My first few weeks with a 3D printer

About 3 weeks ago my Micro 3D Printer arrived from their Kickstarter campaign. Needless to say I was absolutely ecstatic. I came home from work, ripped it open, and pulled out an old laptop with Windows on it (their software is Windows-only for the moment). Once I got everything set up, the first thing that caught me off guard was that there were no models to print provided by the software. The Unofficial intro video was nice, but I was overly excited and didn’t notice the description provided a model; I expected a model in the “downloads” section of the site or even pre-loaded with the software. In fact I didn’t realize that model was there until just now as I went to write this blog post. Derp. (It’s nearly finished as I’m about to publish this post.)

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My initial attempts to print didn’t go great. I didn’t feed the filament in properly, so it began to print but stopped. I was using black plastic, so I thought it was just hard to see against the black print bed. Nope! I switched to blue and really made sure it got in there; you can feel it pulling when you insert it. It seems so obvious now. I’ve had the same kind of failure happen a couple of times but I just watch it toward the beginning and it usually goes well.

The first thing I printed was a “pencil holder” mostly because it was the first thing I found that was acceptable in my mind to print. It would have taken forever (8 hours) at its real size, and I just wanted to hold something in my hand, so I scaled it to 25% in each dimension. I didn’t realize it, but that means what I printed was ~1.6% the designed volume (0.25 cubed). At 1.5 hours estimated I was happy with how it turned out. The estimates are always low though, sometimes by 50%.

Lizard Print

People might wonder about an odor, and my experience is that it’s detectable but not bothersome when on my desk next to my laptop. It also prints a flat square thing as the basis and you have to peel it off, and you have to peel that basis off the print bed. That basis takes a bit of time to print, and does use at least a couple grams of filament but for most prints that isn’t a big deal. Another weird thing is that there is a “percent complete” provided on the computer, but it drags on slowly as that basis is printed and speeds up considerably once it’s done. You also can’t unplug the printer from the computer during printing.

After this proof-of-concept, my next goal was to make the process simpler. I was using the “external” way of feeding the filament into the printer, but I wanted to use the “internal” one instead, figuring it would unspool automatically while inside. After a lot of frustration, and being told by their customer service that they don’t recommend doing it, I have the same advice: don’t even bother. Their software isn’t very forgiving either, so when I couldn’t manage to do it I had to restart the software which required moving the print head around for no apparent reason. I’ll discuss what customer service recommended later.

Next up I printed a Baterang and a Superman thing. All these prints were at “low quality” so I tried a “high quality” baterang which was tremendously more time consuming (at least a factor of 2, perhaps more). The only noticeable difference between the two prints seemed to be a fluke. It definitely wasn’t 2x better, and “low quality” actually did look good. All three prints are also very solid and light, they’re sturdier than they look. Next I printed Tux the Linux penguin. I rigged something weird up with my bike’s U-lock (a recommendation of my roommate) so that it could go overnight, and that worked well as a temporary solution. Tux is what I use as a representative successful print when showing people. It was also my first print where the software automatically added support structures which are meant to gently broken off. I’m very, very happy about it.

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At this point I wanted to go from decoration to useful things. I tried printing a simple toilet-paper holder since I don’t like the one in my apartment currently. The model didn’t quite fit in the software, so I scaled it to 93% on the longest dimension thinking it’d be fine. Noooope. Shoulda measured it. My roommate had the good idea of using this mistake to hold the filament spool for overnight prints. I decided it was worth giving “high quality” another try.

I decided on Tux since it was relatively complex and because it had turned out so well it’d be a great reference. The software estimated 8 hours so it was a good candidate in terms of time estimates as well. It ended up being a relative failure and took over 12 hours. The print stopped working while printing the top of the head, so that was bad news, but the parts that actually did get printed didn’t look any better. Lesson learned: “low quality” is just fine.

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At this point, I contacted support about longer prints. I emailed on a Monday morning and heard back the following Thursday. Saturday morning I finally got to the email. They said not to use the internal thing, which was disappointing; why not mention this somewhere sooner, to prevent my time being wasted? Next they gave me a Dropbox link to a model for a two-part print of a spool holder that attaches on the outside of the printer (pics: without filament, with filament). By the time I went to use it, the Dropbox link was dead. I was really sad then, since the next business day was Monday and then based on experience it’d be another four days. Crap!

I decided next to try to get their software to work in Wine, so that I could get myself off Windows. That was a failure; I haven’t contacted customer support with the error I had, and at this point I have no intention of doing so, at least not while they’re still taking pre-orders. Since Wine was a no-go I then tried VirtualBox with Windows 7 as my guest OS. That was also a failure, but while going back to their site to get their software again I noticed the models were available for download on their site! Whoo! (This was dumb luck though, not customer support.)

Successful print next to terribly failed print.

Successful print next to terribly failed print.

So back to printing I went. They suggested the spool holder for my 8+ hour prints, so I was unpleasantly surprised when the model provided was estimated to take 8.5 hours. Wtf, right? After multiple painful print attempts I eventually get the spool holder working. I went back to trusty Tux for an overnight print (can’t remember if I tried “high quality” or not) and that didn’t turn out well (separate failed pic print). I contacted customer support again, with pictures of my setup and the failed print. After a full business week I haven’t heard back from them. I do realize they’re busy, but it’s not a great experience. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is tough too, if only because they sent me a link that was dead after two days.

As time has gone on, my enthusiasm and optimism have plummeted. Once I got things going, I was planning on extending an open offer for friends to do prints. Filament is cheap, so if I could just set it to go overnight that’d be fine. But right now I feel like I have to watch all my prints and invest a ton of time, so anything that anyone would want to print is going to be something I have really invest myself in.

My printer with the spool holder and a spool (current setup).

My printer with the spool holder and a spool (current setup).

A lot of the possibilities with a 3D printer involves me learning CAD as well, to make my own things (as great as Thingiverse is). With the failure rate I’ve seen, I’m not sure I can stand to spend several hours learning CAD, designing a thing, and having repeated failed prints. Surely someone can tolerate this, but I’m not up for it today.

My general conclusion is: their website is tacky, their customer service isn’t great, and the printer itself is hit-or-miss. I wouldn’t advocate against one if you’re still interested after reading all this, but I was hoping to like it enough to want to donate one to my high school. I’m definitely not doing that yet.

For anyone who really wants to pre-order one and get going here are my suggestions: Stick to PLA plastic (this is the recommendation on their site right now, though it wasn’t when I did my orders), Thingiverse is awesome, print the spool holder right away without bothering with the “internal,” ignore “high quality” prints, remove and re-insert filament after letting it sit cold for more than an hour, expect prints to take up to 2x the estimate, and keep on eye on all prints at least every 15 minutes.

If customer support magically fixes things, or they request taking the printer back for modifications, I’ll probably post back here. Same if any really useful prints come out of it, or if I get into CAD (I plan on trying Blender and Anim8or). I’m still optimistic about this printer and things I might do with it, although my enthusiasm has waned as failed prints have happened.

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