Sunday, 30 September 2007

Dribble and smoke

Not a very good day today. I started by trying to lay down a 50mm straight line of HDPE. I completely failed and ended up smoking my machine!

The first problem I decided to tackle was extruding just the right amount of filament. This should be easy because I can instruct my extruder controller to turn the pump an exact amount. Using the equations I described last time, I know what feed rate is required to give a particular diameter filament and what its exit speed will be. The problem is that when the extruder stops, the filament continues to extrude slowly for a while afterwards. This is because the molten plastic, being non Newtonian, is compressible.

To start with I was getting about 12mm of overrun. I have noticed that the flexible drive made from steel wire gets wound up and stores some energy. With no power applied to the motor it actually unwinds a bit driving the motor backwards. By default my software was preventing that because it monitors the shaft position and applies increasing power as the shaft moves backwards until equilibrium is reached.

The host can instruct the controller to turn off the motor completely and let the wire unwind. That reduces the overrun to about 4mm. The shaft encoder sees the motor go backwards so, when it's told to move again, it regains all the backlash as fast as it can before settling down to the desired speed. Therefore, there is no loss cumulative loss of accuracy in letting the wire unwind and wind up again.

I expect the amount of filament overrun could be reduced further, or even eliminated completely by running the pump backwards a bit at the end. Unfortunately I can't do that because this is what happens to the steel wire when it is turned the wrong way:-

Because of this I designed my electronics to only be able to go forwards. Apparently this effect is not observed on the RepRap at Bath university. They are using 3mm wire, whereas mine is only 2.5mm, so that might account for it. I may see if I can get better wire that won't unwind. If so I will have to upgrade my drive to an H-bridge to allow the motor to be reversed. There isn't any spare room on my Vero board so I will either have to make a new one or make some sort of 3D creation.

In the meantime I decided to bodge round the problem. As well as the 4mm overrun when the motor stops, it also extrudes about 15mm when the heater is allowed to cool down and is then warmed up again. This is usually accompanied by a sharp cracking sound which sounds like trapped air bursting through the HDPE. I am not sure of the exact mechanism, but air must get in when the plastic is cold and contracted and then get trapped while it is heating up again, forcing some molten plastic out. Perhaps I have discovered a new type of pump with no moving parts!

So, before I can start extruding I need to remove the excess filament hanging from the nozzle. I did this by attaching a scalpel blade to one corner of my XY-table and having the machine visit it to wipe its nose just before starting to extrude. It is just a lash up at the moment, it would be better if it was 20mm above the table and a razor blade might be better, but it seems to work OK.

Of course, once the overrun has occurred and been removed, there is a net deficit of material which manifests itself as a delay before extrusion starts when the motor is switched on again. That has to be made up by starting the extruder in advance of moving the table for the first line segment.

So the next step was to lay down the filament on the table in a straight line. The first problem was that I discovered a bug in my software that meant the table only moved at half the specified rate. So any previous references to milling feed rates in this blog need to be halved!

The bug was easily fixed of course but I could not get the filament to stick to my table. When it hits the table it curls upwards into a loop and sticks to the side of the hot nozzle. The table surface I used for milling is made of upside down laminate flooring. It is covered with a textured layer of what I assume is probably some sort of vinyl. No great surprise it didn't stick, the next thing I tried was paper, a post-it note to be precise. That did not work either so the next thing to try was MDF. I taped an 18mm block to the the table for a quick test and raised the z position by 18mm, but I forgot to program it to raise up to clear it after visiting the knife. The result was the nozzle collided with the block and that pushed the thermistor wires so they touched the heater wires.

The result was quite spectacular, the thermistor wires, being quite thin, lit up like a light bulb before burning out. The thermistor is toast and so is the micro. Three volt micros don't like 12V up 'em!

I should have insulated the wires but I didn't have any insulation handy that would stand the temperature. Also three 3A diodes in series across the thermistor would have saved the day but it's a bit late now.

Fortunately I have a couple more micros and a spare thermistor but the machine will be out of action for 24 hours while the JB-Weld cures.

It is very easy to get a tool crash with a 3D machine and it usually causes a lot of damage. When I was using it as a milling machine I got into the habit of getting it to mime what it was going to do by running the program with a Z offset higher than the workpiece. I should have done the same thing this time.


  1. Courage. You're learning all the hard lessons. Thanks for writing them down. I'd wondered if Adrian's using that steel cable was a good idea, but I'd never have guessed that it would have the effect it is having on your flow rate.

    Just out of curiousity, why are you wrapping your nichrome so far back up the extruder barrel? I've started mine about a half mm from the end. Mind, I have a lip on mine that keeps it from slipping off.

  2. BTW, I'm extruding HDPE successfully onto the standard foamboard that you can buy to mount photos and posters on in an art supply shop. It's not an ideal surface, but the HDPE does stick on it.

    You might also want to move your extruder head a bit down so that it smears the first layer on the base material a bit. I've found that that helps.

  3. Yes I originally thought the steel wire was a neat trick until I started making and using it! I was planning to go back to the straight design at some point but now I have seen Vic's results with PLA I may have to solve the offset a different way.

    I think I put the heater that far up to leave room for the thermistor. The first one I used was a 4 or 5mm diameter flat disc that Englewood game me. Also the turns are quite spread out because I used bare nichrome. I don't imagine it makes a lot of difference with this design.

    My understanding of foamboard is that it is foam laminated with card? I didn't imagine the foam did anything for you so I was planning to try various types of card, wood and perhaps some emery paper. It would be good to find something that works well and is reusable. I see Vic is using plywood.

    I did try smearing, I just got a flat strip which curled up in the same way.

  4. The foam seems to do one important thing. It enables the card, paper really, to heat up promptly and avoid conducting the heat away from the molten HDPE too quickly.

  5. Ah, I see conduction may be important as well, thanks I will add it to my list of things to try.