Mechanisms: Lead Screws and Ball Screws

Translating rotary motion to linear motion is a basic part of mechatronic design. Take a look at the nearest 3D-printer or CNC router — at least the Cartesian variety — and you’ll see some mechanism that converts the rotation of the the motor shafts into the smooth linear motion needed for each axis.

Hobby-grade machines are as likely as not to use pulleys and timing belts to achieve this translation, and that generally meets the needs of the machine. But in some machines, the stretchiness of a belt won’t cut it, and the designer may turn to some variety of screw drive to do the job.

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Mechanisms: The Screw Thread

They hold together everything from the most delicate watch to the largest bridge. The world is literally kept from coming apart by screws and bolts, and yet we don’t often give a thought to these mechanisms. Part of that is probably because we’ve gotten so good at making them that they’re seen as cheap commodities, but the physics and engineering behind the screw thread is interesting stuff.

We all likely remember an early science lesson wherein the basic building blocks of all mechanisms laid out. The simple machines are mechanisms that use an applied force to do work, such as the inclined plane, the lever, and the pulley. For instance, an inclined plane, in the form of a splitting wedge, directs the force of blows against its flat face into a chunk of wood, forcing the wood apart.

Screw threads are another simple machine, and can be thought of as a long, gently sloped inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder. Cut a long right triangle out of paper, wrap it around a pencil starting at the big end, and the hypotenuse forms a helical ramp that looks just like a thread. Of course, for a screw thread to do any work, it has to project out more than the thickness of a piece of paper, and the shape of the projection determines the mechanical properties of the screw.

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Huge 3D Printer Ditches Lead Screw for Belt Driven Z Axis

The vast majority of desktop 3D printers in use today use one or more lead screws for the Z-axis. Sometimes you need to think outside of the box to make an improvement on something. Sometimes you need to go against the grain and do something that others wouldn’t do before you can see what good will come out of it. [Mark Rehorst] had heard the arguments against using a belt drive for the Z-axis on a 3D printer build:

  1. The belt can stretch, causing inaccurate layer height.
  2. If power fails, gravity will totally ruin your day.

He decided to go for it anyway and made a belt driven Z axis for his huge printer. To deal with the power loss issue, he’s using a 30:1 reduction worm gear on the drive — keeping the bed in one place if power goes. And after a few studies, he found the belt stretch was so minimal that it has no effect on layer height.

Of course those two issues are but a small portion of the overall ingenuity that [Mark] poured into this project. You’ll want to see it in action below, printing a vase that is 500 mm tall (took about 32 hours to get to 466 mm and you can see the top is a hairy wobbly at this point). Luckily we can geek out with the rest of his design considerations and test by walking through this fantastic build log from back in July. Of note is the clamp he designed to hold the belt. It uses a small scrap of the belt itself to lock together the two ends. That’s a neat trick!

The introduction of a belt driven Z-axis eliminates Z-axis wobble — an issue that can be exacerbated in tall printers. Desktop 3D printers are constantly improving, and we’re always excited to see a new trick work so well. Let us know if you’ve seen any other handy Z-axis modifications out there.

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Building Set Limitations Make for Z-Height Follies

I’m working on a small CNC mill that uses a robotics building set as a starting point. I don’t know what to expect from the process. Maybe the connections will be too wobbly for the machine to be anything but a curiosity. Maybe I’ll be able to do pen plotting and balsa carving but nothing tougher than that. My goal is to have it carve PCBs, but what ultimately is important is that I have a tool whose awesomeness justifies the expense I’ve put into the project.

So far the process has been fun and interesting. But recently the Z-axis build has been especially so. It raises a really interesting question: where does the balance between unknown finished design and known material parameters fall?

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Moving Microns with a High Precision Linear Stage

As anyone who has experimented with their own home-made CNC machinery will tell you, precision isn’t cheap. You can assemble a gantry mill using off-the-shelf threading and kitchen drawer slides. But it’s a safe assumption that if you put the tool at a particular position it won’t be quite at the same position next time you return. But if you take your budget from dirt cheap to reasonably priced you can do much better. [Adam Bender] designs high-precision automation systems for a living, so when he needed a precision linear stage for a personal project he achieved micron level accuracy for under $500.

micron-precision-linear-actuator
Red parts are the two spring-loaded nuts

He explains the problem of backlash with an inexpensive lead screw — the wiggle between threaded components that cause positional chaos. His solution uses two nuts preloaded against each other with a spring. There is still a stick-slip issue; a tendency to move in lurches due to differences between the coefficients of static and dynamic friction between the materials. Careful choice of machining stock for the nut to picking materials in which these coefficients were almost identical reduced the stick-slip to as little as possible.

He goes into significant detail on the design, manufacture, and testing of all the components of his stage, its body, sealing system, and control. If you are a precision CNC guru maybe you’ll find it interesting as a cleverly designed component, but if you are a mere dilettante you’ll find it fascinating to read a comprehensive but accessible write-up from a professional in the field.

This build probably goes a step beyond most we’ve featured in the past, but that’s not to say we’ve not seen some pretty good efforts.

Mastering Ball Screws

Most inexpensive 3D printers use a type of lead screw to move some part of the printer in the vertical direction. A motor turns a threaded rod and that causes a nut to go up or down. The printer part rides on the nut. This works well, but it is slower than other drive mechanisms (which is why you don’t often see them on the horizontal parts of a printer). Some cheap printers use common threaded rod, which is convenient, but prone to bad behavior since the rods are not always straight, the threads are subject to backlash, and the tolerances are not always the best.

More sophisticated printers use ACME threaded rod or trapezoidal threaded rods. These are made for this type of service and have thread designs that minimize things like backlash. They typically are made to more exacting standards, too. Making the nut softer than the rod (for example, brass or Delrin) is another common optimization.

However, when lead screws aren’t good enough, mechanical designers turn to ball screws. In principle, these are very similar to lead screws but instead of a nut, there is a race containing ball bearings that moves up and down the screw. The ball bearings lead to less friction.

Misumi recently posted a few blog articles about ball screws. Some of the information is basic, but it also covers preloading and friction. Plus they are promising future articles to expand on the topic. If you prefer to watch a video, you might enjoy the one below.

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Upgrading a 3D Printer with A Leadscrew

Consumer 3D printers have really opened up the floodgates to personal at home fabrication. Even the cheapest of 3D printers will yield functional parts — however the quality of the print varies quite a lot. One of the biggest downfalls to affordable 3D printers is the cost cutting of crucial parts, like the z-Axis. Almost all consumer 3D printers use standard threaded rod for the z-axis, which should really use a leadscrew instead.

Threaded rod is not designed for accurate positioning — it’s primarily designed to be a fastener. You can have issues with backlash, wobble, and they usually aren’t even perfectly straight — not to mention they gunk up easily with dirt and grime. In other words, you’ll never see a threaded rod on a commercial machine.

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