3D Printers and Filament

Stepping into my role as Digital Services Manager at the Barrington Area Library, I did not have any hands on experience with 3D printers. The first exposure I had to 3D printing was an article a fellow Tinker-er, Amanda Barnett Jacover posted on our staff blog in 2010. So when an interdepartmental team was tasked to develop our new makerspace in 2013, I gathered more information about different types of 3D printers from articles and spoke to people who knew more about it than I did, but would soon find out there is no better teacher than experience. There were new questions that popped up each day and I’m excited to share some of the things I have learned. I’m by no means an expert, but I hope my hands-on experience will be beneficial to those of you looking to get a 3D printer.

Is a 3D printer a good fit for your library?

It may seem like a foregone conclusion to have a 3D printer in your makerspace, but spend some time to answer these questions:

  • Does our community show interest in 3D printing?
  • Do we have the staff who will take ownership?
  • What is my budget and is this going to be the only piece of technology we are purchasing?

Features to look for in a 3D printer

  • self-leveling
  • easy for beginners
  • good support
  • enclosed print area
  • Size – is portability important to us? Are we going to print large objects?
  • Budget – always ask for an educator’s discount

We decided to purchase two MakerBot Minis, but like many other customers, we have run into problems with the machine. MakerBot is now is now facing a class action lawsuit over their faulty extruders. Fortunately, the MakerBot Support team has replaced our extruders without any additional cost because we have the Maker Care support plan.

Enter the Lulzbot Mini

The Barrington Area Library recently purchased another 3D printer, the Lulzbot Mini. This printer is currently in my office and will eventually be open for all staff to use for programs and professional learning. Because our MakerLab is unstaffed and the Lulzbot Mini is not enclosed, we need to purchase an enclosure if we are to consider putting this type of 3D printer in the public space. Thanks to Leah White, Michelle Bourgeois, and Christen Wiser at Ela Public Library and Katie Lamantia at Schaumburg Township District Library, I learned that Library Furniture International (LFI) makes custom enclosures and it is something we would consider for the future.

I don’t have the same body of experience with Lulzbot as with MakerBot, but it has been exponentially easier to keep the machine in service. I have made approximately 20 prints with the Lulzbot Mini and the only problem I’ve had was fixed by re-loading the filament which was resolved within five minutes.

Which filament

Something I didn’t really consider until looking at filament for the Lulzbot was the differences in filament. I knew the difference between ABS, HIPS, and PLA, but even within those categories, not all filament is the same. Here is a quick video on how filament is made (this is kind of like the Mr. Roger crayon factory episode for the 21st century).

The most common types of filament are ABS, HIPS, and PLA. Lulzbot recommends printing with HIPS, but we print with PLA, one of the most common filaments for beginners, which has worked out just fine. PLA is a plant-based filament whereas HIPS and ABS are oil based. There is a noticeable smell when printing with ABS, and though I didn’t notice a smell when I did a test print with HIPS, I was in a room considerably larger than our relatively small MakerLab (10’ x 16’ x 10’). Jason Griffey wrote about the various types of filament and mentions the topic of off-gassing.

As an individual, I am comfortable printing with ABS or HIPS, but because we are in a public space, I feel the need to err on the side of caution since our space does not have an air filtration system like some other library makerspaces. The vast majority of patrons do not know enough about the process to take off-gassing into account, so I’d rather eliminate it altogether.

Filament comes in two sizes, 1.75mm and 3mm (nominal size – actually 2.85mm) and the filament size you buy is determined by the size of the extruder on your machine. From what I’ve read, 1.75mm can produce higher resolution prints, which is especially important with small parts, but 3mm is quicker because more filament is extruded.

Generally, when you find a brand that is compatible with your machine and it produces consistent results, you should stick with it. I was interested to see if there was noticeable difference between MakerBot ($48 – $72 per kg*), Village Plastics ($42 per kg), and eSun ($24 per kg). Here are some images from my prints.

Village Plastics – Lulzbot ($42 per kg)

IMG_3465-2 IMG_3469

e-Sun Plastics – Lulzbot ($24 per kg)

IMG_3467 IMG_3470

MakerBot (Second picture – MakerBot [orange] beside Village Plastics [green])

MakerBot Rocktopus FullSizeRender

I’m seeing really good prints from Village Plastics, surprisingly good prints from the less expensive e-Sun, and OK prints from MakerBot. e-Sun plastic was a tiny bit “stringier,” than Village Plastics but this can be cleared up with a small amount of post print work. There is nothing wrong with MakerBot or MakerBot filament, but as a beginner I have found that a typical print requires a little more work after printing or modification of the settings to get the same results as the Lulzbot and the corresponding filaments.

I am really impressed with the Lulzbot Mini. I’ve spent quite a bit of time (1 – 5 hours a week) troubleshooting or replacing parts for our MakerBots and I’m excited that Lulzbot is living up to the praise they have received so far. Moving forward, I’m excited to try out new filament mixtures like the  woodfill on our Lulzbot Mini.

If you have any questions or would like to talk more about 3D printing or makerspaces, please contact me at mcampagna@balibrary.org

* The variance in price for MakerBot filament occurs because the Mini can only take the small spool of filament which is $18 per .22 kg (x4 = $72) and $48 is for .9kg


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