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Into a New Dimension

MikeOxon

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Five years ago, I came across JCL's splendid thread about the Silhouette cutters at an appropriate time for dropping heavy hints before Christmas. This resulted in my acquiring a 'Silhouette Portrait' machine and loads of ideas for making my own coaches and buildings.

 

It proved very fortuitous since, only a few months before, I had decided to return to railway modelling by re-furbishing my old small layout and turning back the clock to the 19th century period. The cutter was a great source of inspiration, since it allowed me to explore a wide range of carriages from the Dean period and earlier. I greatly enjoyed constructing models of long-forgotten prototypes.

 

Time has moved on and I have been feeling for a while that I should consider machines capable of working in three dimensions, rather than just cutting out flat sheets. Until recently, the affordable 3D printers all seemed rather ‘geeky’ and needed a rather daunting amount of ‘setting up’. In addition, they were not the sort of thing that could easily fit into the domestic environment, where I do my modelling!

 

Then, while browsing on the web, shortly before the recent Christmas, I spotted a very neat-looking mini-printer called the Geeetech E180 at a very reasonable price (<£200). It had received several favourable reviews and was noted as being especially suitable for use by children. That fact re-assured me that it should not prove too difficult to set up and operate! I wasn’t looking for anything particularly sophisticated but wanted to ‘dip a toe’ in the water and explore the possibilities for making various small parts and fittings for the ‘odd-ball’ locomotives and other vehicles that I enjoy creating. The overall build volume of 130 x 130 x 130 mm seemed adequate for my purposes.

 

Once the festivities were over, I got around to setting up my new machine and was very favourably impressed by its compact size and attractive appearance. There was no doubt that it would sit easily on my work-desk but could be lifted out of the way when not required. I also discovered that the dust cover for a Kenwood Chef mixer was a perfect fit, to keep the machine dust free while in storage.

 

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When it came to switching on, I realised that the supplied ‘manual’ actually contained very little information and that the operating instructions were cryptic, to say the least. Even the software has to be loaded from a ‘user forum’ and it was not at all obvious where to begin. At first, I downloaded an old version of the software by mistake, but eventually managed to track down the (apparently current) version of ‘EasyPrint3D v.1.2.6’. This can load an STL-format 3D model and slice it into layers, for laying down by the printer. The ‘layer’ model can be saved onto a mini-SD card, which fits into a slot on the printer. (It’s also possible to connect directly to the printer though a USB lead)

 

Initially, the ‘slicer’ would not start on my Windows 7, 64-bit machine. The EasyPrint software uses a version of the ‘Cura’ engine that needs the 32-bit version of vcomp140.dll to be installed in the SysWOW64 subdirectory of the Windows directory. (on my machine, it wasn’t present). The main EasyPrint.exe file, in the Program Files (x32) folder, also needs to be run in ‘Adminstrator’ mode, so that the preferences can be set for the E180 printer.

 

An SD card was supplied with the printer but with no information about what it actually contained. The file was called bitonga8.gcode and I have subsequently discovered that it creates a largish pot. (I think bitonga is Chinese for pen-holder) Not quite what I wanted but it provided somewhere to start.

 

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There is a real need for a simple guide to starting out with a printer like this but it would be presumptuous of me to attempt to write up my findings in detail, before I have gained a lot more experience. The following are a summary of my findings, so far.

 

Setting up the Printer

 

The first task is to level the print bed and I found some 'YouTube' videos, which demonstrated that their authors didn’t really understand the machine either!

 

I worked out that one starts with the central point on the ‘levelling’ display (called position 5) and uses the up/down buttons on the touch screen, to adjust the height of the printer head until it just grabs a sheet of paper laid on the bed. It was not immediately obvious that the height can be varied in either 0.5 mm or 0.05 mm steps, to achieve the required result. After that, the print head can be moved to the four corners of the bed in turn and small screws (initially hidden under the cutting mat) have to be turned until the paper is ‘grabbed’ by the same amount as at the centre. By going around the four corners a couple of times, I found it quite easy to get an even ‘feel’ at all these pre-set locations.

 

The next task is to feed the filament to the print head. There is a small lever under the feed mechanism (not mentioned in instructions) that releases the grip and allows the thread to be pushed by hand along a clear PTFE tube to the ‘hot end’, which carries the actual extruder. Some cryptic symbols on the display allow the filament to be ‘motored’ forwards or back very slowly.

 

Starting a Print

 

Now, with the filament in position and the SD card (containing the model file) inserted, a press of the print button allows the file to be selected, when fans start whirring and the print head moves to the start position. Almost at once, filament starts to be laid down on the bed and, very slowly, layers begin to build. The display shows an estimated time to completion and, for the sample file, this was around 23 hours! I watched for a while and then, after the first few layers, the model detached itself from the bed. Obviously, still quite a lot to be learned!

 

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One of the child-friendly features of this printer is there there is no heated bed and the hot end has a maximum temperature of 200°C, although all the easily touchable parts remain cool. This limits the type of filament that can be used to PLA but does mean that there are no unpleasant fumes emitted while the machine is working.

 

Choosing a Model

 

I decided to look on the web for some STL models that were of greater interest to me and also substantially smaller than the example provided on the SD card. I found several railway-related models on the Cults website (https://cults3d.com/en/collections/stl-file-train) and chose a free version of Thomas the Tank Engine for my next trial.

 

I loaded the thomas_body.STL file into EasyPrint, rotated and centred the model within the 3D box (set up for the E180 printer – which is not the default, as I quickly discovered). Then I pressed the ‘slicer’ option to generate the .GCO file, which I saved onto the mini-SD card. (I have an adapter, to use this card with my regular SD card reader/writer)

 

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Completing a Print

 

Once the SD card was in the printer, I pressed the ‘print’ button on the touch screen and the machine whirred into action. It estimated that the job would take about 4 hours. All started well but then after the first couple of layers, the model again came loose on the bed, so I stopped the printing. I decided to apply a little Pritt Stick glue to the bed, to improve adhesion, and started again. This time all went well!

 

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Because I was impatient to see how the printing would progress, I used the controls to accelerate the print speed to 150% and then sat back to watch progress. After about an hour, the model was building up nicely and I invited my wife to come and watch the process in action. Unfortunately, I then managed to knock the power lead out of the printer, which promptly shut down.

 

One of the claimed features of this printer is its ability to recover from a power failure. So, after restoring the power, I hit the ‘resume’ button. Something went wrong, because the top of the model became displaced from the lower part by about 3 mm along the length axis. It may have been ‘finger trouble’ on the touch screen but I need to investigate further and make sure that all the plugs are firmly attached in future.

 

Anyway, it got here in the end, with a somewhat mis-shapen model The surface finish seemed quite rough, especially on the curved surfaces and the chimney came out a rather odd shape (far from round) but I don’t know if this was due to shortcomings in the model or in the printer. There were also several stray lengths of fine filament, bridging different parts of the model. I was surprised by how ‘solid’ the model was, with a completely filled body of honeycomb structure.

 

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Next Steps

 

I am hoping that experience will enable me to make improvements but I am satisfied that the machine does work, albeit with some teething troubles. There are plenty of selections for varying parameters such as hot-end temperature and speed, so I will try more experiments. I think this machine should be capable of making small parts of complex shapes quite quickly and easily.

 

The greatest difficulty will lie in creating the 3D models themselves on the computer but I shall take this in easy stages – one step at a time. I am planning to try out the Fusion 360 software, which is currently being offered free for non-commercial use.

 

EDIT (13th Jan): As I mention in the comments below, this post records my initial 'warts and all' experience with my printer. I have been doing a lot of reading since writing the above and am somewhat amazed that I managed to produce anything at all, in view of my slender understanding of the processes involved. In particular, I am becoming aware of the roles played by the Cura 'slicer' software, which has an enormous influence on the final result. Already, I am finding out how to achieve a far better result :)

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An interesting development Mike! 

 

Those instructions (lack of) don't exactly sound child friendly. Good thing we have the internet and not least personal determination.

 

I look forward to following this - and note with interest that watching the machine work can provide an evening's entertainment for husband and wife. It sure beats TV!

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Hi Mike, with all the investigations required to get the 3D printer up and running, perhaps I'll wait a while before purchasing one for my workshop, still, for the price, very interesting.

 

also, what medium is used for printing, ( plastic / resin )

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Someone's knocked off the Bachmann not-Thomas!

 

I do think 3D printing is a very interesting way forward for small-quantity production of model railway items. I'm not convinced that home printing is yet the solution for producing items to a high standard of finish - even the best commercial printers don't seem to be quite there yet. It'll be very interesting to see how you get on!

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Many thanks for the comments on my 'warts and all' post.  I felt that I was displaying rather a lot of my ignorance about 3D printing but one has to start somewhere!

 

Someone's knocked off the Bachmann not-Thomas!

 

I was aware of this but decided that my print was too unrecognisable to be of concern to the copyright holders.

 

I'd like to know why my print was off-set after the power failure.  There's a lot to learn and the trouble is that it takes a long time to carry out a range of experiments.  I'm treating this as a learning exercise, for the time being, and have no idea whether it will eventually result in useful models - time will tell :)

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..................

 

also, what medium is used for printing, ( plastic / resin )

My printer uses PLA filament, which comes on a large (1kg) reel.  Polylactic Acid (PLA) is different from most thermoplastic polymers in that it is derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane and is bio-degradeable.  It seems to be the most popular filament for home use but has limitations, in some applications, which need more durable materials.

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I've added a note to my post, to indicate that I'm already learning a lot more about how to set up the printer, for better results.  If I reach the point of producing something useful for my railway, I may gather together my experiences for a 'how to' thread on the main forums.  in the meantime, I may record more of my experiments in this blog, since several members seem to find them of interest.

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Hello Mike

I keep saying I'll sell some of my unused engines and carriages to fund a 3d printer but have yet to get round to it, I keep waiting for them to get cheaper and improved quality. I'm interested in how the quality compares to shapeways wsf material (can't remember what they call it now), after the set up and slicing have been sorted out.

I use blender for 3d cad and learnt it using JCL's excellent tutorial thread in this site, I haven't used Fusion360, but I imagine the principles are the same with every package just a different interface, keys etc.

best of luck

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Hello Charlie586; thanks for looking in.

I decided to try Fusion360 because I'm already familiar with other Autodesk products and they provide good tutorials.

 

At present, I'm busy investigating the mysteries of 'slicer' software.  There are many different types and each seems to have its own characteristics.  I'm currently doing a lot of reading and hope to be able to show some further progress here before too long.

 

Many thanks for your encouragement.

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Hi Mike

 

It's looking very interesting. The first few weeks/months of owning a printer are in equal measure exciting and frustrating. I've had my Peopoly Moai a few months and I'm still getting to grips with it. Just today I'm printing off a model used to calibrate the printer because, for some reason, a model that had printed ok is now about 3mm too long - a lot when you're doing a 4mm coach end.

 

My initial advice would be to do what you're doing. Find all the nooks and crannies and have a good look at what it can do - even test it to extremes. Apart from Cult3d, here's a also a website called Thingiverse, which has a number of models on it that can be used for calibration. Printing these models can give you an idea of the smallest diameter hole your printer can crate, or the longest bridge between two pillars, and the thickness of the thinnest wall possible.

 

In reality they can only do so much, so as always it's using the right tool for the job.

 

Don't do this alone. If you have a Facebook account, you can join the Geeetech owner's group https://www.facebook.com/groups/315127105604393/ where you'll be able to ask questions and see what others have done. Often, these groups also have FAQs available which provide answers to the most basic questions. Also, there will be hints and tips in there for things that you might not expect to be a factor. For example, mine is a resin based machine and the resin should be 25C before it's printed for example. Not obvious when you first start looking at it.

 

I think as a first print you're doing a lot better than I did! Having looked at your post I then looked around the net and found this 

which shows me that I think you'll be able to do some interesting things on it. I know the materials and process are different, but would be interesting to see how similar the output of your printer is to Shapeway's WSF.

 

FInally, expect to waste a lot of material at the start. Knuckles/Sparkshot's thread is currently discussing the amount of resin he and others use up when starting with a new machine, and in their case it's looking like a couple of litres - about 150GBP (sorry, no pound sign on my keyboard).

 

I can't wait to see how you get on with it.

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Hi JCL,

 

Thank you for your very helpful comments and advice.  I'm relieved to know that you also have found that it takes a good deal of time to get to grips with these machines.  Fortunately, my purchase came with a free 1kg spool of filament, so I have no excuse not to experiment!

 

I had to look up the Peopoly Moai and now see that it is a resin machine.  I think this is an interesting method but not yet compatible with my need for a small machine that fits easily into the domestic environment.  I've just found your new Printer thread and, if you succeed in uploading an STL file, it could be interesting to try building the same model in PLA, to see how the results compare.

 

When I've optimised my own machine, I shall also turn to your useful Blender thread for help with designing structures such as locomotive domes.

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Yes, mine is definitely different, so I think you should definitely get onto those forums. :) In reality, although these printers were invented a couple of decades ago, they are still new technology, so I wouldn't say any of them are plug an play just yet. For me, the experimentation is a part of the fun. )

 

There will be things that are relevant to both, and I'll definitely be uploading different models as soon as I can, and pointing people towards calibration models, etc.

 

Tell you what, I bet yours isn't half as messy as mine, and your waste product isn't a biohazard until it's cured!

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