After 2 years of collecting a partwork, I built my own 3D printer!
For the last two years, I collected issue after issue of a partwork collection published here in the UK by Eaglemoss, entitled “Build Your Own 3D Printer”. According to the partwork, after collecting all the issues, I would have everything I needed to build a complete Vector3 3D printer!
Each weekly issue consisted of a booklet containing information about the world of 3D printing, 3D design tutorials, and details of 3D files for download, as well as a part of the printer.
Every fortnight, I stored away 2 issues whilst fighting the urge to start building before I had all the parts! Somehow, I resisted the temptation and by the time Christmas 2016 rolled round, I had finally collected enough of the issues to begin constructing the printer. I forced myself to take my time, read the instructions carefully and do the job properly, spending a few hours a day over 10 days putting together the over 100 various components.
I like to think of myself as pretty tech-savvy, having successfully fixed broken screens and various other problems with laptops, games machines and smartphones for friends and family over the years – but building a 3D Printer was a totally different prospect.
For the uninitiated, a 3D printer works by forcing a length of plastic “wire” called filament through a heated nozzle (the print head) onto a flat surface known as the print bed. A series of motors move the print head and print bed in three dimensions, and the printer builds up the plastic, layer by layer, until the print is finished.
Building the 3D printer involved constructing four motor assemblies. I put each assembly together, mounted it on its rails and verified it as working before I went onto the next. I fixed each assembly to its correct location on the main body of the printer and wired it to the various circuit boards, along with a host of micro-switches as well as the power socket, transformer and supply, USB port and on/off switch.
The assembly instructions were easy to follow (despite being separated across 90 or so issues) and the parts fitted together with no problems. Almost before I knew it, there was a 3D printer sitting on my computer desk – and best of all, I’d made it myself!
The final step before I could begin to print my first item was to load the filament. Happily, the partwork included four 10-metre reels of filament (red, white, glow-in-the-dark blue and carbon-fibre black) – I picked the glow-in-the-dark blue, loaded it on the filament reel and threaded the filament into the print head.
Having finished the physical construction, I now needed some software to make the printer and my laptop communicate properly, so I visited the website that Eaglemoss (the partwork’s publishers) had provided specifically for subscribers.
The site offers both PC software and printer firmware, as well as a store for the replaceable parts of the printer and downloads of each and every one of the 3D designs featured in each weeks’ magazine, unlocked via codes printed in each issue. For this particular visit, it was the printer software I was after.
I downloaded and installed 3D Create & Print, the official Vector3 software, and began the long – and at times downright annoying – process of calibrating the printer, which ensures that the print bed is levelled so the item being printed doesn’t end up off-centre. Unfortunately 3D Create & Print doesn’t include software levelling, so calibrating it is a matter of using three adjuster screws to balance the print bed while ensuring that the print head was exactly 0.2mm above the bed at all points.
I’m not ashamed to admit that, despite multiple attempts at calibration over a number of weeks, I still couldn’t get the printer to work properly. I searched online for some help and rapidly found it, courtesy of v3uc.com (an unofficial community for Vector3 owners). I joined, posted in the forum and swiftly received a few responses suggesting alternatives to the 3D Create & Print software.
One of the suggestions from the folks at v3uc was the free 3D Print software program MatterControl from mattercontrol.com, which happily does feature software levelling. I downloaded and installed the program, ran it and worked through the (much easier) procedure to calibrate the printer again. Hopefully, this time it would work!
The Print (finally!)
I picked out a cool-looking tablet stand from one of the partwork issues, submitted the code and downloaded the 3D file from the Eaglemoss 3D printer website. After loading the file into MatterControl and checking the print settings (I was a little surprised to read that my chosen design would take over 3 hours to print!) I was ready to hit “Print” for the first time.
I crossed my fingers and watched with bated breath as the printer heated up and began to lay the first layer of plastic. Thankfully, a thin thread of blue appeared on the print bed and slowly began to take shape. I soon discovered how mesmerising it can be to watch the print head extrude that thin thread as it glides backwards and forwards over the print bed.
To my delight, this time the printer performed surprisingly well and I watched as the layers slowly built up into the design MatterControl was displaying on my laptop’s screen. A little under three-and-a-quarter hours later, sitting on the print bed of the now-cooling printer was a real, 3D-printed tablet stand!
I had now joined the ranks of the “Maker” community, and only one question remained…
“What shall I print next?”