How to build your own 3D printer with low costs

By: Andreas Lampis

Introduction

3D printing is not just the latest hype in technology that is here temporarily, it is one of the technologies that has created many new opportunities and with it a whole new industry that is here to stay.

The process involves laying down many thin layers of a material, typically thermoplastics, in order to produce a 3-dimensional object. Most of the big companies use it for prototyping, or even creating the moulds needed for production parts reducing their costs and getting to the market with a finished product faster.

Furthermore, 3D printing has now become a hobby, and is the most common gadget choice for technology enthusiasts and makers of all kinds. It allows bringing your own designs into real-life objects in just a few hours from designing to printing and is used in printing anything from toys and mechanical parts to prosthetics.

3D prints of an owl using different colours of PLA plastic

DIY 3D printers

Why is it not in every home then? There are two main reasons for that. First, people are still afraid of getting involved with 3D printing due to its complexity. Second, they believe it is very expensive. We believe that after reading this article, both of these arguments will not seem as such a big deal anymore.

Almost two years ago, Michalis Strouthos, a technology enthusiast decided to build his own 3D printer, or as he prefers “build as much of it without compromising quality but still gaining the right amount of knowledge”. In the paragraphs that follow, Michalis gives us a detailed description of the process he followed in order to build his own printer and also gives some tips from his experience.

Building the printer

The process of building a 3D printer is simple but needs a good plan before starting as well as your full attention while building. Firstly, you need to decide what parts you will need, look into prices and decide the volume of the printer (bigger is more expensive to build and run). After having a list of the parts, you need to decide what you need to complete the first step of the process, building the frame. As this was my first 3D printer, I decided to build a simple one, essentially copying the open source Prusa i3 design. My frame was built out of wood as it was a material I could easily work with.

The (wooden) frame of the printer

As this was an open source printer, it was easy enough to buy all of the plastic parts needed for the axis of the printer. I had initially designed my own but the cost of getting them printed at the time (yes, it was a lot more expensive) was not worth it. During this process, all of the measurements for mounting the hardware need to be made carefully to ensure the printer is moving in a straight line on the axes. After building the frame it’s time to mount the stepper motors in place, which will drive the movement of the printer’s axes.

Motors, axis carriages and heated bed attached

The board used for this build is a RAMPS 1.4 which uses the Marlin firmware. The board is responsible for reading the files from the SD card and giving the instructions to the motors and controlling the temperature. There is plenty of documentation online and forums that people discuss setups and modifications for improvements. For the advanced user there are also many other boards with more advanced features.

The power supply, the RAMPS board and the LCD that power and control the printer

Once the electronics are mounted it is time to assemble and mount one final piece, the extruder and hot end. The extruder is the mechanism that pushes or pulls the filament (plastic) into the hot end, which in turn melts it to be able to print with it. The extruder used in this build is the wade extruder which is 3D printed. The hot end used is the E3D v6.

The hot end melting the material, extruding it from a very small brass nozzle (0.4mm)

After assembling the printer, you should be able to test it by trying a small print and measuring the dimensions of the printed object and comparing them to the digital design dimensions. This will allow you to calibrate your printer until the printed objects are in perfect synchronisation with your designs. If you are not comfortable with designing using CAD software there are many object libraries that offer free designs of 3D objects, like thingiverse and pinshape.

You can also preview the time-lapse of the whole process of the printer build here.

The complete 3D printer assembly, the material used to print located on the right of the printer

Summing-up

3D printing is certainly one of the technologies that is here to stay for a while, as it opens up new possibilities for everyone, and this would be a great time to get involved with it since the cost of owning a 3D printer has decreased significantly (yes, your smartphone costs more than a 3D printer does). If Michalis has managed to convince you to get involved with 3D printing or you are already involved and need some help either with printing, choosing the parts for your printer or choosing which printer you should buy, Michalis has kindly provided us with his email which you can find at the end of the article.


We would like to thank Michalis Strouthos for sharing all this interesting information with us and would like to wish him all the best in the future.

Biography

Michalis Stouthos is a final year student of Computer Science at the University of Bath. Starting next year, he is going to be a Master student at the University of Southampton in Web Technology. You can reach him at: strouthos.m@gmail.com.

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