I thought I would try my hand at 3D printing. I've been to some maker-cons, read a lot about the different kinds of 3D printers, and have always been fascinated by them. I decided to quit talking about them, dreaming up fantasy projects, and just jump in and buy one. As I started, I began keeping some notes, taking pictures of whatever I thought was relevant, which turned into an informal log, graduating finally to a very detailed log including pictures with detailed notes and observations to help me improve my printing. I've found a lot of information online, but none seemed all that thorough, and very little applied to my specific printer. The best source I found was on a Facebook group, but I'm trying to wean myself completely off of Facebook, so that was a less than desirable option (for me anyway). So, I thought why not document it here in case others might have an interest? I'm not going to go into crazy detail, but do hope to provide a little extra guidance for things that I found that might help a newbie like myself get a quicker start. Of course, anyone who has similar experiences to share, are always welcome here - hit me up in the comments or via email and I'll get you set up. So here is a brief documentary of my start; from selection to first print.
How did I come to pick the Monoprice MP10 Printer? I had several criteria to start with to narrow the field. First, I wanted to stay under $500. There are a lot of good beginner options keeping under that price point, and there are a surprising amount variety in terms of build quality, options, and size. I didn't want to be limited by size, so my next selection criteria was a greater than 200mm by 200mm build surface. I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about height, or the 'Z' axis, but it turns out that the build height is a real separator among choices. It appears that among lower cost printers, the taller the build area, the looser the build tolerances. This is just my observation after studying dozens of printers; nothing scientific. After some thought, I decided I wanted a minimum of 200mm build height.
Even with limiting my selection by price and size, I had a few other factors to study up on before narrowing my selection further. Here is a list of some of the other items that worked into my decision, and what was important to me:
Build Surface - Again, a surprising amount of variables to consider. Heated or non-heated? A heated build surface helps with adhesion of the printed object to the build surface. The build platform is in motion on builds, and sometimes it moves rapidly back and forth for intricate parts of a build. The better the object sticks to the surface, the more accurate the build is. As the object grows in height, this can be critical. I opted for a heated bed. Some printers have a solid, non removable print surface. This isn't necessarily bad; it can just make removal and cleanup after a build a little more difficult. Also, if you accidentally scratch up or ding the build surface, it can be more difficult to replace. Those with removable print surfaces have various options to fasten them. The magnetic ones seemed to be the best choice.
Leveling - this can be tricky. The print bed, which is the X and Y axis of a build, must be absolutely perpendicular to the Z axis, which is up and down. It has to be perfectly perpendicular at every point across the surface. Some printers are auto-leveling, some have extensive programs for doing it manually, while some leave you on your own. If this goes awry, you scratch up your build surface, which leads to all kinds of problems.
Support - Does the manufacturer provide a lot of support and learning tools? Is there a big user community? The Monoprice seemed to have less technical support from the manufacturer, but a few user support groups including a fairly active one on Facebook. I'm no fan of Facebook, but thought I could tolerate it enough to use the support group from time to time.
The MP10, from what I can tell, requires less assembly than most. It came in two major pieces with a number of bolt on parts to finish the assembly. The first major part was the base, which is a large frame that holds the build plate, and the mechanical components that move the 'Y' axis. Nestled in the center of the base is the power supply unit and most of the electronics. The other major piece is the vertical frame, the upright part that holds the extruder head, which has the mechanical components for the 'X' and 'Z' axis movements. Included in the box are a number of assorted screws, hex keys, a tiny wrench, the control panel, the filament rack, a plastic scraper, and a SD card containing a sample build file. The User's manual is a pretty sparse thing - 12 pages of 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper folded in half and stapled to make a booklet, making it 24 pages total (including the front and back covers). There are 13 pages of instruction, of which 5 guide you through assembly, setup, and a test print. Another 2 pages walk you through leveling and 6 more pages (mostly screenshots) walk you through software setup. My initial impression was that the documentation was a little on the light side for most, but for me, as a lifelong tinkerer and maker, I enjoyed walking through it and figuring things out. I'm going to list a number of interesting or helpful things I found from my assembly experience, mostly as they vary from the instruction manual. I hope that others may be able to use this as they walk through these beginning stages.
The first two steps have you mount the vertical frame to the base. There are a couple of plates that add rigidity to the vertical frame that are a little different from one another. The instructions don't distinguish between the two, but it is important that they get mounted correctly. As the pictures indicate below, there is a right and a left bracket. As you face the front of the printer, the one on the left has an offset that the other one does not have. This offset should be outward on the rear side of the printer. This bumped out section of the bracket is to give clearance to the Z axis stepper motor. When assembling this part, leave the side screws loose so that the vertical frame may be adjusted back and forth while you thread in and tighten the bottom screws outlined in step 2 of the instructions. You will want to tighten the side screws last.
Step three is not adequately covered by the directions. The intent is to have you remove the screw rod that is part of the Z axis mechanical assembly, from where it was attached to the base for shipping. The directions suggest loosening a screw that holds down a plastic clamp near the front of the base. It turns out there are actually three screws and plastic clamps holding the screw rod in place. Two are hidden from view by the build platform, which must carefully be moved back and forth to gain access. Only then can you remove the screw rod from it's shipping mount. The manual suggested re-tightening the screw, so I did so with all three.
Front, middle, and rear Z-axis screw rod shipping clamps:
There really isn't any illustration to show how the Z-axis screw is mounted, although the instructions kind of describe it OK. If you have never had any experience with stepper motors, linkages, and gear assemblies, it might be a little bit of a struggle. I'm supplying some pics of the Z-axis assembly to show how a proper assembly should look. The Z-axis screw is threaded through a mounting plate that holds the filament motor and sensor, which is attached to the horizontal arm that lifts up and down. You will have to thread enough of the Z-axis screw rod through that platform to give enough clearance to attach the coupler at the bottom (about two and half inches). This area is indicated by the green arrow in the pic below. This is covered in steps 4 & 5 from the User's Manual.
Installing the Z-axis screw rod
To make sure the Z-axis screw was straight, I looked down from the top and aligned the top guide in such a way to make sure the Z-axis rod was parallel with the vertical frame, along the left side.
Z-axis screw rod finish detail:
The rest of the assembly instructions are pretty straight forward, save for one missing step. The cables from the extruder assembly should be plugged in to the left side of the power supply module. I recommend routing the cables outside of the frame, so as to not interfere with the travel of the build plate as it moves forward and back during printing. The connector to the Z-axis stepper motor also needed to be connected.
Control and power cables
Z-axis stepper motor connector
The setup of the printer for a test print was actually easier than the assembly; at least, the instructions were much more clear. The printer comes with a small amount of printer filament which can be used to get through the setup steps and your first print... almost. More on that later. The printer filament is PLA, which is an acronym for Polylactic Acid. PLA is a polymer made from renewable natural resources, making it 'greener' than typical plastics, but still having comparable attributes. Although the printer is rated for varying kinds of printer material, I assumed the included filament was PLA, as that is the material most commonly used. I followed the instructions pretty much verbatim, but in retrospect, I think i would have performed the Auto Leveling instructions first, instead of going straight for printing a level or two. Once auto-leveling is performed, and if necessary, an offset entered for the Z access, it is time to do a test print! On the included memory card is a file called 'cat.gcode'. Gcode is the set of instructions given to the printer that it uses to print an object. Obviously, this set of instructions is to print a cat.
My First Print
Following the directions in included manual, I inserted the SD card into the slot on the side of the control panel. I selected the file cat.gcode, and started the print job. Not knowing what the form would look like (other than being a cat), I was curious to see what shape would start forming on the print bed. The printer proceeded to lay down filament in a hollow oval shape with two bumps on one side. I imagined it to be the outline of a cat face, with the bumps being the ears. As it turned out, it was actually creating a base for my print. The base is necessary in most prints, to provide solid adhesion to the print surface. The solid base, sometimes referred to as a raft, is several layers of filament thick, and has surface with smaller 'touch' footprint on top, to which your actual print is created. This base is easily detached from the final print, once finished.
After and hour or so of printing, the actual print started becoming more clear. However, there was a big problem; obviously, I was not going to have enough filament to finish the print. It would have been nice to have enough filament in the initial supply to at least finish the test print. It only gets you about one third of the way complete. I stopped the print, and set off to purchase some more filament. The results of this first print are below.
Half a cat, the raft, and the remaining filament
I did a little research on different filament types, thinking that my first several prints would largely be experimenting with different objects to see what possibilities I could dream up, not necessarily having success with my first efforts. It seemed important to have decent quality control - no air bubbles, and close diameter tolerance. I spent about $18, next day shipping included, for a 1KG spool of black Hatchbox PLA filament.
Freshly equipped with my new spool of filament, I started my cat print again. This time, it printed without issue. Overall, the print was fairly smooth, and the detail looked pretty good. There was just a tiny bit of 'stringing' underneath the cat's lower paw. This is where the print extended into space without any support underneath. It was only a slight amount, and most people wouldn't even notice it. My first successful print!
I hope this article is of some help to any other first timers as they get started with the MP10. Any comments, suggestions, experiences or write-ups will be gladly accepted and printed here.