And then I bought a 3D printer

I was telling a friend about my current crazy idea. At the time, I was referring to it as “Phil’s Pills,” because that is the name I’d given to that task. If I do something several times a week, it helps me to have a shorthand reference for it, and I like my nomenclatures to make me chuckle. Especially ones that cause me stress.

I was trying to explain the design I was creating mentally of Phil’s Pills by drawing rough sketches on a whiteboard. It wasn’t going well, mostly because I have almost no ability to create technical drawings. It was on my fourth or fifth iteration that my friend mentioned a 3D printer. I bought one that evening.

It was foolish of me, but I expected 3D printing to be mostly about creating 3D designs in modeling software. That is a big part of the process, but it isn’t what caused me the most problems. I bought a Tevo Nereus. I choose that one mostly based on it being readily available on Amazon, having a print surface large enough (320 cm x 320 cm), and at a price point low enough (~$400) that if it were a wrong choice, I wouldn’t be kicking myself for months.

Here’s the thing about economically priced 3D printers. They are more DIY than plug and play, a lot more. I was expecting to unbox my new printer, spend a few hours or a day setting it up, and then start producing prototypes faster than a speeding bullet. I was so naive.

3D printing is about picking the correct filament (PLA for my needs), setting the right temperature for both the extruder and the print bed, and leveling. And more leveling. And then leveling again. Did I mention leveling?

That information in the last paragraph took me over a week of trial and error and Google searching to understand. When I finally got a print to adhere to the bed, I then had to use a hammer and metal spatula to remove. I might have also used some harsh language.

The lower-end 3D printers don’t level themselves, and they come with aluminum print surfaces that are rarely flat and change shape as the heat up and cool down. If the print head is too far away from the bed, the first layer won’t adhere. Too far away is measured in fractions of millimeters. If the print head is too close to the bed, the first layer gets pulled off the bed and won’t adhere. Too close is also measured in fractions of millimeters. If the first layer doesn’t adhere to the print bed, the print will fail. Maybe it fails soon. Perhaps it fails a few hours into the job. But it will fail.

It took me several more weeks to zero in on the right print surface and prep and a few more weeks past that to perfect setting up my 3D printer. But now my prints (almost) always stick to the bed but can be removed with just a little prying.

Daniel Sharp
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