugaboos of the printer world. It takes time, patience, and close attention to fine detail. The purpose of this operation is to make sure the print nozzle -- the part where the melted plastic exits onto the print bed -- is neither too close nor too far away from that bed. Both of these extremes will cause problems, either with prints not adhering to be bed properly or adhering too well, the latter potentially causing damage to the bed when attempting to remove a print.

From what I've read, the optimal distance is approximately 0.1 millimeters between the nozzle and the bed, or about the thickness of a piece of paper. However, a metal feeler gauge of the appropriate size is more precise.

The frustration from attempting and repeatedly failing in this operation caused me to walk away from my printer for a few months until a friend sent me one of the best upgrades to reduce the aggravation involved with bed leveling. Called the CR Touch, it's a small mechanism attached to the side of the print head and a software package that enables the printer to check bed leveling automatically. The bed still needs to be leveled manually first, but once that's done the printer can more easily maintain proper offset.

CR Touch

This was a game changer for me, and I went from angrily attempting to relevel the bed repeatedly after each failed print to near-perfect prints most of the time.

Speaking of prints, we need design files in order to print something, and there are a number of online resources where these can be found. Thingiverse and Printables are two of the more well-known and popular ones, but there are many others, including sites hosting designs specific to the 3D printed firearms community.

For those with graphic design skill, there are also tools available for creating our own printer files, such as Tinkercad. I've uploaded a few I created to Thingiverse and Printables myself.

A needle file holder designed by the author

I've also downloaded, and either used as-is or modified, a variety of other designs. One I think would be of particular interest to preppers is a set of nesting dividers that fit in an Altoids tin. This was originally designed for watercolor paints, but I'm sure we could come up with a variety of other uses.

Altoids tin dividers

Once a print is acquired, generally as an STL file, it needs to be run through what's called a slicer, a program that uses gcode to create the tool path and extrusion details the printer needs to actually print. I use UltimakerCura, but there are other slicers available as well.

Within these programs, we can rotate and scale our models, as well as adjust print specifications such as temperature, speed, quality, and a million other options. I'm only reasonably familiar with a couple dozen of these settings myself.

Ultimaker Cura screenshot

Once the sliced file has been output and transferred to the printer, we still need filament. The most common filament on the market right now is PLA, which stands for polylactic acid. The current version, PLA+, can be found in a bewildering array of colors and, if bought in bulk, for a reasonable price. I've been happy with the filament I've ordered online from IIIDMax.

After everything's been set in motion, all that's left is to cross our fingers and wait. If all goes well, in a few hours, we'll have a completed print. If not, we'll have a print bed full of what's appropriately called spaghetti.
A failed print

My very first successful print was one that came with the basic printer files, a Lucky Cat. Since then, I've downloaded and printed a variety of decorative and useful objects. But as a tradition, and possibly some superstition, I first print a lucky cat with each new filament color.

clowder of lucky cats

As my skill and confidence have increased, I've begun printing firearm parts. I started with relatively simple things such as grips, optic mounts, and fore-ends, then moved on to more complicated designs, such as linear compensators.

Two AR pistol grips

I've printed two linear comps, the first for a 5.56 AR, and the other for one in .300 Blackout. They came out beautifully, and I've run a couple magazines through the 5.56 one with no issues.

My next achievement will be printing a frame or receiver. Maybe this is how I finally get a Glock?

I'm sure I've left out a number of important 3D printing details, but as I said, I'm still a novice in this world and I know I still have much to learn. Some additional links are provided below.

May your bed always be level, and your spaghetti only be the kind cooked for dinner.


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