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First Impressions Of A 3D Printer

Last year, after gnashing my teeth a bit, I decided to buy a 3D printer to have at home. I had designed 3D printed enclosures for some of my electronics projects already, but I ordered those prints from different services that provide SLS on demand, which is the kind of 3D printing that you cannot really do at home. And even though I have had access to an FDM printer at the office, the reasonable requirement of being present while the printer is in use wasn’t really ever compatible with my style of work.

When asking around, a colleague suggested he had a very good track record with the Elegoo Neptune 3 Pro to print things with his kids, and since Elegoo was taking pre-orders for their new Neptune 4 Pro at the time, I decided to bite the bullet, and put an order through. I now realize that the positive experience of my colleague with the N3P didn’t really carry over to the N4P in any way, as the two machines are significantly different in nature. But I’m still glad I went for the newer model, if nothing else because I have not needed to put files on an SD card or USB stick ever — the series 4 has a networked firmware, so it literally just plugs into an Ethernet port and I can print directly from some of the slicers, or a from a browser. I’ll get to more details later.

The choice of FDM (i.e. filament-based) printer was forced by my living situation: while the idea of having a resin printer sounded cool, it’s not the kind of thing you want to do in a flat without a garage: the resin and curing chemicals are quite volatile and dangerous. Indeed, I would probably only ever consider getting one of those if I had access to a workshop with proper air extractions and safety features. So much as the results look good, that’s not going to be an option any time soon.

At the same time, the little experience I had up to that point with designing for 3D printing was different both in terms of the actual printing process (SLS and FDM have different practical considerations, such as the resolution of details, or whether geometry needs to be kept open — and SLS does not need to worry about supports!) as well as what you can actually get done. You cannot get to print a singleton or prototype, when you’re sending stuff out for printing to JLCPCB in China — you need to print a minimum number of identical copies, and they will take a few weeks to make it back to you. This means you can’t fix a tolerance issue if you get wrong, and any mistake might be quite expensive to fix, as I learnt with my acrylic lamp bases (thankfully, my thermostats’ enclosures worked almost perfectly the first time around!)

The journey into the world of home 3D printing started well before I received the printer, though, because this is a field that, like many in modern times, to my dislike, spread information only in the form of tribal knowledge, with Reddit and Discord being the primary sources of information. Both of which couldn’t be farther from my preferred modes of interactions. Instead, I decided to try my luck with Facebook (not for reason related to my employment!), where Elegoo themselves appear to have created the ELEGOO Neptune Series 3D Printer Owners group.

I have refrained from making any posts, or commenting on anything in the group, until I received my printer — as obviously I would have been talking out of my head with no practical experience. But quite quickly I did start noticing some strange “memes” (in the original sense of the term) in posts and responses. Besides the obvious bias in people posting having negative experiences (if you have no problems with your machine, why would you be posting?), there has been a number of people who posted about buying one machine… just to immediately go and “upgrade” it by replacing a number of parts. I guess this is part and parcel of a field that was started by enthusiasts looking more for a project than a tool.

Another common theme I noticed in the posts has been the amount of “buzzword bingo” — one of the few posts I commented on was one in which someone kept insisting that the MAC address, that the N4P displays under “IP Address” any time there is no IPv4 assigned, was instead an IPv6 address — despite being shown examples of real IPv6 addresses, and noting the length didn’t match. Similarly, for weeks I kept seeing the same similar posts insisting that if you don’t re-format the microSD you buy in the store it would be formatted in NTFS, despite the fact that microSDXC mandate exFAT instead — the end result is indeed the same, but instead of saying the less-restrictive “it’s in the wrong filesystem”, there were people insisting that it was specifically NTFS.

The possibly more annoying (to me) and dangerous (to everyone) memes are those that appear to suggest using 3D printed components in critical applications: in the months I’ve been around the group, I saw a handful of people looking at printing casts for broken limbs, functional parts for cars, motorbikes, and bicycles, and at least a couple of times tattooing devices. This scares me a lot — while I see the advantages of being able to tailor components to one’s very specific need, I don’t believe I would ever want for my, or anyone else’s life, to depend on a home-printed component of any kind.

On the other hand, it is interesting to see how many cosplayers seem to have integrated 3D printing techniques in their process. I have heard Adam Savage talking about it at length, but it wasn’t until I noticed how many of the completed builds on the Facebook group were cosplay pieces that I actually realized how big that community ends up being!

Some of the memes, to be honest, are the fault of the manufacturer. Elegoo’s documentation, that comes with the machine, instructs you to handle the bed leveling by using “a piece of A4 paper.” In their instructions video they more explicitly use the piece of paper that comes with the machine — which ironically is A5-sized. The problem is, A4, being part of ISO 216, only defines the surface dimension of paper, not its thickness, which is what the bed leveling would depend on. I don’t believe most people think about it too hard, and possibly didn’t even notice this inconsistency unless they have experience with — I do because of the print shop I used to work for as a sysadmin, so I know that you commonly measure paper thickness in microns, but you abstract that to paper weight in gsm or g/m² (grams per square meter.) Common printer paper is often around 80 g/m², but my coffee roaster prints their invoice in much thicker paper — the paper Elegoo uses in their video feels like a midway between the two, and with a bit of dial caliper action I would say it’s somewhere below the 100 microns mark. I wish they actually provided a bit more specific information about this.

Relatedly, the tinkerer nature of early 3D printing adopters (possibly with the bimodal distribution between enthusiasts playing with it at home versus professionals keeping their trade secrets), does not lead itself much to having a centralized resource providing every bit of relevant information. Particularly so, as various people end up turning into fanboys for whatever manufacturer they happen to have bought. Personally, I just find that my machine is working fine, and I have nothing really bad to say about the level of support I received from Elegoo so far, but that doesn’t mean I need to “score one” by dissing one of the other manufacturers.

The end result is that a lot of information is only available as word of mouth, and often is repeated even after it becomes outdated (particularly as the technology keeps improving year after year.) Is it safe to use PETG FDM prints around a hydroponics kit? Is printing TPU without an enclosure going to cause you significant health issue? How do you convert the important parameters from one slicer to another?

A lot of these questions should have objective answers, rather than the very subjective or appalling dogmatic ones that you’ll find on Facebook, Reddit or (I assume, since I can’t find the energy to go and check by myself) DIscord. The answers may become outdated at some point, needing to be changed, but it would make sense to have a reference documentation that is kept up to date, rather than having just an oral history of knowledge. The possible worst example I have seen more recently was when someone asked “where can I find Neptune 4 Max profiles for PrusaSlicer?” and someone kept repeating “Go to the Discord and ask around” rather than point at anything relevant at all!

Back when Linux hardware support was painful, a lot of us (me included — my homepage still has some remnants of it) ended up maintaining websites that effectively just contained “works for me” solutions — but at least it was possible to go and look for them. Unfortunately I also can see that trying to solve this is going to be nigh impossible, what with the horrible reality of LLM-generated spam we live in — I keep finding random “3D printing bible” style websites, that appear to have mined a bunch of opinions of the various forums, and restated them as facts.

Even with all of these problems, having a 3D printer at hand to be able to prototype and experiment, or even build very specifically-tailored components, is something I’m very pleased with. Being able to throw some ideas onto Fusion 360 (don’t judge) to figure out whether they would fit together, and then print a test fit is quite useful when coming up with custom components and quality of life improvements. I have had quite a lot of fun with printing stencils too — both to give myself proper spacing to write postcards as well as to cut EVA foam to fit into specific nooks.

On the other hand, I found myself printing existing design extremely sparingly. While statuettes and models of skyscrapers are fun to have around, they are not really useful, and honestly speaking, they are usually cheaper to buy on Amazon or AliExpress. I learnt to ignore the suggestion from some of the enthusiasts that printing decorations (or even replacement parts) is free — despite the fact that most slicers will show the cost in terms of material and time (sometimes including the price in currency of the material if you configure it.) Admittedly, sometimes is good to do this just for the sake of it, or to finish your roll of cheap-and-bad-quality filament you ended up with (any reference to some of my early mistakes in procurement is intentional here), but it’s also important to consider whether it would make more sense to just buy the thing rather than trying to print it.

Case in point, I was looking at printing an electric toothbrush stand, since I saw a number of people pointing at one — but when tallying up the material just of the one print (assuming no issues with the print, material, or printer, thus a completely right print at first try), the time and electricity required, I got a number that was somewhere north of £10. A similar stand from Amazon (likely straight from AliBaba) costed £4.

This is somewhat similar when thinking of tools and solutions: I was thinking of how to build some self-alignment for the stencil to cut out the EVA foam (to fit my camera’s card-carrier, and replace the SD-shaped cutouts with CFExpress-shaped cutouts), until I remembered that engineers’ squares are a thing, and I could just buy a metal one that would double as a way to hold the foam mat in place while cutting.

It’s also interesting to see how some of the tools end up being particularly overpriced when looking at 3D printing keyword specifically. I was looking for a filament dust filter – something that is commonly printed in place, but I find the print in place a bit too brittle to stay in place for more than a couple of months – and I found some repurposed ferrite toroids clip-on holders with a piece of sponge sold for over £7! Turns out that buying the actual ferrite toroits and taking them out is much cheaper, being £9 for five pieces shipping included. Plus you get to keep the toroids.

(Huge thanks to imax here for pointing me at This Old Tony, since despite the channel’s focus being machining and CNC, a lot of the technique and basics apply similarly when doing 3D printing!)

I will come back with more impressions about 3D printing software (slicers, CADs) in future posts, since unsurprisingly I have opinions. And I will probably do my best to share what I learn, both in terms of process, and in terms of useful related tools (software and hardware) that are handy to keep around. But let’s be clear here, that I’m a newbie when it comes to all of this, I just happen to be a newbie with enough stubbornness as to expect to be able to do things in particular ways.

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