Good filaments, good prints, plus a good printer all add up to a happy you. Successful 3D Printing results owe, in large part, to good input – good design, solid code, and good materials. High quality filament can alleviate the most common problems of failed prints. Today, Tom and Tracy Hazzard talk with Jack Warren, the COO of Toner Plastics in East Longmeadow, MA, about what really makes good PLA 3D Print filament. Jack notes how tight controls in manufacturing filament are a necessity to good quality 3D Prints. He then talks about the basic process of producing filament and critical quality factors during the process of removing moisture. Know more about the beauty of creating good prints with good filaments through products like Toner Plastics.
Listen to the podcast here:
Good Filaments Make Good Prints With Jack Warren Of Toner Plastics
This is our Everything About Filament episode. It was fascinating to me to see filament being made. I’m a textile designer by trade. I know a lot about how you make fiber and filaments and in concept, but to see 3D printing filament extruded was another thing to me because I’ve always seen it done vertically. That’s typically the way nylon fibers and all of those things are made but this is done in a water bath. Especially because we keep hearing all this stuff about humidity controls and all this stuff, and there it is being extruded in water, which is the cool down process of it.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be done as we’ve come to learn.
Jack is going to talk about the qualities that make good filament, but you want it round. The water pressure helps make that round, which is such a neat concept that there’s enough pressure against it to keep the form. It fascinated me.
I’ve got a lot of questions.
We’re here with Jack Warren from Toner Plastics in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I’m originally from New England, so that’s just outside of Springfield. It’s nice to be talking with a US company regarding our subject because we understand that you manufacture filament.
We’ve been producing 3D printer filament for the desktop market since late in 2012. I’m the Chief Operating Officer for Toner Plastics, so I’m responsible for running the company day-to-day. When it comes to 3D printer filament, we have a team of engineers, production team, quality team, and sales team, which I head up all of that. We’re 1 of 3 companies that share common ownership. Toner Plastics is an extrusion company. We have a custom specialty compounding company and they can make any different kinds of plastic compounds for various industries, and that company is S&E Specialty Polymers that’s also in Massachusetts. We also have an injection molding facility in Hope Valley, Rhode Island. They make various injection molded products, most notably plastic beads. They’re the oldest bead manufacturer in the country at present. These three companies comprise a family of plastics companies. We all work together and that helps us to leverage our strengths as an all-in-one manufacturing solutions provider.
I have been to their facility. Jack has graciously let me tour it. One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is how much of your product we’ve touched over the years. There are the beads, the gimp and all of those things. Michaels are mostly made by you guys.
Tony Plastics itself has been in business for many years and Greene Plastics has been around since the early ‘30s. We have a wide variety of products we’ve been producing for a bunch of different industries. We produce for the craft industry, wire and cable, and industrial safety. Our compounding company produces for wire and cable, automotive and footwear. There are all kinds of different areas we touch.
We probably used your products and we didn’t even know where we’re using it, which is great.
What I like is clearly there’s a lot of plastics experienced here. We’ve come to the right person to ask some questions about filament.
Let’s talk a little bit about 2012 when you guys decided to go into 3D printing filament. How did that happen?
It was an opportunity that came to us. We had a certain customer that’s successful that needed some help getting their operation up and going. They were buying from China when we were introduced to them. What had been happening is they weren’t happy with the quality, the long lead times, and the money that has to be tied up when you’re dealing with overseas purchases. They were trying to get going and it was a time that was critical for them to establish their customer base. They made the leap over and changed to us. We assumed about all of their business stands. We’ve been in the business ever since, so we’ve picked up many other customers. Toner Plastics has always been a customer service-oriented company. We get to know our customers, visit them, and do our best to take care of them. They stay with us for a while. We’ve been able to expand our business tremendously in the 3D printing area and it’s been an exciting refreshing industry for us.
It has happened in a partnership with a printing company and that made your product more user friendly.
I would say so. Our customers tend to be printer manufacturers and resellers. The specialty companies are experts in 3D printing themselves, so they provide valuable service to their customers. We’ve learned from them along the way. We’ve been able to bring our experience to the table to help our customers who might not know a lot about plastics manufacturing. We’ve been able to help them avoid common pitfalls.
What makes a good quality filament and what are the characteristics of a bad quality filament?
For a good quality filament, you’re going to want it to be very round. One of the common terms used is ovality. If you have a filament that is shaped like an oval or an egg, it’s not going to feed as well into the printer. It’s not going to perform as well. The diameter is important to diameter consistency. When you look at the average diameter of the filament, you would want that to be consistent as you move down the length of the filament. If the diameter is changing, getting thicker and thinner, then you’re going to see poor results when you’re printing. On the higher end, if the diameter is too large, let’s say that you’re in the middle of a print and it’s a six-hour print, you get to the fourth hour and all of a sudden, you hit a large section of diameter, that’s going to ruin your print. You have to invest all that time all over again and start over.
We’ve had that happen.
We’ve tested a lot of different filaments because we are interested more in the color of the filament than we are anything else. Because there aren’t a lot of colors out there, we’ve had to try many different filaments even if we question the reliability of the source. Is there concern over voids or moisture or some of these things we hear about?
Moisture is one of the ones you tend to hear about. People take a lot of measures to keep the filament dry. A good manufacturer is going to make sure that there’s no moisture in the material before he converts it into filament and then to make sure there’s no moisture in the filament after. I honestly haven’t had a moisture-related complaint, but we know that they’re out there. It happens with a poor filament.
A lot of people don’t know that it’s made in water, so they don’t have an understanding of the concept of that. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how it’s made.
When the pellets are made, they go through a process where they’re exposed to water. When we get the pellets as long as it’s a high-quality PLA, which is all we use, that will come in foil sealed bags and it will be protected from humidity. Before we use the material, we have to dry it. That’s the manufacturer’s recommended process that we follow. The material is exposed to water of course, because when you extrude filament, it goes through a cooling process. You have to be careful how you expose it to the water, how long, how you remove the water from the surface and make sure that that’s all gone before you package it up. When you package it up, you should package it up in a way where it’s sealed and we provide a desiccant, so if there is any residual moisture, then it’s taken away. It’s not that difficult, but it’s amazing because that doesn’t always happen with every manufacturer.
It’s interesting because we have gotten quite a few humidity questions. One of them came out in New Orleans. Maybe there’s a lot more humidity down there than there is up here, but we’ve never had a problem with anything that we felt was humidity-related in terms of our filament. We feel like most manufacturers, especially you because we use a lot of your product, it comes out perfectly dry. Because we already have a dry environment here, we don’t have a continued problem.
That’s a question, too. Drying the plastic in the manufacturing process is important in packaging it, so that in transportation, there’s no moisture getting into it. Once a customer opens the filament, does it need to be sealed every time you’re not using it and storing it? We haven’t done that.
A lot of our customers are the same way, even when we have what we were supposed to use for our own prototyping at our injection molding facility. We’ve never gotten a complaint about a bonafide moisture related issue. The spools stay out and we don’t see any issues with them. Are there extreme examples where you might not want to do that? Probably. You mentioned New Orleans, that would make sense. There’s literature online I’ve read where if you put the filament into the water, it can expand and can soak up the moisture in a way where you could measure that change. I don’t think it’s that critical where if you leave your spool open for a few months that you’re not going to be able to use it. We’ve worked with printer manufacturers who have done some tests and they don’t seem to be concerned about it either.
It seems to be more of an issue in the manufacturing and transport of the filament than it is in use of the filament in a 3D printer.
Moisture problems can manifest in different ways. ABS filament, for example. If you buy a poor-quality ABS film, you’ll notice it has voids or holes in it. There’s a number of reasons why that can happen. If the material is not dried properly and it’s not extruded and cooled down at the proper temperatures, these voids can be a nightmare. You can talk to anybody that’s printed with poor ABS and they’ll tell you that it can snap, can ruin a print and can be bad. There’s a lot of other things you have to do when processing certain polymers because not every PLA filament has the same manufacturing process. All similar, but everyone’s a little bit different depending on the properties of the polymer itself.
Let’s talk a little bit about that because people still don’t know what PLA is. They toss around the word and they’re like, “It’s a bioplastic.” What does that mean? What is the quality of PLA that makes it so great for 3D printing?
It’s got a good melt flow to it, so it seems to work fine. It gives good printing results. If you want to compare it to ABS, for example, ABS has some harmful smells to it and fumes when you print with it. If you have a well-ventilated area. Say you’re working in a lab and you have a hood and or you have an open window nearby, ABS isn’t going to give you any issue. If you’re going to have your kids use a printer, for example, and they’re going to be doing that in a house, say in the wintertime, you don’t have a window open, the PLA is going to smell like pancakes. It’s not going to have a disruptive type of smell that either will make you sick.
We use PLA because we have a home office here and we don’t want to have the smell because our kid’s bedrooms are right off the office.
Some of the more specialty filaments aren’t for everybody. That’s why PLA is so common.
How many colors are in your standard line?
In our standard line of PLA, we have eighteen colors, but we also have a whole bunch of colors we do custom for certain customers. The total amount of colors we do is probably upwards of around 50 or so PLA.
That’s a better number of colors than what we see from a lot of distributors on the market. Let’s say if we wanted to make a custom color of filament, what does it take to do that? What is that process like?
It’s a fairly straightforward process. The first thing I might ask is, “What color would you like? Do you have a reference?” A lot of times, customers will go to the Pantone book and they’ll pick a shade that they like. We’ll match the color, which means that we’re going to make a color chip out of the actual plastic that would be used to make the filament and then we would provide that chip back to the customer and say, “Do you like this? This is what you had in mind.” We might have to make an adjustment or they might say, “No, it’s perfect. Go ahead.” That’s one way if there’s a known Pantone reference. Let’s say that there’s a proprietary color. Say, it’s a retailer that has their specific shade and they don’t have a Pantone or something like that. They can give us a sample of it and we can match the color from that sample. We’ve done that before, too.
Once the colors matched and the customer gets the color chip sample and they approve it, then we get a small batch of color concentrate that we can then use to make the filament. We’ll get a small batch of color made, use it to produce the filament and then see if, at that point, the filament still comes out to be the right color, which it normally does. We’ll provide that filament sample back to our customers and allow them to print with it. If it meets their expectations, the next thing they normally do is place an order. We’ll produce the color concentrate at a production quantity and we’ll produce that color from that on to them.
What is the commitment that a customer would need to give you in order to justify making a new color?
It would depend on the customer as a whole and what their needs were. If they wanted a custom color, but they didn’t want to pay much more for it, we would say okay, “If you give us a commitment for 300 spools,” and they wouldn’t have to take the spools all at once. They could take them over six months or a year or whatever it works out to be, as long as we know, we’re going to not waste money on the concentrate. We don’t get hung up on that because there are other arrangements we could make. We could say, “We have this upfront cost with the color that’s going to be there. I know you want a small quantity spool.” We can come up with an arrangement depending on the customer and their needs.
The filaments that you’re making, or more importantly, the plastics and the colorants going into them, are they toxic?
Our baby is always sticking this in her mouth because it’s fun-shaped and there are that little ridges in it. Should we be concerned? It’s PLA, by the way.
If it’s our PLA, you wouldn’t need to be concerned because the raw PLA that we use is FDA approved. There are different levels of FDA approval, but long story short, it’s okay. Every filament we use is either FDA compliant or it’s Toy Safe compliant. I’m not an expert on the standard by any means, but Toy Safe is meant to make sure that toys that children could put in their mouth are safe. We only use pigments that fall into one of those two categories.
That’s great to know. You’re talking about transparency on this end of things and that’s not clear. Are you getting a filament or not? You have no idea. Finding a way for us to get that across and understand what we’re buying is going to be so essential to the future.
Jack, what do you see on the horizon for the future of filament for 3D printing? Are you guys working on any new materials? Are you hearing about any new advances? What’s coming up in the future?
What’s happening in the industry is, on one end of the spectrum, you have the hobbyists that are using lower cost but lower capability, then you have the high-end printers that can do all kinds of things but they’re priced out of range for the average consumer. Those two extremes are converging towards each other and that’s exciting because that is what is going to drive more demand for more materials. Some printers are dependent on only one material. They couldn’t print multiple types of filament. We offer a bunch of different filaments. We offer TPU, HIPS, and some specialty proprietary ones for certain customers. We’re bringing out a conductive filament and we can make polypropylene filament. We’re well-positioned as a plastics company to bring these new types of products to the market, but each printer is different and the technology has to improve along the way.
The three main areas when it comes to 3D printing advancing are the printers themselves, the software interface in how the printers work, and also the materials. As the printers and the software evolves, that’s going to open up a lot more opportunity for newer materials. When we started making 3D printer filament, we have already been servicing Fortune 500 companies. We had to develop our manufacturing processes, controls, and QC plans to be able to handle that level of expectation. 3D filament was just a drop in to that. That’s the advantage of going with a more experienced company because we’re not bumbling our way through the industry and learning at the consumer’s expense. We know that there are some things on our end that are critical and that way, the consumer doesn’t have to worry about it.
Jack, thanks so much for spending some time with us and answering our questions about filament. I’m sure that our readers have learned a lot after reading this.
Some of our readers are going to ask us, how do they know if they’re using your products because you’re selling them in an OEM situation?
We do sell through Micro Center. You can find our products there. We sell other products to other customers as well. The best way if you don’t know that your filament supplier is making their filament, then ask who was making it and probably the best thing to do is to ask for Toner filament.
Thanks again for your time, Jack and I enjoyed my visit to your facility. It was state of the art.
Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed the time we spent.
That was even more fascinating than my visit. There’re so many new things I learned from Jack.
It seems there’s always something new to learn about filament, which you’d think would be a simple process.
Plastics have been around for a long time. It should be simple, but it’s not. That level of experience that Toner Plastics has and Jack and his team have, is why the filament better. We’ve tried it, so we know it’s better.
We’ve also tried any film that we could get our hands on from any source to experience the difference, and we’ve had some lousy ones.
You can check it out on our Instagram. There are some bad filaments.
Some epic fails of 3D printing, experimenting with a new filament.
Maybe we should mention to readers who are new to 3D printing what a bad filament looks like. It’s got hairs everywhere and you can see little blips of filament coming off of it. Off of your part, it’ll crack and fall apart.
That’s the thing. We had one where we had this bronze metallic PLA filament and we printed with it. The printing never finished and the material wouldn’t flow well through the extruder.
You picked it up and it collapsed on your hand.
About half of the product printed, when I took it off the build plate, it crumbled and it had no integrity.
The idea that Jack was mentioning about heading, the market is converging, the hobbyist side is starting to merge with the professional side and we go into this prosumer model. That’s where the filament is going to start to change, where having the best quality filament is going to be so critical because you can’t be worrying about that. You and I know we’re trying so hard to do creative and challenging designs. The last thing we need is to be dealing with dialing in the right temperature of our filament.
What Jack was talking about is knowing that your film is coming from a quality supplier that has good quality control processes in place and has a lot of experience. That consistency and all that has everything to do with the quality of filament. It goes toward the temperature, the melting point. A lot of machines melt at 215 degrees. Closed machines like the MakerBots melt at 215 degrees and that’s what their filaments are engineered to do at that temperature. Not all filaments, especially ones that we’ve experimented with from lesser-known suppliers and certainly some overseas suppliers, I don’t think their temperature is as dialed in that precisely. It comes down to the quality of process and quality and consistency of the source of raw materials.
I’ve mentioned that I toured Jack’s facility, Toner Plastics, but I also toured a Chinese factory filament when I was in China. What surprised me so much about it is that their machines were the same high-quality machines and everything like that, but they were so new to everything. That’s problematic and there wasn’t a lot of experience level there. The other issue is that the printers that they have and they’re testing on are old. They were choosing an old Replicator, a MakerBot and it’s not today’s printer. If you’re not testing today’s printer with where the market is going, that’s problematic. Jack mentioned that they rely on their partners because they have big partners, so that’s easy for them. These new guys who are developing, they’ve got to be testing on the latest greatest models of printers.
This factory you saw was brand new. They weren’t even shipping filament yet. There’s no question that a filament manufacturer that has years of experience making it and has learned maybe the hard way sometimes. They need to do things in a certain way to get good results. These new suppliers are going to be learning that all over again. I can’t imagine how they would not ship some off-quality material.
Maybe that’s okay when you’re buying one roll here and one roll there as a hobbyist. You got a bad one and you returned it to Amazon. Amazon takes it back and there’s no issue there. That’s okay, but you get into our level where we demand consistency, you just can’t do that. It is about the what. What are you going to make? What are you going to FFF? Not that we didn’t experiment. We are experimenting because we want color. That’s what we’re experimenting with.
I’ll try anybody’s filament once, especially if it’s a unique color, but I do have concerns. I get that filament from a Chinese supplier. I don’t have a Material Safety Data Sheet. I don’t know the source of that raw material and the pigments or what’s in there. There could be toxic chemicals in there. I worry about my kid taking a printed part as she always does and sticks it in her mouth. That’s not cool, but it’s nice to hear that a company in the US like Toner Plastics is using FDA.
We’ll give you that information and all of that. Another good tip that we have that we’ve done is that, it seems like, “I’ll use gray or natural. I’ll make all my iterations in the cheapest filament possible or whatever that is,” but it’s a mistake. We found that if you’re going to make it in mint green, then make it in mint green every single time you make the iteration because the quality of that print is different. Especially in the machines that are open source and you have to dial in the temperature in the settings. You’ve got to do it in the final filament.
You’re going to otherwise get false results. You’ll work it out in gray or natural and you think, “I’ll use the same settings in mint green,” but the pigments that go into the filaments are adding different solids and different materials. They’re changing the chemistry slightly. Sometimes, you might get lucky, but more often than not, you’ll end up with unexpected results.
It will take you longer and that’s the last thing you need because your time is money as we pointed out so many times in our show. You don’t want to be redoing that and redoing your settings. You’re dialing it in, dial it in on the right material.
As we talked about with Jack and we’ve said it before, don’t skimp on the quality of filament just to save some money on that spool. That $10 or $12 you may save on a cheaper spool of filament is going to be lost in time. We’ve found using cheaper filament, changing from a cheaper or gray going to your real color, you’re not saving that much.
Another tip that we’ve mentioned on a couple of our Ask Us segments is that if you know you’re going to need a particular color for a client, buy multiple rolls ahead of time at the same time because you’re more likely to get them from the same lot. At least, if you run out of that color in the middle of a print, you’re more likely to be able to match that.
Your colors are not going to shift on you.
It depends on what you’re working on, but if you have that constraint, think ahead and buy a couple of rolls. You can always return the one you don’t use if you are fine, but it’s a good thing to plan ahead.
We’ve had a lot of circumstantial evidence and things that we’ve read that we suspected some things about filament manufacturers, but it’s nice to talk to an expert in the field who has the experience and knows.
It’s our 26th episode. We passed the 25 mark. It feels good.
I’m having fun with it.
I definitely am having fun.
Hopefully, you’re getting something out of it as well. That’s the goal. It’s nice that we’re having some fun, but hopefully, you’re getting some useful information.
We need to dial in better. You guys got to ask us some more questions. We need to hear from you. Ask us anything. You could definitely do that. You do that over our website on our SpeakPipe link on our Ask Us Anything page. You can also do it over our Facebook page. It says send voicemail.
Send us a Twitter message or go to our website and send us an email if that’s easier for you. Communicate with us. Let us know if you have any questions or what you’d like to hear more about and we’d be happy to drive the direction of this show somewhere that you’d like to see it go.
That’s HazzDesign.com. Thanks so much for reading. Thanks again, Jack, for all your great information.
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About Jack Warren | COO Toner Plastics
Jack Warren is the Chief Operating Officer of Toner Plastics and The Beadery. He joined Toner Plastics in 2013 and oversees all aspects of company operations including sales, manufacturing, engineering, and product development. Jack has 15 years of experience in engineering and manufacturing operations management, having successively taken on roles of increasing responsibility throughout his career.
Most recently Jack was the Director of Global Engineering for STR Solar and is also a United States Marine Corps veteran. Jack holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering and a MS in Engineering Management from Western New England College, as well as a MBA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Connect to Jack Warren through LinkedIn.
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