My 3D Printer: Monoprice Maker Select V2

It all started with the blogs. Back when 3D printing first arrived in my awareness, it arrived through blogs. Soon I had found and subscribed to several; I especially recall pouring through back posts on Nophead’s blog and Ed Nisley’s blog (still a daily read). I loved the idea of a RepRap, a printer designed to print copies of itself. For a long time, I couldn’t justify the expense or the time investment. But I watched, and daydreamed. About a year ago, I visited a Microcenter about an hour from home, and watched a 3d Printer (a very nice, pricey Lulzbot Taz 6 I think) printing, in person, for the first time. It was mesmerizing, and I started to think seriously about getting one.

I’d seen some good writeups on the Monoprice Maker Select, a rebranded Wanhao Duplicator i3, as a solid, entry level printer, for someone who doesn’t mind having to (or who wants to) spend some time tweaking, experimenting, and printing upgrades. On June 14 last year, it was $384.99 on Amazon. Checking CamelCamelCamel, I saw that the price had fluctuated some, and had recently been under $350, so I set a price watch and prepared to wait. The very next day, I got an alert that the price had dropped to $288.63, and I jumped on it, cashing in a bunch of gift cards I’d been sitting on for the purpose (which covered about half). Glad I did, too, as the price shot up again the next day. Don’t know if it was a glitch or a test, but Amazon sent me the printer, and so it began.

The Maker Select, like the i3 it is based on, is a popular printer for upgrading, and there are plenty of resources. One of the biggest is the i3 page at 3printerwiki.info, and I studied it while planning my purchase. When I ordered the printer, I ordered a whole new build surface with it: a PEI build surface and 3M 468MP adhesive to mount it with (following these instructions from reprap.org), a sheet of Borosilicate glass to mount it on, and silicone heat transfer pads with which to affix it to the heated build plate (following these instruction from 3dprinterwiki.info, though I ended up using 2 pads cut to completely fill the space between with build plate and the glass). While many folks swear by painter’s tape or Aquanet hairspray to ensure proper adhesion of the print to the print surface, PEI is much better solution. Its unique properties make it hold on to a print when hot, and release it when cool – perfect for a heated build plate. Just give it a wipe with isopropyl alcohol to clean it before each print (I like the 91% stuff), and it just works.

Following lots of good advice on the internet (no, really!), my first print was a set of leveling thumbwheels to replace the stock wingnuts. They are still on my printer. Looking for something else easy and useful to print, I added an allen wrench holder to keep track of the set of little wrenches that come with the printer. I spent some time messing with various leveling feet, but never got anything I really liked, and dropped it. Eventually, I printed an added the mother of all Wi3/MMS mods, the Z Brace mod, which added a ton of rigidity to the whole setup, and greatly reduced the amount of bed leveling needed between prints. Everyone who was put this mod on their printer will tell you to do the same, and they are all correct.

A couple of months ago, I started noticing an issue. The glass plate started to lift off the build plate in one corner – a sure sign that the heated build plate was flexing. Of course this is a risk with the standard four-corner leveling method used on so many printers. A plane is defined by 3 points, so if you constrain 4 points you may have distortion. I ended up adding binder clips for a while to hold the glass to the build plate, but they were unsightly and could interfere with the print head on large prints. I could see the Y-axis carriage was flexing, so I looked for a replacement. The one I found on Amazon for the WanhaoI3/MMS was sold out, so I contacted the manufacturer; turns out they had pulled it while they redesigned the hole spacing to better fit the I3. The new version is now available, and I installed it a week ago. So far I’m very happy with it, and the binder clips are gone. My bed leveling has become even more stable. While I was upgrading the Y-axis carriage, I took the opportunity to install the Micro Swiss MK10 all-metal hotend so that I can try printing some PETG or Ninjaflex in the future – materials that need higher printing temps that could damage the stock hot end. It reduces the nozzle size from the stock 0.5mm to 0.4mm, which may allow slightly more detailed prints, but the jury is still out on that.

So that’s where it stands today, as shown below. Sitting on the build plate is a dice rolling tray made using printable terrain. There’s 9 tiles there, held together using printable clips, and it’s one of the larger things I’ve printed to date.

But I’m not done. Next up is the Diiicooler mod for better bridging performance; I just got the new fan from Amazon, so it’s time to print the shroud and install the upgrade. After that? I’m going to try to come up with an enclosure for better thermal management, so I can get into printing with ABS. This enclosure made from an $8 IKEA end table is pretty slick.

Functional Print – VW Passat iPhone Holder

I recently decided to replace my old Ford Ranger, which was getting long in the tooth. Working from home, I only drive about an hour a week, so a new vehicle was out. I dislike large trucks, and used small trucks with decent milage are hard to find lately (owing to a lack of new small truck models being offered in the U.S. in recent years). So, I decided to look at cars, and wanting some degree of cargo capacity, I started looking at wagons. I eventually found a 2009 VW Passat Wagon, which is a great little car. However, it’s too old to feature Car Play, and there’s no great place to put a phone holder for using Waze or another turn-by-turn nav app.

It does, however, have a pair of odd little slide-out drawers in the dash, just under the vents, on either side of the hazard lights switch. Here they are closed:

And with one open:

You can rest an iPhone 6 in there, but it is not secure. In the best case it will slide forward, angling the screen up towards the roof, and in the worst case it will become a missile, in the case of a sudden swerve or stop.

After taking a few measurements of the drawer and my phone (in its usual case), I fired up Fusion 360 and took a stab a modeling an iPhone holder to fit in that drawer. The first iteration fit the drawer and the phone, but did nothing to secure the phone:

My second iteration added some small arms to keep the phone in place and removed some of the material in the base behind the phone support, to reduce printing time and cost. It turned out much better:

It’s now a usable phone holder, although I’m planning another iteration with several improvements:

  1. Widen the base just slightly for a friction fit in the drawer. The drawer is lined with some sort of felt, so it should be possible to get a snug fit that isn’t likely to let go in case of a quick stop.

  2. Loosen the arms a fraction. The current model grabs a bit when sliding the phone out.

  3. I’m going to order a right angle Lightning cable and right-angle 1/8″ stereo cable, and try to modify the base to allow them to be semi-permanently installed into the base. The goal is to drop the phone in and have both power and audio connection to the car. The cables will have to hang down over the console for now, but I’m not ruling out routing them behind the dash in future.

I’ll post the new version when it happens, once I track down the cables I want.

Learning through Failure: KiCad Edition

So this isn’t the post I thought I’d be writing tonight. Flushed with success after neatly soldering 66 resistors to a my new PCB last night with the help of my resistor bending guide, I thought I’d be showing some shots of my new LED display board in action. After all, this isn’t the first PCB I’ve designed and had made. It is the second – but the first (subject of an upcoming post) was perfect first time out. So I’m an old pro, right?

Oh well. This is how we learn. After getting all of the connectors and the first 14-segment display soldered on, I thought I’d give it a quick sanity test. And immediately I found several problems. There was a dead pin, multiple segments lighting when only one pin was powered (x2), and in one case, a green segment appearing yellow – a pretty good sign that the segment was getting power that was bypassing the current-limiting resistor. I hopefully scanned my soldering work with a magnifier, looking for solder bridges and bad solder joints. Sadly, my soldering looked great, which meant that the issue was probably the board.

Only, this wasn’t the first problem I’d found with the board. First I noticed that the mounting holes (or “Non-plated through holes”) were too small for the fasteners I’d planned to use. Next, while mounting the LED displays for soldering, I’d discovered that the holes for the 14-segment displays were a little too close together – about 1/20 of an inch. KiCad, amazing, open-source, frustrating KiCad, didn’t have a footprint for the Kingbright display I’m using, so I built my own. I chose not to align one of the pins on the origin, as I needed to model the center-line of the display to ensure the board was aligned with the 7-segment displays correctly, as the 14-segment displays are larger than the 7-segment displays. I modeled the part using the measurements in the datasheet, but this meant that the pins were at an unusual offset from the origin. Apparently I had the spacing grid too large, and so when I checked the distance between pads using the hover/press-space-to-reset-the measuring-tool/hover-over-point-two method, it reported 0.300″ because it was snapping to my grid sizing, even though the pads were not aligned with the visible grid and the actual distance was around 0.256″. When this occurred, I decided to take a page from the “cut it large and kick it into place” school of engineering, and bent the pins a bit and pushed. It worked well enough to proceed, and I made a mental note to fix the footprint in Rev 2.

Which brings us back to the probable trace routing issue I’d found earlier. After (visually) eliminating bad solder joints, I had to suspect my board. Since OSH Park sells boards in sets of 3 copies, I had an unpopulated board at hand. With the multimeter set to continuity (a.k.a “annoying beep”) mode and the board layout on the computer for reference, I started probing, and immediately discovered problems. Like the following.

Note the highlighted traces in each. Don’t look like the belong, do they? That’s because they don’t. Sure I should have caught them, and one of them looks familiar; I thought I’d found and removed it. But I probably got overzealous with the undo button at some point. Also, with a long board (7.5″ x 0.95″) in KiCad, there’s a lot of zooming in and out, and it can be easy to miss small details. However, overlooking small mistakes wasn’t my big mistake, it was forgetting to run DRC – the Design Rule Checker. For all of it’s flaws, KiCad has a built in tool that looks for these kinds of issues. When I ran it today, it found both of the above errors, plus others. In the end, I’ve been unable to fix all of the issues with a hobby knife and hookup wire, so looks like I’ll be designing and ordering Rev 2.

So the big takeaways:

  1. After you’ve finished designing your board in PCBNew (KiCad’s PCB layout tool), run DRC (Tools->DRC->Start DRC), and fix anything you find. Ok, ready to send it to fab? No you aren’t, go run DRC again. Be sure you get a completely clean bill of health before proceeding.
  2. When designing your own footprints, double-and-triple-check your dimensions. These are physical dimensions determining where through-holes or solder pads will be located, so “Measure twice, Cut once” applies. Change the grid spacing to something really small. Use a small mils spacing if your part has pin spacing in fractional inches, as most through-hole parts do. Use a small fractional-mm spacing if your pins are laid out in metric dimensions. Now check them again. You can print out your PCB layout and inspect it that way, even laying parts on it, though this isn’t foolproof- I did just that and still missed the 0.05″ error in my pin spacing.
  3. Mistakes happen. When you fail, spend some time figuring out why. Talk about it with some one (or write about it) and figure out how you can avoid those and similar mistakes in the futures. Then go give it another whirl.

Functional Print – Resistor Bending Guide

Over the past 6 months or so, I’ve started to use Reddit on regular basis. One of my favorite recent finds is the r/functionalprint subreddit, which features practical items made with a 3D printer. Contrast this with r/3dprinting, which features lots of calibration prints, printer upgrades (many themselves 3D printed), hardware and software reviews, folks asking for help, etc. r/3dprinting is a great subreddit with lots of helpful folks, but it’s mostly about the practice of printing, and not about what we print. r/functionalprint, on the other hand, is about useful things made with a 3d printer. It reminds me that having a 3d printer isn’t just about having a 3d printer, it’s about all the things such a device enables.

I’ve had my printer now for nearly a year. It has gotten a fair amount of use, but it has also set unused for months at a time. Often, it has printed its own upgrades parts, or calibration cubes, or other objects focused on making the printer better. But once the printer is all dialed in, then what? Aside from a stretch of playing with 3D printed terrain for tabletop gaming (more on that in the future), I’ve really on focused on the practice of printing, and not the rest.

So here’s something that I designed (Fusion 360) and printed on my Monoprice Maker Select V2 last night:

It’s a Resistor Bending Guide. A what? Well, I’ve recently designed a through-hole Display board PCB for another project (more on that in the future) which I had made at OSH Park. It contains several 14- and 7-segment LED displays, so it needs a number of current-limiting resistors. The ones I spec’ed are quite small, and trying to bend the legs at just the right places to get them to sit nicely on the board was quite a chore, so I designed this as a template for bending them to size. The first one was twice as tall, but the other dimensions weren’t quite right, so I made it shorter for faster prints while iterating; once I had the rest of the dimensions correct, I found that the shorter guide was perfect for pre-trimming the leads to a shorter length before inserting into the PCB. Here are some action shots to show you what I’m talking about.

Tiny little resistors.

The divot in the top of the widget is just the right size to hold the resistor body.

Just fold the legs over to get the correct spacing for the holes on the PCB. The bottom of the tool is a perfect place to trim the leads.

Here’s one that’s been bent and trimmed, and is all ready for the PCB.

And here it is, at home on the PCB. With 66 per board times 2 boards, plus a different display board that will need a similar number, this little tool will save more time than the ~hour it took me to design, print, and iterate it. Quite functional, that.

Finally, here’s a closeup of the design in Fusion 360. The detail is a bit finer than my printer can reliably reproduce, hence some iterating, but it gets the job done.

And now for something completely different

So, it’s been nearly 5 years since I’ve posted here. And even that 2012 post was an outlier. You’ve got to go back about 9 years to find more than 3 posts in a calendar year. But you know what? I hate navel-gazing, why I do-or-don’t blog posts. Things got busy, life moved on, and I had neither the time nor the inclination to write a blog. But i kept it around, checked the oil level and tire pressure from time to time, and figured it’d always be here if I wanted it. And look, here it is. Cool.

Over the past year or so, I’ve found a little more free time, and I’ve had some other interests kindled/rekindled. I’ve been slowly pursuing an interest in electronics, one that started when I was a kid. I purchased a 3D printer and started learning a bit about 3D modeling. I’ve gotten very interested in metalworking, though I’ve had not time or space to pursue that just yet. And I’ve tried to take on some projects just for the sake of having something fun to pursue, while maybe learning something in the bargain. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing about these projects. And so here we are.

For a while, I was convinced that I wanted a new blog for my electronics/3d-printing/maker-tinker-whatever projects, especially given how old and dated the rest of the content is around here. Maybe a new path under the main jclark.org domain. But I soon realized that I was making excuses not to write, instead of writing. So tonight, while waiting on several iterations of a little 3D-printed tool that I designed to print (more later), I figured out how to log in here again, made sure all the latest software updates are installed, and even moved the whole site to SSL (Free cert from Let’s Encrypt, and dead simple setup via Dreamhost). The design may be a bit dated – this just isn’t how websites look in 2017 – but I built this theme, and I like it, so it stays. At least for now. And I may yet add jclark.org/make or suchlike as an alternate in to some of this content, but maybe I won’t. The point for now is that I’m writing again. So that’s it for the housekeeping, next post is content. I’ve got a few things in progress, and a list of more projects to work on in the future.

P.S. If you are a long-ago reader who just never unsubscribed in your RSS reader (I said “Long ago”!), and you were surprised to hear a voice from the past, thanks for keeping me around/forgetting to unsubscribe. Hope you’ll find whatever I put here worth staying subscribed for a while longer. I still consume a lot of my daily info via RSS (via Feedbin on the big screen and Reeder on iOS) and it’s always a nice surprise to see a long-silent feed come to life. Hope you agree.