MIT Is Building a Better 3D Printer

Traditional desktop 3D printing technology has effectively hit a wall. The line between a $200 and a $1000 printer is blurrier now than ever before, and there’s a fairly prevalent argument in the community that you’d be better off upgrading two cheap printers and pocketing the change than buying a single high-end printer if the final results are going to be so similar.

The reason for this is simple: physics. Current printers have essentially hit the limits of how fast the gantry can move, how fast plastic filament can pushed through the extruder, and how fast that plastic can be melted. To move forward, we’re going to need to come up with something altogether different. Recently a team from MIT has taken the first steps down that path by unveiling a fundamental rethinking of 3D printing that specifically addresses the issues currently holding all our machines back, with a claimed 10-fold increase in performance over traditional printing methods.

MIT’s revolutionary laser-assisted hot end.

As anyone who’s pushed their 3D printer a bit too hard can tell you, the first thing that usually happens is the extruder begins to slip and grind the filament down. As the filament is ground down it starts depositing plastic on the hobbed gear, further reducing grip in the extruder and ultimately leading to under-extrusion or a complete print failure. To address this issue, MIT’s printer completely does away with the “pinch wheel” extruder design and replaces it with a screw mechanism that pulls special threaded filament down into the hot end. The vastly increased surface area between the filament and the extruder allows for much higher extrusion pressure.

An improved extruder doesn’t do any good if you can’t melt the incoming plastic fast enough to keep up with it, and to that end MIT has pulled out the really big guns. Between the extruder and traditional heater block, the filament passes through a gold-lined optical cavity where it is blasted with a pulse modulated 50 W laser. By closely matching the laser wavelength to the optical properties of the plastic, the beam is able to penetrate the filament and evenly bring it up to nearly the melting point. All without physically touching the filament and incurring frictional losses.

There are still technical challenges to face, but this research may well represent the shape of things to come for high-end printers. In other words, don’t expect a drop-in laser hot end replacement for your $200 printer anytime soon; the line is about to get blurry again.

Speeding up 3D printing is a popular topic lately, and for good reason. While 3D printing is still a long way off from challenging traditional manufacturing in most cases, it’s an outstanding tool for use during development and prototyping. The faster you can print, the faster you can iterate your design.

Thanks to [Maave] for the tip.

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Mini Delta Gets a Hot End Upgrade

3D printers are now cheaper than ever and Monoprice is at the absolute forefront of that trend. However, some of their printers struggle with flexible filaments, which is no fun if you’ve discovered you have a taste for the material properties of Ninjaflex and its ilk. Fear not, however — the community once again has a solution, in the form of a hot end adapter for the Monoprice Mini Delta.

The Mini Delta is a fantastic low-cost entry into 3D printing but its hot end has a break in the Bowden between the extruder and nozzle. This can lead to flexible filaments not being properly guided through the hot end and a general failure to print. This adapter allows the fitting of the popular E3D V6 hot end, and is similar to modifications out there for other Monoprice printers.

Overall, 3D printing has long benefited from the efforts of the community to bring both incremental improvements and major leaps forward to the technology. We look forward to seeing more hacks on the Monoprice range!

Converting a 3D Printer from 3mm to 1.75mm

A few weeks ago, I published a post discussing the filament diameters common in 3d printing. For no reason whatsoever, consumer 3D printers have settled on two different sizes of filament. Yes, there are differences, but those differences are just a function of engineering tradeoffs and historical choices. [Thomas], YouTube’s 3D printing guru, took this post as a challenge: what does it take to convert a printer to accept different sizes of filament? Not much, actually.

The printer [Thomas] is changing out to accept 1.75mm is the Lulzbot Mini, one of the most popular printers that would ever need this modification. The only required materials is a new hot end suitable for 1.75mm filament, a 4mm drill, and a few wrenches and allen keys. It would be a smart idea to get a hot end that uses the same thermistor as the old one, but that’s not a deal-breaker as the problem can be fixed in the firmware.

Disassembly was easy enough, and after mounting the PTFE tubing, cutting the old wires, soldering in the new hot end, thermistor, and fan, [Thomas] had everything set up and ready to go.

It should be noted that changing a 3mm hot end to 1.75mm doesn’t really do anything. Just about every filament is available in both sizes, although it may not be convenient to buy 3mm filament locally. It would be a good idea to change out the hot end so can standardize your workshop or hackerspace on a single diameter of filament.

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Cheap Hot End Modification Allows Easy Future Repairs

We’ve seen a lot of experimenting with 3D printers over the years, and that is a good thing. However, [Tyler] has had a bad experience with experimenting. He has a Printrbot Simple Metal and decided to try nylon weed wacker line. Since he wanted to get straight to printing, he skipped the apparently important step of drying the trimmer line before printing. This experimentation ended in several clogged nozzles. Removing and cleaning the nozzle several times put undo stress on the Ubis hot end wires and they broke. Things were not going well.

In an effort to make his printer more repairable, [Tyler] ordered up an aluminum RepRap heater block, heating resistor and thermistor. The heater block was tapped with standard M6 threads but the Ubis was 1/4 inch. This was remedied by drilling and tapping the M6 hole to 1/4-20.

Now for the nozzles, [Tyler] bought a handful of cheap brass acorn nuts. He drilled a hole for the molten plastic to exit the nozzle, then used a Dremel to grind the acorn nut’s dome into a cone. He reports it only took him about 5 minutes per nozzle.

It looks like [Tyler] got back to printing with a little creative thinking. Unfortunately, the Ubis and J-Head hot ends are not interchangeable. A couple of other ex-Ubis users have made J-Head adapters for their Printrbots.

MRRF: Hot Ends, Extruders, Extremely Posh Brits, and Stoic Swedes

As far as locations for the Midwest RepRap Festival go, it’s not exactly ideal. This is a feature, not a bug, and it means only the cool people come out to the event. There were a few people travelling thousands of miles across an ocean, just to show off some cool things they built.

Two Colors, One Nozzle

[Sanjay] and [Josh] from E3D came all the way from merry olde England to show off a few of their wares. The star of their show was the Cyclops extruder, a dual-extrusion hot end that’s two input, one output. Yes, two colors can come out of one nozzle.

cyclops

If you see a printer advertised as being dual extrusion, what you’re going to get is two extruders and two hot ends. This is the kludgy way to do things – the elegant solution is to make two colors come out of one nozzle.

The guys from E3D were showing off a few prints from their Cyclops nozzle that does just that, including a black and red poison dart frog, and a blue and white octopus. The prints looked amazing, and exactly what you would expect from a two-color print.

Rumor has it the development of the Cyclops involved extruding two colors, freezing the nozzle, and putting it in the mill just to see how the colors mixed. I didn’t see those pictures, but there’s a lot of work that went into this hot end.

The Power of Two Extruders

[Martin] of bondtech.se came to MRRF all the way from Sweden. He was there showing off his new extruder.

The extruder uses a normal stepper motor, but instead of the usual knurled or threaded feed wheel and bearing to push filament though, he’s using two counter-rotating feed wheels attached to a planetary gear system. That’s a lot of torque that doesn’t distort or strip the filament. When you consider all the weird filaments that are coming out – ninjaflex, and even 3D printable machinable wax filament, this is extremely interesting.

Even if your filament isn’t exactly 1.75 or 3mm in diameter, this setup will still reliably push plastic; there is a bolt that will move one of the feed wheels in and out 0.4mm.

[Martin] had a pair of his extruders hooked up to a strain gauge, and it’s strong enough to lift your printer off the table without stripping the filament. Here’s a video of that demo from the bondtech page.

3D Printering: Induction Heating

Every filament-based 3D printer you’ll find today heats plastic with resistive heaters – either heater cartridges or big ‘ol power resistors. It’s efficient, but that will only get you so far. Given these heaters can suck down only so many Watts, they can only heat up so fast. That’s a problem, and if you’re trying to make a fast printer, it’s also a limitation.

Instead of dumping 12 or 24 VDC into a resistive heater, induction heaters passes high-frequency AC through a wire that’s inductively coupled to a core. It’s also very efficient, but it’s also very fast. No high-temperature insulation is required, and if it’s designed right, there’s less thermal mass. All great properties for fast heating of plastic.

A few years ago, [SB] over on the RepRap blog designed an induction heater for a Master’s project. The hot end was a normal brass nozzle attached to a mild steel sleeve. A laminated core was attached to the hot end, and an induction coil wrapped around the core. It worked, but there wasn’t any real progress for turning this into a proper nozzle and hot end. It was, after all, just a project.

Finally, after several years, people are squirting plastic out of an induction heated nozzle. [Z], or [Bulent Unalmis], posted a project to the RepRap forums where he is extruding plastic that has been heated with an induction heater. It’s a direct drive system, and mechanically, it’s a simpler system than the fancy hot ends we’re using now.

Electronically, it’s much more complex. While the electronics for a resistive heater are just a beefy power supply and a MOSFET, [Z] is using 160 kHz AC at 30 V. That’s a much more difficult circuit to stuff on a printer controller board.

This could be viewed as just a way of getting around the common 24V limitation of common controller boards; shove more power into a resistor, and it’s going to heat faster. This may not be the answer to hot ends that heat up quicker, but at the very least it’s a very neat project, and something we’d like to see more of.

You can see [Z]’s video demo of his inductive hot end below. Thanks [Matt] for the tip.

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Ceramic hot-end mount seeks to improve extrude performace

ceramic-hot-end-mount

Take a gander at the part of this extruder head which looks like a chess pawn. It’s the mounting bracket for the hot end and it’s made out of ceramic. [Ed] came up with the idea to use ceramic to mount the hot end when trying to improve the design while keeping it rather simple and easy to assemble. The concept uses the thermal properties of the ceramic to insulate well enough to operate the extruder at higher temperatures without causing other problems.

Where does one get a custom ceramic part anyway? Turns out you can get low volume runs from China much like PCBs. The minimum order was ten units, which was still a leap of faith since he had no way of testing the design in advance. The first run with the new part went quite well, but only for the first layer and then the filament jammed. He’s still not sure why, but overcame the issue by lining the inside of the ceramic with a PTFE tube. This means he now has to use a smaller filament to fit through it. But the quality of the prints he’s getting with 1.75mm stock and the ceramic head are superb.

It may even be possible to print this ceramic part some day. We remember seeing another extruder that can deposit ceramic clay.