Getting Started in 3D Printing: Part 5

Review

If you’re just joining us in this series, I recommend going back to Part 1 and reading through or skimming over the previous posts. In Part 1, we went over what 3D printing is, the types of printers on the market, and the benefits (and constraints) of 3D printing for model railroaders. In Part 2, I explained what I was looking for in a printer and the FDM printers I was considering. In Part 3, I listed the resin-type printers on the market that I was researching. In Part 4 I made my decision on what 3D printer to buy and made a quick list of accessible CAD software modelers have at their disposal. Now, in Part 5, the printer has arrived. I’ll be going over the challenges of assembling the Ender 3 V2 FDM printer and the trials of my first few prints. So with that, let’s get started!

Assembling the Ender 3 V2

The Ender 3 is said by many to be one of the best budget printers on the market. Unfortunately, those who purchase this printer will have to set aside about 2hrs to assemble the machine and calibrate it for proper modeling. As I said at the beginning of this series, this primer is not a “How To” guide. As a beginner, I’m not yet qualified to hold someone’s hand through the entire process. That being said, I did take photos of the various locations on the printer which need attention while building. I should also explain that the assembly instructions which come with this printer (and apparently many others) is pretty poor. There are few close-up diagrams explaining where small parts go and the entire instruction packet seems to be rushing through assembly. To make the process easier and to avoid accidentally damaging the printer, I found a very helpful assembly and set up video on Youtube by “Just Vlad”. Not only does he show the assembly of the Ender 3, but also how to calibrate it and start printing. He explains the entire process better than I ever could, and you can find the video here.

When opening the box, the buyer is greeted with a bunch of parts. Most importantly, the printer base (with all the electronics, power supply, and the print bed) is already assembled. Despite all the work that still needs to be done from that point, I’d say the printer is actually about three-quarters assembled. The gantry, extruder, control panel, z axis motor assembly, and x axis motor assembly still needs to be mounted. After opening the box, I laid out all the parts on a folding table so that I’d have a work station. All the small bits were kept in the bag so they all stayed in one place. Here is a list of all the larger pieces:

  1. Printer base
  2. Display kit (control panel)
  3. Extruder
  4. Z axis passive block
  5. X axis tensioner
  6. Z axis motor
  7. Z axis limit switch
  8. XE axis kit (extruder feed)
  9. Z axis profile left
  10. Z axis profile right
  11. Gantry profile
  12. X axis profile
  13. T-type threaded rode

All the small bags included the various screws, belts, sockets, and accessories needed to complete the assembly. The first step in the assembly was building the Z axis profiles and the limiter switch. It’s at this point that I set the instructions aside and followed Vlad in the video I linked to above. Below is an image gallery showcasing the assembly process. Each photo has it’s own caption narrating what is being seen.

During assembly, the are few important things I was checking out. Here are some tips to keep in mind when assembling a printer:

  • Check every screw and bolt. Fasteners can get loose during shipping and the factories that build these machines tend to have poor quality control.
  • Check all external wiring connections. Most connections on this Ender 3 had to be made by the user, but plugs can become loose, wires can get stripped, and things can be placed on the wrong areas.
  • Make sure that all moving assemblies roll smoothly. You want things to be tight and have a bit of resistance, but things should move in a solid, mechanical way.
  • Belts will need tightening over time. It’s just a fact of life that flexible materials like rubber will stretch when under constant tension.
  • Print from a computer. While the Ender 3 is capable of printing from an SD card, I find it easier to control from a slicer program like Cura.

With the assembly finished, it was time to sit back and stare at this wondrous machine. After a few minutes of day-dreaming, I closed my open mouth and came back to reality. While the assembly was completed, there was still more to do.

Calibrating the Printer

For the machine to work correctly, the printer needs to be calibrated. This includes establishing a zero, and leveling the bed. Establishing a zero is actually quite easy. The XYZ axes all have limiter switches. These are small contact switches that the different moving assemblies bump into and trigger a stop-circuit. This let’s the printer know when the nozzle has reached a “zero” point. For the Ender 3 V2, the point where XYZ are all zero is the front, left corner of the machine. I recommend turning the print bed leveling knobs down a bit to ensure the print surface doesn’t interfere with the zeroing process.

Once satisfied that the print bed is out of the way, in the menu go to “Prepare” and then “Auto Home”. Then let the printer take care of the rest.

Once “zero” has been established, the second step in the set-up process is to level the print bed. The stepper motors can be disabled by going to “Prepare” and then “Disable Stepper”. This allows the user to manually move the extruder head and the print bed. Taking care not to move the extruder vertically, the print nozzle can be moved to each corner of the print bed and the leveling knobs can be used to adjust the bed height. The filament needs to be squished down into the bed in order to make a good seal, so the nozzle cannot be too close or two far. Too close and the nozzle will tear up any filament that gets laid down, too far and the filament will not adhere correctly.

I moved the extruder to each corner of the print bed several times to ensure that the bed was at the correct height. A typical piece of printer paper can be used to properly space the nozzle from the print bed. The nozzle is at the proper height when moving there is some resistance to pulling the paper out from under the nozzle. Be sure to do this at each corner a couple of times before each print. After printing for a few weeks, this process only takes me a couple minutes.

At this point, I was ready to start printing! Below you can see what my first object looks like. Needless to say, I’m impressed.

My first print with the Ender 3

Thoughts After a Month

It’s now been a month with this printer and although there have been challenges, I’m happy to say that all of them were user error. The printer itself is a machine and seems to do it’s job properly as long as the user does a few simple things:

  • Zero and level the print bed before each printing session. Minute movements can screw up the performance of the printer.
  • Keep debris away from the moving parts. One print was almost foiled by some debris that got caught in a belt. It caused the printer to lose it’s “zero” and started printing 3cm off the mark!
  • For PLA, I find that washing the print bed with soap and water followed by a wiping down with rubbing alcohol keeps the bed clean. Don’t use glue sticks or other hacks unless it’s for a specialty filament. For my purposes, PLA is just about perfect.
  • Keep the print bed and extruder to the proper temperatures. Too high or too low and PLA won’t print effectively. I settled on an extruder temp of 190 degrees Celsius and a print bed temp of 55 degrees Celsius.
  • Keep a close eye on the printer for the first couple layers. Cura has an option to abort a print if something goes wrong. Once the first few layers are put down, the printer should be able to work its magic without any help. Objects can take a while to print, so there’s no point in waiting around.
  • Turn off the printer when not in use. This thing uses quite a bit of electricity, about double of what my PC requires. When not in use, I shut the printer off and perform any maintenance needed.
  • Keep the printer clean and away from food. Dust settles on the printer and while some dust shouldn’t affect operations, the black metallic finish shows dust easily. I’ve been dusting it off about once a week.

Final Thoughts

At the beginning of this series, I didn’t know all that much about 3D printers other than that they were incredible machines. After a month of work, I can see where a 3D printer will have a dedicated space on my modeling workbench or computer desk. There are old Lionel trains from my grandfather that need replacement parts, I’ve got a couple HO scale logging engines that could use some customizing, an On30 climax from Ebay just busted an important part in shipping. Then there’s a myriad of buildings, prototype projects, and modular systems to develop! I’ve already got a head start on some of these as of this writing, and you can be sure that this 3D printer will be featured in many projects going forward as I move from a frustrated armchair modeler to a model train maker!

Thank you for following along with this series. I hope that, while not a definitive guide to 3D printing, these posts have inspired you to consider a 3D printer of your own in the future.

To see other posts in this series, click one of the links below:

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