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.
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.
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!
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)
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!
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.
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