How to Raise Your MakerBot from the Dead

Happy Zombie Day

Happy Zombie Day!!!

… or Happy Zombie Day!

My extruder is back online! Huzzah!  Since I had it disassembled I made a few minor modifications.

  1. I’ve added binder clips to the front and back edges of the build platform.  I found that my acrylic build base is slightly deformed and probably getting more so with each build.  This is a temporary fix while I get around to picking up a new build base.
  2. You’ll notice I’ve also added pieces of rubber band.  I cut a long rubber band into two pieces about an inch long, tied them off to make small loops, and put them around the handles to the binder clips.  I don’t want to take the handles out of the binder clips because then they’ll be difficult to move/remove/replace.  But, as I printed they tended to vibrate creating unnecessary noise.
  3. When ABS oozed down my PTFE threads and around the barrel, I sliced off about 1mm to use as a washer between the nut and large washer.  The reason I’ve heard suggested for the PTFE washer is that it keeps the large metal washer from acting as a heat sink.  The nut is right on the barrel and is able to heat right up along with the rest of the barrel.  When the large washer is pressed on the nut (as it is supposed to) it is able to absorb heat through the nut as well as it’s contacts to the barrel.  The thin surface area contact between interior hole in the large washer and the barrel probably doesn’t allow for much heat to be transferred to the large washer.
  4. I’ve read it mentioned that wrapping an extruder with nichrome is a two person or three handed job.  I’ve found it to be fairly easy with just my two hands.
    1. I use a small piece of kapton to tape the nichrome to the extruder head/nozzle oriented so that it is lined up parallel to the barrel. 1
    2. From the point where I can see the nozzle touch the barrel I leave about 2-3cm of nichrome hanging off the edge, with the rest of the nichrome pointed up towards the barrel.
    3. Then I wrap the nichrome up the barrel in a single layer keeping a tight contact with the threads until there’s about 2cm or so left.
    4. Then I tape down all of the nichrome on the barrel, except the last 2cm.
    5. I untape the part of the nichrome on the nozzle.
    6. As I was out of those little metal connectors provided by MakerBot, I had to improvise a little.
      1. I stripped the leads on the nichrome so that about 3mm was exposed and used needle nose pliers to put it into a hook shape.
      2. Then I stripped the leads to the insulated wires so that about 15mm was exposed, used my fingers to twist the leads, doubled it back along itself, twisted it again so that there was a little loop.
      3. I hooked the nichrome into the loops of braided copper leads and crimped it down using the needle nosed pliers.
      4. Solder and done.
    7. I then liberally applied kapton to wrap the barrel and nichrome so that it would be unlikely the wire or leads would ever have to bear any of the stress should I move the extruder around.
  5. With my last two extruder assemblies I’ve taken a slightly different approach to attaching the thermistor.  This method makes it easier to pull the thermistor out, but slightly more difficult to install it in the first place.  Here’s what I do:
    1. I laminate the thermistor between two layers of kapton tape just past where it meets the insulated wires.  Only the very tip of the thermistor is exposed.
    2. I wrap the barrel in nichrome as above, then ceramic tape, then wrap that in kapton – without the thermistor inside.
    3. Once the entire barrel is wrapped up just as I want it, I use a utility knife to make a vertical slice up the ceramic tape starting at the edge of the nozzle until I reach the point where the nozzle meets the barrel.
    4. I then peel back the ceramic tape and kapton, exposing a V shaped portion of the nozzle.
    5. I put the tip of the thermistor down into the V, replace the ceramic tape and kapton over it, and tape it down.
    6. I then re-wrap the barrel in kapton again.
    7. The first time I disassembled my extruder I screwed up my thermistor when unwrapping the barrel.  While this makes it more difficult to get the thermistor into the assembly, it also makes it so much easier to pull it out and reuse it.
  6. At the top left of the above photo you can see a small black box with green and white wires coming out of it.  That’s where I added an ethernet jack connector to the extruder assembly to make it easier to connect/disconnect the extruder.
    1. When I assembled my MakerBot I used insulated wire out of an ethernet cable.  Since I only needed a few sets of insulated wire, I ended up with one piece of ethernet cable that still had the ethernet jack on it with four wires sticking out.  I also had two ethernet ports left over from my opto-endstop kits.
    2. I plugged the ethernet jack into the ethernet port and tested the leads on the wires against the leads on the port.  Once isolated I soldered wires to the four leads that lead to the four wires from the jack.
    3. I then soldered the four wires from the ethernet jack to the thermistor and nichrome.
    4. I took the wires I soldered to the ethernet port and ran them through the hole on the right side of the MakerBot in the back on the top.  Then connected those leads to the appropriate ports on the extruder board.
    5. Once the wires were soldered up and extruder assembled I plugged the ethernet jack into the ethernet port and checked ReplicatorG to see if I could get a thermistor reading (yes) and heat the barrel (yes).

As I tinker and modify my MakerBot it seems I’m moving towards a system where I try to make the extruder assembly as modular as possible.  I didn’t have this as a conscious thought when I started, but that’s where these modifications have been headed.  While it is very convenient to have a totally modular extruder only connected to the robot by four bolts and an ethernet cable, that system is most useful if you are using drastically different print heads (such as a frostruder, Paxtruder, Bowden extruder, etc).

If you’re just swapping between PLA, ABS, or other plastic filament or color variations thereof, you can reuse the vast majority of the extruder assembly – the board, the motor, and the entire acrylic plastruder.  If you had a different heater assembly you could just undo the two screws that attach the heater to the extruder, disconnect the thermistor, disconnect the nichrome, and swap in a new set.  Although I don’t have a fully assembled second heater section yet, this set up makes a lot of sense to me just for ease of maintenance and repair.

  1. While I sing Christmas carols with my friends Meryl and Cheryl. []

Well, there’s your problem

I’ve been fiddling with settings on my MakerBot for the last week or so trying to improve print quality.  Skeinforge setting this, Skeinforge setting that.  Up, down, left, right, set it to pi, increase the print temperature, decrease the raft radius, adjust the feedrate speed.  Unfortunately, all I managed to do was decrease print quality.  Over the last two days I noticed the filament was coming out fairly slowly and today I noticed I kept stripping the filament.

Well, it’s because ABS oozed down the barrel threads and around the nut.  Yay.  Time to break out the blow torch, eh?

In disassembling (mostly) the extruder I found:

  1. Plastic down the threads of the barrel
  2. Plastic that had oozed onto the nut below the barrier
  3. Plastic still stuck inside the barrel itself
  4. A plastic plug inside the PTFE barrier and a slight bulge to the barrier

Plastic on the threads is not a huge deal, but not trial either – it mostly peeled off in spirals.  Plastic on the nut is not a big deal – I pulled that off with some needle nose pliers.  Plastic inside the barrel can be drilled out using my drill bit and rubber band trick.1

Plastic inside the PTFE barrier…  well, now, that’s a different animal.  I’ve succeeded once in rescuing my PTFE barrier from PLA oozing down the threads, but in that case there wasn’t a plastic plug inside the PTFE.  The problem with a plastic plug inside the barrel is that I can’t really drill it out.  If I try to drill it out from the top, I’ll probably still leave a bit of plastic where the barrier meets the barrel.  If I try to drill from up from the bottom, I stand a good chance of ruining the part where the PTFE meets the barrel – creating a small gap where plastic can get stuck.

Thus, I think I will drill out the barrel and slap in a new PTFE barrier.  Since I have this old (ruined?) one lying around, I have sliced off about a 2mm wafer to use as a washer on my next heater assembly. Using a small hacksaw blade did the trick – even if it left me with a relatively uneven slice.

While I’ve been putting off buying additional parts for my MakerBot, I think it’s time to invest in some new bits.  I’m liking the MakerGear modular thermistor kit ($5), MakerGear modular heater core ($15), MakerBot heated build platform ($42), MakerBot SMT Soldering Toolkit ($50), and a hotplate.2

  1. Think of it as a poor man’s precision vise. []
  2. Cue George Plimpton: “And a hotplate!” []

Adventures with PLA temperatures

Kinda rhymes, no?

Given Rick Pollack’s PLA printing success and temperatures at barrel entry rather than nozzle, I should probably start delineating between temperatures at the barrel and nozzle.  If barrel entry temperature is truly a critical factor, then he’s totally right about how going by nozzle temperature is like driving a bus with just the rear view mirrors.

However, this gives me pause.  Everything I’ve read about ABS suggests it may be best to melt it right at the nozzle as quickly as possible.  I’ve found that ABS cools very rapidly too.  PLA on the other hand takes a while to cool (but, then again, I was running my extruder too hot) – with the parts being quite flexible for some time after printing.  If barrel entry temperature is that important, then it seems that PLA must need a longer time to melt.  If this is the case, should the nichrome be wrapped higher on the barrel?  If so, then Rick’s heater cores (which already seem very convenient) are downright brilliant – since you can probably easily adjust where the heat is being applied.

From Nophead’s comment I gather that I was, indeed, running my extruder too hot.  I found that at my ABS temperatures (220+) made the PLA just drip right out of the heater – and once that had basically stop it would then intermittently release little amber droplets of plastic.  I must have been really cooking it.

With the limited printing I managed with PLA I found that it printed well with my non-temperature ABS Skeinforge settings.  So, before I go back to PLA I think I’ll finish tuning my ‘bot using Nick Ames’ Skeinforge tutorial.

How are you printing with PLA?

I’d like to print in PLA, I really would.  No warping?  No rafts?  Smells like syrup?  Makes kittens and rainbows?  Sign me up!

Rick from MakerGear has the following suggestions for printing in PLA:

  • Have a 150-160 C degree temperature for the entry of the barrel
  • He notes that the nozzle temperature is roughly 190 C degrees
  • However, later he suggests printing at 220-235 was possible
  • He suggests not to worry overmuch about PLA in the threads – its just one of those things

Nick McCoy offered several pieces of wisdom:

  • He found that 10W-30 oil added lightly to the PLA as it entered the extruder, by adding oil to a piece of cotton wrapped around the filament, helped it print without jamming
  • He noticed that pausing the extruder for more than a few seconds would jam the barrel
  • He found he could print at 180-210 degrees (I assume he’s measuring the nozzle temperature as you would with an ABS setup)

Nick’s results suggesting a nozzle temperature of 180-210 seem to match up with Rick’s findings of 190 or so.  I think I’ll give Polly another shot and see if I can extrude at those temperatures.

How to unclog your extruder barrel and nozzle

Nozzle and barrel apart

Nozzle and barrel apart

Here’s the process I used to unclog my extruder barrel and nozzle without a lot of extra equipment.  Obviously you should take all reasonable safety precautions with goggles, gloves, tongs, with a fire extinguisher, etc.  Plan ahead and be safe.

1. Materials:

  • Clogged extruder
  • Yarn
  • Q-tips
  • Heavy iron hook
  • Wrench
  • A big rock
  • Ethernet cable
  • Wire strippers
  • Blow torch
  • Safety equipment
  • Drill bits
  • Thick rubber band
Cleaning the inside of the nozzle - kinda gross

Cleaning the inside of the nozzle - kinda gross

2. Process:

  1. Disassemble the extruder
    1. Since PLA had gotten into the threads I had to leave the extruder warm as I unscrewed the PTFE insulating barrier.
    2. Unwrap the heater – taking off the ceramic tape, thermistor, nichrome, and Kapton tape.
  2. Remove plastic from the extruder
    1. I wrapped the unsharp end of my smallest drill bit in a thick rubber band to give it a grip.
    2. I then rotated the drill bit into the barrel by hand.
    3. Extruder barrel and thick yarn

      Extruder barrel and thick yarn

    4. When I had gotten as much out as I could, I switched to a slightly larger drill bit (again wrapped in a rubber band for grip) and drilled out as much as I could.  I repeated this until I had gotten to my largest drill bit that would fit in the barrel.
    5. I used a precision flathead screwdriver to follow along the threads of the extruder barrel and chip out plastic.
    6. I used the same precision flathead screwdriver to follow the threads inside the PTFE and chip out plastic.
  3. Heat the barrel
    1. This prior post has pictures for the entire setup.
    2. I was unable to remove the nozzle from the barrel.  Don’t worry if you can’t either.
    3. Put the extruder nozzle and barrel inside the large washer so the barrel is hanging down through the washer with the nozzle keeping it in place.
    4. Place the washer on a big iron hook or some similar piece of large thick heavy metal.
    5. Weigh down one end of the hook with the rock.
    6. With all reasonable proper safety measures in place and with adult supervision, heat the barrel and nozzle with the blow torch until it emits black smoke (which you should NOT breathe) and then keep it hot until it stops emitting smoke.
    7. Flossing the nozzle with copper wire

      Flossing the nozzle with copper wire

    8. Use the wrench to pick up the assembly and check if you can see through the nozzle.
    9. If you can’t see through the nozzle, keep heating it.
    10. Once you can see through the nozzle, it’s time to clean the extruder again
  4. Clean the extruder
    1. Once the barrel and nozzle had been heated, I found the nozzle came off very easily.
    2. Clean out the large cavity of the nozzle with the Q tip.
    3. Clean out the barrel with the yarn by inserting the yarn and “flossing” it.
    4. I happened to have pieces of an ethernet cable lying around.  I cut open one of the wires inside and pulled out the thin copper strands.  I took two of them and fed them through the 0.5mm nozzle.  I “flossed” the nozzle until it felt reasonably clean.
  5. Reassemble!

Playing with fire

Well, not really playing.  But, I suppose not really “working” either.  Here’s how my experiments in unclogging a clogged extruder barrel went:

You can see where there is some minor plastic residue left over from the PLA in PTFE insulator which oozed into the threads.  I had used a precision screw driver to follow along the threads and chip out plastic.

PTFE insulator, mostly clean

PTFE insulator, mostly clean

Here’s the clogged barrel.  I had chipped out plastic from the threads using the same precision screwdriver.  You can see some of the scar marks from my brilliant idea to use a wrench on the smooth part of the barrel at one point.  (FYI, that was sarcasm – don’t use a wrench on the barrel.  It was, in fact, a bad idea).  I was totally unable to remove the nozzle from the barrel.

Extruder barrel, clogged

Extruder barrel, clogged

This was my idea for the setup so that the flame/heat would not discolor everything.  You can see where the nozzle has gotten a thin layer of black ABS fused to it.  Again, you can also see the marks on the nozzle where I tried to use a wrench.  And, again, not a good idea.  All I managed to do was just scar it up.

Extruder barrel with nut partway on

Extruder barrel with nut partway on

This is similar to the setup I settled on for trying to unclog the barrel.  I’m going to cut the suspense and let you know – this doesn’t work and you shouldn’t try it.  This setup did not work for two very important reasons you can learn from.  First, it was too low to the ground and the blow torch kept going out when I tilted it to get to the heater barrel.  Second, it relied on kitchen tiles – which is a terrible terrible idea.

Kitchen tiles - good intentions, bad idea

Kitchen tiles - good intentions, bad idea

Here’s the next part of the setup:  blow torch, flint, wrench for picking up hot things, and fire extinguisher.  Off camera right is a garden hose.  Again, this setup relies on kitchen tiles – which will actually shatter when this kind of heat is applied.  So don’t do it.  Oh, and it turned out I did have a blow torch – but it was empty.  :)

Setup - empty propane tank, bad kitchen tiles

Setup - empty propane tank, bad kitchen tiles

This is a better setup – with a brand new propane tank – but still a terrible idea with kitchen tiles.

Setup - FULL propane tank, bad kitchen tiles

Setup - FULL propane tank, bad kitchen tiles

This was a good setup.  Friend nearby with a garden hose and fire extinguisher, no nut on the barrel so it sits in the washer and is easier for me to heat the entire barrel, suspended in air by a metal hook, held down by a big rock, high enough that I didn’t have to tilt the blow torch.  Here you can see the scorched and shattered kitchen tile in the pile on the right.

GOOD setup with extruder barrel suspended in air by metal

GOOD setup with extruder barrel suspended in air by metal

Since I was in charge of the blow torch and my friend had the fire safety equipment I really only pictures of stuff as it was in a relatively cool state.  This means I did not get a picture of the barrel as I was heating it – I had gotten it glowing red hot which was pretty nifty.  I also missed out on getting a picture of flame spewing from the nozzle as the ABS inside ignited.  It was like a mini flame thrower tossing out a thick black smoke.

I was expecting some of the ABS to leak out of the bottom – but the barrel was essentially clean.  I could see all the way through the nozzle with no problem.

Things I learned while trying to unclog my extruder barrel

I learned a lot this morning!  And now you don’t have to learn, as they say, the hard way.

  1. Never ever ever use tiles. I thought I was being very clever with the tile idea.  Apparently leftover kitchen tiles can shatter and fly apart when you heat them.  Who knew?
  2. Instead, use a big piece of metal to hold the barrel. I ended up using a piece of metal I had laying around to hold the extruder barrel and weight it down with a rock.  This worked perfectly.
  3. Don’t tilt your blow torch too much. Probably an elementary thing for most people.  My torch kept going out when I tilted it too far – probably a safety feature.  This meant I had to change the set up so that the barrel was somewhat elevated so I could keep the torch mostly vertical.
  4. Keep a friend handy. This was one of my few ideas/preconceptions that actually worked out.  Thankfully I didn’t need him to use the fire extinguisher or garden hose, but I very well could have.
  5. Don’t leave a nut on the extruder barrel. At the last minute I decided to screw a nut part way on the barrel.  I figured I could prop the extruder barrel up in the washer, heat it, and not discolor the nut or washer.  This didn’t work out because I needed to apply more heat to the barrel to get the clog out.

What is burned PLA?

It didn’t actually look burned.  Is “burned PLA” the amber stuff I found dripping from my extruder barrel after I left plastic sitting warm too long?

Is this a symptom of sitting warm too long or too much heat, both, neither, something else?

An idea for checking the temperature of an extruder at the barrel entry

Several people have suggested that the temperature at the entry of the barrel is very important to printing with PLA.  This makes sense.  If the temperature at the barrel entry is above the melting point for PLA, it can melt right there and ooze down around the threads.

Maybe I should assembly my extruder with just the thermistor on the barrel entry, and heat it until it is just below the melting point of PLA – then check the temperature at the nozzle.

Or, I could get a second thermistor and use it at the top of the barrel while keeping the original thermistor at the nozzle.  I could only use one set at a time (since I don’t know how to hack the electronics/extruder board), but that shouldn’t be an issue.