After years of cutting my hands on the exposed threads of my Prusa Mendel i2, it was time for a long overdue upgrade. I didn’t want to just buy a new printer because it’s no fun. So, I decided to buy a new frame for my printer. I settled on the P3Steel, a laser cut steel version of the Prusa i3. It doesn’t suffer from the potential squaring problems of the vanilla i3 and the steel makes it less wobbly than the acrylic or wood framed printers of similar designs.
I expected a huge increase in reliability and print quality from my new frame. I wanted less time fiddling with it and more time printing. My biggest hope was that switching to the M5 threaded screw instead of the M8 the i2 used would boost my z-layer accuracy. I got my old printer working just long enough to print out the parts for my new one, and gleefully assembled my new printer.
I didn’t wait until all the electronics were nicely mounted. No. It was time. I fired it up. I was expecting the squarest, quietest, and most accurate print with breathtakingly aligned z-layers. I did not get any of that. There was a definite and visible ripple all along my print. My first inclination was that I was over-extruding. Certainly my shiny new mechanics could not be at fault. Plus, I built this printer, and I am a good printer builder who knows what he’s doing. Over-extruding looks very much like a problem with the Z-axis. So, I tuned my extrusion until it was perfect.
Despite tuning my extruder steps perfectly, and getting good results instantly on larger prints. I was still having a ton of trouble with smaller parts. PLA is the favored printing material for its low odor, low warping, and decent material properties. It also has many downside, but it’s biggest, for the end user, lies in its large glass transition temperature range. Like all thermoplastics, it shrinks when it cools, but because of this large range, it stays expanded and, getting deep into my reserve of technical terms, bendy for a long time. If you don’t cool it, the plastic will pile up in its expanded state and deform.
I am working on a project that needs a tiny part, pictured above. The part on the left is what I was getting with my current cooling set-up and temperature settings. It had very little semblance with the CAD file that brought it into this world.
The bond between layers in a 3d print occurs when the plastic has freshly left the nozzle at its melting point. Almost immediately after that, the plastic crosses from the liquid state into a glass state, and like pressing two pieces of glass together, no further bonding occurs. This means that in order to get a strong bond between the print layers, the plastic has to have enough thermal mass to melt the plastic below it. Allowing the polymer chains to get cozy and hold hands. Nozzle geometry can help some, by providing a heat source to press and melt the two layer together, but for the most part, the fusing is done by the liquid plastic. This is why large diameter nozzles produce stronger parts.
What I’m getting at is that I like to run my nozzle temperature a little hotter than is exactly needed or even sensible. This tends to produce a better bond and sometimes helps prevent jamming (with a good extruder design). It also reduces accuracy and adds gloopiness. So, my first attempt to fix the problem was to perhaps consider the possibility that I was not 100% right in running my nozzle so hot, and I dropped the temperature as low as I could push it. This produced a more dimensionally accurate part, but a extraordinarily weak one. I experimented with a range of temperatures, but found that all but the lowest produced goopy parts.
After confirming that I could not get a significant return on quality by fine tuning my temperature, I reduced the speed of the nozzle by a large percentage. By reducing the speed I was able to produce the middle of the three printed parts shown in the opening image. Moving the nozzle very slowly gave the ambient air and my old cooling fan plenty of time to cool the part. However, what was previously a five minute part now took twenty minutes to print. A larger part would be a nightmare.
So, if I can’t adjust the temperature to get what I want, and I can adjust the speed; this tells me I just need to cool the part better. The glass state of the plastic is useless to me for two reasons. One, as stated before, no bonding occurs. Two, while the plastic remains expanded and bendy, the new layer being put down is being put down in the wrong place. When the plastic shrinks to its final dimension is when I want to place the next layer. Time to solve this the traditional way: overkill.
A while back my friend gifted me a little squirrel cage fan he had used with success on his 3d printer. Inspired by this, I had also scrounged a 12v, 1.7A fan from a broken Power Mac G5 power supply. When it spins up I have to be careful that it doesn’t throw itself off the table.
I printed out mounts for the fans. The big one got attached to the Z axis, and the little one rides behind the extruder. I fired up the gcode from before and started to print, only to find that my nozzle stopped extruding mid way. What? I soon discovered I had so much cooling that my nozzle was dropping below the 160C cold extrusion cut-off point and the firmware was stopping it from damaging itself. My heated bed also could no longer maintain a temperature higher than 59C. At this point I felt I was onto something.
I wrapped my extruder in fiberglass insulation and kapton tape, confidently turned the nozzle temperature up, set the speed to full, and clicked print. With the addition of the overkill cooling I was able to get the part shown to the right in my three example prints. This was full speed and achieved full bond. Not bad! Thus concludes this chapter in my adventures with cooling. I was really impressed by the results. Next I want to try cooling ABS as it prints. Some have reported horrible results, others pretty good ones, I’m interested. I also wonder about cooling the plastic with a liquid at a temperature just below the glass state as it is deposited. Thoughts?