So you bought a 3D printer- now what? Well, now the fun can begin! 3D printing is not only a great tool to have to create replacement parts or make and build something from scratch, but it is also a lot of fun just to print other peoples creations and art work. Now that you have a 3D printer it is time to learn how to use it. Don't worry- it's not only easy but fun! The goal of this article is that anyone who reads it will be able to print using their new Plastic Scribbler 3D printer. Therefore, before we walk through each step we are going to take a moment and discuss the technology Plastic Scribbler uses to 3D print along with explaining the tool chain.
Plastic Scribbler printers use what is known as 'Fused Filament Fabrication' or FFF. FFF works like this: Filament (a roll of plastic of a specific diameter) is pushed and fed through a heated nozzle with a tiny hole at the end of it. This is called extruding the plastic. While it is being fed through or extruded, the nozzle is moving in three axis's, the X, Y and Z. The plastic is being extruded at a specific rate while the nozzle is moving along each axis.
The tool chain:
Tool chain? Why can't I just hit print and the printer prints a model. Why do I need to learn all this?
This is where most people get frustrated or confused with 3D printing. They don't understand the tool chain, what a tool chain is and why it is important. Think of it like this. When you create and print out a text file you have options. You can use different software to compose the text or you can use text someone else has already written. You can tell the printer what kind of paper it is using, how much ink to use, if it is in color or just back and white, and you can adjust the quality it prints as well. When you print a text file you have to use a program to send the text file to the printer for printing, a driver is used to communicate to the printer and then the printer itself has a firmware it uses to understand what to print. This is the tool chain for printing a text file. Well 3D printing is similar. When you 3D print you have to select the appropriate options so the printer knows what to do before you being to print. This is where the tool chain comes in. The tool chain for 3D printing works like this:
create or obtain a 3D model > export model to .STL file format > create the g-code for the model (known as slicing) > use host software to send g-code to 3D printer > 3D printer uses firmware to print g-code
Confused? Don't worry. It may seem daunting at first but each element of the tool chain will be easy to understand as it is explained in each step of this STEP by STEP guide.
Create or obtain a 3D model
The first thing you need to do to print your first 3D model is to have a 3D model to print! You can create an object yourself using a 3D modeling program or you can obtain someone else's 3D model. Some popular 3D modeling programs are AutoCAD, Blender, and Sketchup, but Wikipedia has a great list of even more. The software used to create the model must be able to export the file as a STL file. If you are wanting to print someone else's work there are websites dedicated to communities of people sharing their 3D models. A couple popular sites like this are thingiverse.com and CGtrader.com but a quick Google search will pull up even more.
Export the model as a .STL file
If in step one you created your own 3D model then the next step is to export the model as a .STL file. If in step one you obtained the model from a site such as thingiverse.com or CGtrader.com then the model is most likely already in .STL format (though you may have to unzip it first) **NOTE: models in the format of .OBJ and .AMF can be printed using your Plastic Scribbler 3D printer too.
Create the g-code for the model -- Slicing
The g-code to print a model on a Plastic Scribbler printer will be generated using a program called Slic3r. Slic3r can be opened from inside the host software called Pronterface. To open Slic3r using Pronterface, first start Pronterface, then in the toolbar of Pronterface select 'Settings>> Slicing Settings'. Slic3r will now open. A good way to think of Slic3r is to compare it to the driver settings for printing a text file as it was earlier. It is in Slic3r you tell the 3D printer what type of quality to print, the infill density, about the filament, and a plethora of other options such as enabling supports. Please review the Slic3r manual for an in depth look at all the options and settings available.
On the Platter tab of Slic3r drag the model you wish to 3D print onto the platter or press the 'Add' button to add a 3D model or object onto the Plater. You can drag/add multiple items onto the platter. You may also use the platter tools to scale or rotate objects on the platter. Keep in mind that each and every model will have a side better suited to be orientated on the platter surface depending on how the model is designed. For example, the owl shown below would be best printed with the trunk that the owl is perched on as the bottom of the owl (the side that will be first 3D or the portion printed on the build platform of the printer first. It is possible to print the owl with the ears up to the trunk, but then supports would need to be generated. If the object or model you are printing needs to be flipped then you must do it in the software used to create the model or using a 3rd party utility. The current stable version of Slic3r (version 1.1.7) does not have the capability to flip a model however it looks like newer versions of the software will have this capability. After the objects or models are added to the platter, arranged, scaled and rotated, next choose a profile or set of pre-configured conditions to use to slice the model with. There are 3 types of profiles: print settings, filament settings, and printer settings. Once all the profiles have been selected press the 'Export G-Code' button on the platter tab of Slic3r to save the G-code of the model. Take note of the location you save the file and you may want to rename the files so that it is not confused with the STL version of the file later on.
Plastic Scribbler has configured 3 different profiles to choose from. The print setting profiles are the same except the layer resolution of each is different. There is a course profile that prints at a layer resolution of 0.2994 mm or just about .3mm, a medium profile that prints at a layer resolution of 0.1996 mm, roughly .2 mm, and a fine profile that prints at a layer resolution of 0.0998 mm or about .1 mm. Each profile has the the infill or density set to the same setting. It is 30% infill and every 10 layers it will print a solid layer. When changes are made to a profile you MUST save the changes for them to take effect, therefore it is suggested you save the profile as a different name so that you have the original profiles to fall back on if you make a mistake in changing a parameter in a profile. Each profile has the option to generate support material turned off. Some models require supports or a scaffolding to be generated in order to successfully print. Generally, speaking, if a model has an overhang of greater than 45° or contains a bridge then supports must be enabled for the model to 3D print.
Use host software to send g-code to 3D printer
Pronterface is the software used to control your 3D pritner. Alternatively, the smart controller on select models can be used to manually control the printer. To learn more about how to use Pronterface please read the getting started with Pronterface Guide.
Pronterface can be used to move each axis (X, Y, and Z) along with the extruder (E). Prontrface is also used to control the temperatures of both the heating element in the hot end and the temperature of the build plate. It is also with Pronterface that the G-code can be sent to the printer.
Before opening G-code to print you must prepare the printer. First ensure that the build platform is level. Next set the temperatures of the hot end and the build platform (the temperatures will vary depending on the brand, color, and type of plastic you are using, but a good starting point is 255° C hot end and 120° C Build platform- ABS plastic or 230° C hot end and 60° C build platform- PLA plastic). Once the hot end has reached temperature load the filament into the machine. Here are instruction for loading filament on the Asterid 1000 series 3D printer and here are instructions for loading on the Asterid 2000 series 3D printer.
Now that the build platform is level, the temperatures are set, and the filament loaded- it is time to print! First open the G-CODE that you sliced using Slic3r. To do this click File >> Open... on the toolbar in Pronterface. Navigate to the location you saved the g-code and select it and press the open button (**note: It is possible to open an STL file in Pronterface. If you do this then Pronterface will use the profiles selected in the Pronterface tool bar labeled Slic3r to slice the STL file- this can be OKAY if you have the conditions you would like the model to be sliced with selected and saved in a profile- but it is always best to pre-slice the model and load the g-code using Pronterface and not the STL)
When a file is loaded onto Pronterface some information regarding the file is shown on the console on the right hand side. This information includes the size of the object along with an estimated print time.
It is now time to print the model. Press the Print button located at the top of the Pronterface interface.
3D printer uses firmware to print g-code
This isn't really a step that the user has to do something but to further explain the tool chain it is included here. When the g-code is sent to the printer, the controller on the printer interprets that g-code line by line and follows the directions. For instance, when you slice a model, the same start g-code is inserted into the file. This g-code instructs the printer to first raise the extruder 5 mm and then home the X and Y axis.