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3D Printer Maintenance Skills
I wanted to talk about 3D printer maintenance skills. I think that obviously, any of you seasoned 3D printer users, I am sure are going to know a lot about this or have your own thoughts or opinion on it. Those of you that may be relatively new to it, especially our number one question, which 3D printer should I buy, we often get is really, I think, maintenance skills are all too often overlooked. I think when it comes to organizations like schools, whether it’s primary, secondary or higher education, or if you are more of a consumer level user, maintenance of that printer is probably something you don’t want to have to deal much of because it gets in the way of the learning process, makes downtime for printers that should be printing things and also just gets in the way of a great user experience if all you really want to do is either create or download files and print them.
The reality is, with a lot of 3D printers out there, it doesn’t’ matter whether they are FFF or SLA. The two biggest technologies that most people have access to, FFF by far I think being the most widely distributed or have the widest install base. When you get printers that have more and more capabilities, you inherently need to have more maintenance skills. Really, the more of a technician you need to be. I hear a lot of people say they have a 3D printer but they don’t use it very much. It’s because it’s hard to go and calibrate that built plate if it’s a very manual type of thing, or they’ve got issues with the feeding of the filament and the retraction. It could be many different things.
If you are going to really be an advanced user of 3D printing and you are going to push the edge of the envelope and want to use multiple nozzles and more than one color, you are going to have a machine that’s going to be more complicated and it’s going to inherently need maintenance. I remember even as I started my 3D printing adventure, I started to buy a whole lot of tools, like a filler gauge. Here is one for instance. Many 3D printers, especially more of the RepRap style, when you calibrate the printer, they would tell you to take a standard sheet of paper and fold it in half so you have two thickness of the paper. Then when you calibrate that bed, you adjust it so that the paper is between the nozzle and the bed. You want to be able to move it and move it until it gets to the point where you can’t move it anymore or you are feeling resistance against the paper. I’ve got to tell you, I felt like that was a really lousy process. Not practical for most people to do. You feel resistance, how much resistance? Forget the fact that if you really move the nozzle and the build plates so close together, you can’t move the paper anymore, it’s compressed the paper. It’s no longer the original thickness it started out as.
Here is when I started to, “What can I do? I can get a filler gauge.” This is a tool that has many, many different thin blades, if you will, blade maybe is not the best word to use because it’s not sharp. You won’t cut yourself necessarily. It has many, many different thicknesses of metal that are used to measure or really test the distance between two objects. You have them down to really, really fine, 0.1 millimeter, 0.2 millimeter. Actually I am even talking more than 0.1 and 0.2 millimeters. Even down in the microns. These things get so thin, they almost feel like paper thin and you could bend it easily with your fingers, but they are precisely measured different thicknesses of a small amount of sheet metal. It is metal so it’s not easily going to be compressed as much. You can really dial in and get that calibration right.
For those of you that maybe are not the most handy and are more of an artist or designer type or you are just learning and you are a student, you are thinking, “Oh my gosh. What is this complicated thing, a filler gauge? Do I really have to do that?” More and more 3D printers, certainly for education and I think really on all levels, more and more 3D printers are coming out that have an automatic calibration of the build plate so that the newer ones you are not expected or even instructed to use paper and fold it over or do this and that. I think that’s a very good thing because there’s always this tradeoff between cost and printer maintenance.
Generally, the rule of thumb is the more money you are going to spend on a printer then the more maintenance-free it is or I think it should be. I think there is an expectation from a purchaser’s perspective that the more expensive it is, the more maintenance-free it should be. It should do things like automatically calibrates and not have to use a lot of special tools to work with it. But then if you want to spend a lot less money, like a neighbor of mine recently bought a 3D printer online somewhere, like $150. It’s a kit he had to put it together. Talk about the ultimate project. Definitely maintenance skills, you are going to learn a lot doing it and you are going to need to do a lot moving forward because that kind of a printer is not going to have a lot of automated functions and it’s certainly not going to be maintenance free. I think there is really this trade off.
Again the number one question, what printer should I buy? I got this question from a listener a couple of months ago. “Hey. I’ve got this company that I work with. I am a consultant for them and they know I am into 3D printing. They asked me what 3D printer should they buy.” He was asking me what I recommend. I said, “There are a lot of choices out there but I would caution your client not to be cheap about how much money they spend on the printer because they need to consider the amount of time that their employee or employees are going to spend in maintaining and just keeping that printer in proper working order so it’s available to be used.
There is a lot of printers that take a lot more maintenance. While I think in the educational arena if you are willing to deal with a printer like that, that’s great because you are going to learn a lot more and you’re going to become a more advanced user and there is value in that. When it comes to business, business and a lot of times even classroom settings where you only have so much time per class, you can burn a whole class easily with a maintenance issue on a printer. In business, you can burn a whole lot of hours and time and have lost productivity if you have a printer that requires a lot of maintenance and requires somebody with a lot of maintenance skills to maintain it.
I always caution people, “I would consider a more expensive printer that has more maintenance-free features and is not going to require you to become as much with a technician. It’s just going to work. Or if doesn’t work, there’s a simple part you can replace then it’s going to continue to work and be reliable.” I would tend to spend more money for reliability and advanced features, maintenance-free features, than I would a printer that’s going to require more skill to maintain.
In our time using 3D printers, I definitely went down the RepRap rabbit hole for a long time. I got a couple of 3D printers out of the Netherlands that I used. I was having issues getting the printers to work the way I wanted them to. To the point where I was disassembling the entire machine, troubleshooting belt tensions, troubleshooting filament feed issues and all sorts of different things. I guess the advantage is I got to learn all about how the typical RepRap style FFF 3D printer works, all its components. I actually made some improvements in one of them. I 3D printed some of my own parts in the filament feed system to get it to work better, and it did end up working better. But I was burning a ton of time that was useful for this podcast and for blogs on our website. That’s great, but it really didn’t make me a lot of money. There’s definitely a trade off.
I think that 3D printer maintenance skills is a great thing to have them, certainly if you are interested to a job related to 3D printer maintenance or management of any kind. It’s great to have those skills and have an understanding of it. But I also think that you just got to be careful, to keep your eyes open and realize how much time you are going to spend with maintenance issues. Is that really the best use of your time, either for your own business or within whatever organization you work for? Is that your primary role? Or is your primary role to be productive making things on that 3D printer for your business, for your employer? There’s an efficiency and a productivity aspect to really be considered.
Maintenance skills, I am all for them. I am a very handy guy. I can do a lot of things. I certainly could build my 3D printer from scratch if I wanted to. While I might have fun doing it, I don’t really want to from a business perspective. It’s not really the best use of my time. Keeping my eye on the ball with our business is very important, and maybe for you too. Consider that. I know this is titled “3D Printer Maintenance Skills.” Maybe it really should be the debate between maintenance skills or maintenance-free 3D printers. That’s really the subject I wanted to talk about today as a great debate that can be had. I’d be very happy to have that discussion with any of you.
Feel free to comment on the blog post at 3DStartPoint.com or anywhere on social media @3DStartPoint. We have another great interview episode, the next episode you are going to want to check out with two guests. You’ll really enjoy that. Stay tuned for that. Thanks for listening everybody. This has been Tom on the WTFFF 3D Printing podcast.
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