E3D’s Love Letter To Toolchanging 3D Printers

It’s been just over a year since E3D whetted our appetites for toolchanging printers. Now, with the impending release of their first toolchanging system, they’ve taken the best parts of their design and released them into the wild as open source. Head on over to Github for a complete solution to exchanging, locating, and parking tools on a 3D printer.

For anyone interested in fabricating the design, the files are in a format that you can almost re-zip and email to a manufacturer for quotes. As is, the repository offers STP-style CAD files, a complete set of dimensioned drawings, exploded views, and even a bill of materials. Taken as a whole, the system elegantly solves the classic problems that we’d encounter in toolchanging. Locking tools is done with a spring-based T-bar that swivels onto an wedge-shaped groove on the back of each tool plate. Locating tools is done so with a 3-groove kinematic coupling fabriacted from dowel pins. With these problems solved and presented so cleanly, these files become a path by which we can establish a common means for exchanging tools on 3D printer systems.

It’s worth asking: why develop an exceptional design and then release it for free? I’ll speculate that E3D has done an excellent job over the years establishing a well-recognized standard set of stock parts. Nearly every 3D printer builder is bound to have at least one spare V6 hotend sitting idle in a disassembled pool of former-3D-printers. With tool-changing positioned to become another step forward in the space of possibilities with 3D printing, setting the standard for tools early encourages the community to continue developing applications that lean on E3D’s ecosystem of parts.

In the last 30 years, 3D printing has transformed away from a patent-trolling duopoly to a community-friendly group of contributors that lean on each other’s shoulders with shared findings. It’s a kind gesture to the open-source community of machine builders to receive such a feature-complete mechanism. With that said, let’s start rolling the toolchanger hacks.

E3D Introduces Tool Changing 3D Printer

E3D has introduced their latest answer to multimaterial printing at the Midwest RepRap Festival this weekend. Their research project into a 3D printer with the ability to change toolheads is the latest advancement in multimaterial printing. It’s a work of engineering brilliance, and they’ve already written up their teardown on how this all came to be.

While milling machines and other fancy industrial CNC have had tool changing for decades, and the subject has been pursued by the RepRap community for a few years now, it really hasn’t caught on. The question then is, what is tool changing on a 3D printer good for? The answer is multimaterial printing, and doing it in a way that doesn’t have the downsides of current methods of printing with multiple materials.

There are three current methods of printing in multiple materials. The first is putting two nozzles on the same extruder, but this has the downside of one nozzle interfering with the other. The second is pushing two different kinds of plastic through the same nozzle, such as in the E3D Cyclops, or Prusa’s multimaterial upgrade. This has the downside of cross-contamination, and you can’t print in materials that require different temperature profiles. The third method is simply using multiple carriages on the same machine, such as the lovely stuff from Autodesk or Project Escher. This last method is horrifically complex.

The answer the problem of multimaterial printing is hot-swapping toolheads, but to do this you need precision and repeatability. The folks at E3D have been working on this for years, and I remember seeing some experiments with electro-permanent magnets a few MRRFs ago, but now they finally have a solution. The answer is simply a cam that’s turned by a cheap hobby servo. This is kinematic coupling that allows the carriage to clamp onto a toolhead with 5 μm precision.

Right now, E3D’s experiments in toolchanging 3D printers have culminated in a single 3D printer featuring their toolchange carriage, four toolheads, some amazing linear rails, and a CoreXY configuration. The prints that are coming off of this printer are spectacular. There are four-color Benchies, and the drivetrain of a remote-controlled car with gears printed in Taulman plastic and a driveshaft printed in ABS. The car was a single print made with multiple hotends, demonstrating most of the problems of multimaterial printing disappear with the E3D swapping toolhead printer.

If you’re interested in purchasing one of these printers, E3D currently has a survey for potential buyers and a deposit queue for any future purchases.