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My First 3D Printer; Building the Printrbot Simple

posted Apr 11, 2015, 10:57 PM by Neil Caulfield

While 3D printing has been around for several decades, only recently has it become affordable for hobbyists and typical educational environments. A well equipped 3D printer in 2015 will usually range from $400- $1000, depending on the print size and features. Several printers geared toward enthusiasts for under $200 are also in development, and are expected to be released soon.  

Since I had first gotten interested in buying into the technology back in 2012, I had no idea where to start. At that time, I was terrible at 3D design, and was not sure how standardized the printers or file formats were. The only popular model I had heard of was called the Makerbot, and a lot of the inexpensive DIY kits I had seen had issues or poor reviews. I decided to wait for the technology to get a little cheaper (and more precise). 

One late May evening in 2014, browsing Amazon out of curiosity, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and make an impulse purchase. After some very quick research on the latest DIY kits, I decided to go with 
the Pr
intrbot Simple, which has a build volume of 4x4x4 inches. Despite the smaller than
average build volume, the reviews were high and the price was low. For $350 I can print an endless supply of Octo-cats and other strange creations from Thingiverse. I could also buy the assembled version of the printer for an additional $100, but that would take away from the fun of building something, so I stuck with the DIY kit. I submitted the order, and tried to sleep. My excitement was building as possibilities started to flood my mind. I was finally jumping on the 3D-printed bandwagon. 

I returned from my day job a few evenings later at about 6 PM to see that the package had arrived. After opening the box, I immediately understood the large price difference for the assembled version. There was about 250 individual components that had to be put together in the perfect order, and the threadlocker and glue to hold certain parts together were not included! I started assembling the machine around 6:30 PM, paying attention to every detail in the assembly instructions. The last step was to connect the machine to power, which happened around 12:30 AM. I downloaded Matter Control on my Surface Pro and connected the USB cable. The software walked me through the setup process and immediately connected to the printer with no troubles. I went onto thingiverse and chose something simple. I decided to start with a corner piece from the Rokenbok building sets, which surprisingly Rokenbok themselves had submitted to the site! After discovering that the PLA does not like to stick to metal, I tried printing again with some blue painters tape. The print stuck this time and the machine extruded the file layer by layer with near-perfect precision. 30 minutes later the print was complete. I went into the basement and grabbed a compatible Rokenbok building piece and clicked the two pieces together, it was a near perfect fit! This print was only the first, and while it was a better than average first experience, I ran into many problems with later prints. Such problems (with solutions) included:
  • Plastic material jamming or getting caught against surroundings
    • Solution: build material reel holder out of PVC pipe
  • Prints skewed or inaccurate
    • Solution: calibrate stepper motors with magic calibration formula
  • Larger prints warping at the bottom
    • Solution: buy heated bed module from third party
  • Power supply overheating from new heated bed module
    • Solution: build a larger power supply from a computer ATX power supply
As I mentioned above, I had waited for better models to hit the market before I made my decision on what to get. About two weeks after I had built my printer and used it dozens of times, Printrbot releases a revised model with higher quality parts, toothed stepper motor belts (as opposed to twine on my version), and a self leveling module. All this for the same price I paid, but I didn't want to deal with the hassle of returning and building a whole new unit, so I stuck with what I had. Plus, for $70 I could get all the upgrade components from their site in a bundle. 

Overall, I am very happy with this printer, and while it is probably not the most accurate printer out there, I would say it is far from the least accurate. The price is great and its easy to learn about the technology with this model. My only complaint is the dimensional limitations and string belts, however they offer solutions for both of those limitations.