Learning by Making - 3D Printing

published: May 26, 2014

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This weekend, I took some time to really sit down with the 3D printer. I've made several successful projects and have had as many, if not more, failures. Till now ,I have attributed most of my successes to dumb luck. Sometimes, the failures lead to dire thoughts about karma. There is a tremendous amount of information available about 3D Printing. There is the manual and the support documents available from the machine's manufacturer MakerBot. There are discussion groups, clubs, and forums to explore. I found the incredibly helpful document: "ZERO TO HERO: Replicator 2 New User Guide". All of this information never helped me understand why something went wrong when it often did. 3D printing has been attractive and interesting but ultimately frustrating.

Declaring this Memorial Weekend as a "weekend for making," I had a chance to do some serious prints. My boys wanted to make some toys. We happily set up a print of a keychain for Noah and one of the incredible figurines from Modio for Owen. We set everything up then happily left for the river. On our return, we discovered a mess of broken parts and piles of misguided plastic. The boys began to worry. Things got serious. Thanks to some free time, I was able to sit with the machine and observe how it operates.

The boys and I watched the machine. We watched the tool path of the extruder. We listened to it. We smelled it. We felt the wobble of the machine as it worked. Between failures we scraped the build plate, we cleaned out the extruder, we adjusted set screws, we applied grease. It was only after working intimately in this manner and becoming attuned to the moods of the machine that I realized the room temperature was affecting the printer's behavior. It made it behave differently during each print. If the A/C was on, the printer sounded different, unhappy.

I began to watch the temperature settings and noticed that if the print head dropped below 226° (Celsius), the plastic didn't adhere well. I knew how to adjust the temperature settings thanks to the manuals. I had not known, until now, why I would adjust the temperature settings. Finally after many hours of trial after trial, I shut the ducts to our making space and bumped up the extruder temperature by 4°. Consistent prints followed and we reprinted all of our previous failures.

Reflecting on our experience this weekend made me think about the importance of experience in the learning. All the information in the world could not help me make better prints. It did enable me to explore problems with certain confidence but it was the drive to succeed that gave our learning purpose.

This morning, my seven-year-old son and project partner asked me if I had leveled the "build-plate" before printing his final parts. He understands and uses words like "extruder," "slicing," and "calibrate." He and I have learned by doing. Our learning was driven my our will to create.