Friday 20 March 2009

Pulling power

There are a lot of extruder drive methods kicking about at the moment, so I decided to evaluate a few by measuring the amount of force they can apply to the plastic before it slips. Rather than build complete extruders, I just made mock ups of the final drive and measured the force they could apply to a spring balance.

My first test was using a splined shaft as a minimalist pinch wheel. This was inspired by Adrian Bowyer's knurled design. I wanted to try it because you can get steppers with splined shafts, so it would be a ready made solution rather than needing a knurling tool and a lathe. I used a 4mm splined shaft that I had lying around. Being that small means the torque required to turn it is quite modest.

I mounted it between ball bearings, which were a press fit into a plastic housing: -

The Meccano gear is just acting as a knob at the moment. I pressed the filament onto it using a skate bearing acting as a roller.

This is my sophisticated test set-up: -

I wind the knob by hand until the filament slips and observe the maximum force for each type of plastic. I noted that tightening the screws past the point where the splines are fully sunk into the filament does not increase grip, it just flattens the plastic more and needs more torque.

The results were: -


Not surprisingly the grip gets better with the harder plastics. Unfortunately PCL and HDPE need quite a lot of force to extrude, so this drive method is not really good enough for them. A larger diameter shaft should give more grip due to a larger contact area and possibly deeper splines.

The next method I tried was Zach's pinch wheel drive using a square tooth timing pulley.

This needs much higher torque, but gives a much better grip, particularly with the softer plastics. As you might expect the torque is very uneven as the pulley moves from tooth to gap to tooth.

With HDPE, it pulled out of the chuck before slipping, so I switched to an alternative connection to the spring balance.

The results were: -


PLA slipped from the chuck and snapped when using the alternative coupling, so the true figure is probably higher, but it far exceeds the force needed to extrude PLA anyway.

HDPE has shot up the ranking because although it is quite soft and very slippery, if you can get a grip on it, then it is very tough.

Only PCL is marginal compared to the force needed to extrude it.

Zach uses a bigger opposing wheel, so maybe that would give a bit more contact area.

The next thing I tried was the original screw feed design, to get a benchmark, as that is what I have been using so far. It can feed all four plastics reliably, the only problems I have had with it are that the bearings wear out after 100's of hours of use, easy to fix by using ball bearings.

The implementation I used for the test has phosphor bronze bearings and a stainless steel screw. Rather than use threaded rod and try to fasten a nut on the end, I used a hex head bolt. Long ones don't come with enough thread, but you have to run a die over it anyway to sharpen the thread.

It is very hard work tapping stainless steel. For my first attempt I made the mistake of turning the top bearing land before tapping, so that I didn't mar the thread in the lathe chuck. Even though I made the land 3.5mm diameter rather than 3mm, the torque required to tap it actually twisted the shaft where it was turned down. My nice polished bearing surface became a dull and wrinkly spiral!

The other half of the drive is made from HDPE. I think this is a big factor in making it work well as the HDPE is very slippery and doesn't seem to wear much.

A self tapping screw secures the PTFE insulator in the clamp.

The other crucial modification is to angle the screw so it bites gradually at the bottom by spacing the top with two M3 washers and only having two very strong springs at the bottom. Here it is under test: -

The grip was too high for my chuck, and the coupling shown above kept snapping PLA, so I made a brass coupling.

This has a 5mm bore that narrows to a 3mm hole in the bottom. I melt the end of the filament to a blob and feed it through the top.

The results were: -


My spring balance has a maximum reading of 12Kg.

So the screw drive has dramatically more pulling power. It is however, very mechanically inefficient. A lot of torque is wasted by the friction cutting the thread. This can be reduced by shortening the amount of thread engaged. I plan to try it with an opposing roller instead of the HDPE filament guide.

The threaded drive does do more damage to the filament, but the only downside of that seems to be that some dust is produced. The lower filament has been chewed by the timing pulley.

Two other drive methods I plan to try are a knurled shaft and Andy Kirby's worm wheel. That looks like it might have similar grip to a thread, but without as much friction. A lot harder to make though.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Constipated Extruder

My "New Year" extruder, which is the one on HydraRaptor that I use to build things, stopped working while building the first layer of an object. That is the lowest temperature layer, so the plastic is at its most viscous.

I couldn't get it to work again, so I removed the drive and tried pushing the filament by hand. I couldn't shift it. I measured the temperature of the molten plastic with a thermocouple and it was correct, so I deduced that the nozzle must be blocked. I removed the nozzle and when I pushed the filament this came out: -

It is dark and glassy looking. No idea what caused it, but it seemed to have blocked the nozzle. I cleared it out with a drill and reassembled it. I took the opportunity to measure its performance with my "lead kebab" test jig.

Even though this extruder has a 0.3mm nozzle and no taper in the PEEK insulator, it works better than the tapered PEEK extruder with a 0.5mm nozzle.

The most notable difference is that this one has a much bigger heater chamber, so perhaps a smaller heater bore melts the plastic quicker.

I got this interesting graph of flow against force, averaging over five runs of 20mm : -

I think the steep part of the curve is where the flow through the nozzle dominates the force required and the first part is where the plug friction dominates. The point where I operate it is right on the knee of the curve. I suspect adding a taper would straighten it out, but I don't want to strip down my only working extruder to prove that.

So I don't know what caused the blockage, but it is the second time I have had an extruder block, so it goes to show that a detachable nozzle is advisable.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Taper relief

As tapering the stainless steel insulator made so much difference I went back to my PEEK extruder to try the same thing.

I used the tapered reamer to open it up to 5mm at the bottom end.

I had to remove and replace this with the heater hot. You can see where ABS has run up the thread and then burnt when it met the air. This seems to seal the thread as long as the initial leak is slow enough. I don't think HDPE would seal in the same way, so I run ABS first when I assemble an extruder.

The taper made a big difference. HDPE pushed with 4.6Kg went from 1.1 mm3 to 5.3 mm3 and the times got more consistent. I think it is beneficial in four ways: -
  • It removes the friction of sliding the plug along the wall.
  • It increases the bore where the very viscous, just-melted plastic is, reducing the viscous drag by a fourth power.
  • It thins the hot end of the insulator making the thermal gradient steeper.
  • The wall being thinner and having a bigger surface area will allow more heat flow into the melting plastic.
Foolishly I didn't measure any ABS flow rates before I made this mod. ABS extrudes at 4.5 mm3 when pushed with 4.6Kg and only 1.3 mm3 when pushed with 2.3 Kg. This is odd in that the differential between ABS and HDPE is less with this variant.

The performance with HDPE is a bit better than the stainless steel extruder when it was fitted with the same nozzle, but the ABS performance is considerably worse. I can't explain why that would be.

A third variant would be to use a longer PEEK tube with a taper to dispense with the heatsink and hopefully be strong enough without the washer and bolts. I think I will have a look at drive mechanisms for some light relief before coming back to that.

It looks like about 5 Kg force should cover the plastics I have tried so far. I don't think anybody has tried pinch wheel with the slippery plastics (HDPE and PCL) so I will have a go at that.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Simply better

I find it very satisfying when making something simpler also makes it better. I tested the simplified heater / nozzle design using the same stainless steel insulator and heatsink arrangement, so I could get a direct comparison of the results.

The heater warms up a lot faster than the one made with two AL clad resistors. It also extrudes faster and the times are more consistent. ABS pushed with 2.32Kg went from 3.7 mm3 to 4.6 mm3, an increase of 24%. HDPE pushed with 4.6Kg went from 3.8 mm3 to 9.3 mm3!

The nozzle is 0.6mm rather than 0.5mm, which reduces its contribution to the pressure by a factor of 2, but all my other tests have shown that what happens at the other end of the heater dominates the force requirement. As I improve things though, the nozzle hole becomes more significant.

Here are the drawings :-

Although it looks complex it isn't difficult to make with a drill press, drill vice, and some taps and dies.

I glued the thermistor in with Cerastil, but I expect it could just be wrapped in tin foil and jammed in like the ceramic resistor, taking care to insulate the wires of course. I use PTFE sleeving.

I didn't need to seal the threads with PTFE tape. I just screwed them up tight and there was no sign of any leakage.

The next thing to try is putting a taper in my PEEK version to see if that can be made to perform as well as this one.

Of course I haven't built anything yet with any of these designs, so caveat emptor.

Friday 6 March 2009


Rheology is the study of the flow of matter and that is what I have mainly been doing for the past few weeks. When I made my experimental set-up to measure flow rate versus extrusion force I expected to be able to produce some nice graphs for different plastics and different temperatures. I found this excellent page which derives the formula for flow rate I in a pipe in terms of pressure P, radius a, viscosity η and length L.
I = πΔPa4 / 8ηL
A cylindrical section of flow is considered. Since it flows at a constant speed the force pushing it forwards, which is the pressure plus the viscous drag from the faster inner cylinder, must equal the force retarding it, which is the viscous drag from the slower outer cylinder. Integrating twice yields the formula.

Until recently I had assumed that the large amount of force required to extrude was due to pushing viscous plastic through a tiny hole. The equation shows that for a given flow rate and viscosity, the force is proportional to the length and inversely to the fourth power of the bore.

The RepRap V1.1 extruder has a heater barrel that is 45mm long with a 3mm bore and a nozzle with a 0.5mm hole that is about 3mm long, so that would mean that it is about (3/0.5)4×3/45 = 86.4 times harder to push the plastic through the nozzle than the heater. However, that assumes the viscosity is constant. At the point where the plastic melts the viscosity tends towards infinity, so the actual force required to push the filament through the heater is much higher. I have had some extruder configurations where it was hard to push the filament even without the nozzle attached. This simple experiment showed that cutting off 5mm of the heater barrel from the cold end made a significant difference.

Despite these observations I expected the flow rate to be directly proportional to pressure and, with a constant pressure provided by gravity, I expected the flow rate to be constant. In fact the flow rate varies wildly from one run to the next and often increases towards the bottom of the fall. Flow is not directly proportional to pressure, it increases faster than pressure does, and lower pressures seem to give more erratic results.

I tried improving my test equipment to see if I could get more consistency. I reduced the size of the opto tab to record just the last 20mm of the fall, so things had plenty of time to reach equilibrium. I also made a piece to guide the tab into the slot as the weights have a tendency to rotate and make it catch.

I also tried force cooling the heatsink with a small fan. I made a cowling to stop the fan cooling the heater.

This is probably the most complicated shape I have modelled so far. The only mistake I made was not leaving enough room for two of the nuts to hold the fan. I used self tapping screws instead. If I were designing it again I would put tubular bosses behind the screw holes and use four self tappers. It takes some time to get used to designing in plastic. I tend to use a lot of nuts and bolts, and so do RepRap designs, but they are rarely used in commercial plastic products.

The fan didn't seem to make much difference when extruding ABS, either in the variability or the flow rate. If it did affect the flow rate its effect was lost in the variability.

So after some thought about where the variability was coming from I came to realise that it is an inherently unstable experiment. A lot of the force required is pushing the solid plastic plug through the entrance to the extruder.

For ABS and PLA, which both have glass transitions, the situation in the thermal transition zone looks like this.

When the filament meets the point in the thermal barrier where the temperature is above Tg (the glass transition temperature) the filament transitions from its glassy brittle state to a soft rubbery state. In this state it will change shape as force is applied, but it will not flow. Further down it gets to the point where it melts and becomes a very viscous fluid until it warms up to extrusion temperature, where the viscosity is much less. The soft plug gets compressed length-wise by the extrusion pressure, which makes it expand outwards and grip the wall of the insulator. This greatly increases the force required to push the filament, which in turn causes even more outwards force. If the plug is long enough, relative to the coefficient of friction with the wall, it can become impossible to slide it along. Applying more force simply exerts more force against the tube wall, increasing the friction to match the extra push. This is the condition that causes the extruder to jam.

A plug is formed even in plastics without a glass transition, like HDPE and PCL. Molten plastic simply flows backwards until it freezes.

The plug acts like a piston pushing the molten plastic out of the nozzle. Its front face is continually consumed by melting, but the back is replaced by new plastic that is softening.

To prevent the jam, either the coefficient of friction has to be low, or the thermal transition, and hence the plug, has to be short. An outward taper seems to help a lot.

I was asked for a drawing of my tapered stainless steel transition zone, so I drew one from measurements and extrapolation of the taper. The result was scary: -

I hadn't realised I got so close to rupturing the pipe, although it may not actually be as close as the drawing implies. It does work well though.

The reason the plug leads to an unstable result is that the slower the filament travels, the longer the plug is and so the resistance increases and the flow slows further. I.e. a positive feedback effect. It is also why increasing the force gives a disproportionate increase in flow rate. The faster flow reduces the plug length (because the plastic has less time to absorb heat) reducing the resistance, so more pressure gets to the nozzle, increasing the flow rate.

One implication of this effect is that an open loop DC motor is never going to work well. Another is that measuring the force applied to the filament is not a good guide to the nozzle pressure.

I think a more consistent experiment would be to extrude at the desired rate and measure the force applied. The plug would then have a fairly constant length and hence the force should be fairly constant.

Although I cannot get any accurate measurements from the experiment, I did get a rough idea of the force required to extrude various plastics at the extrusion speed I use. I.e. I added weights to get the flow rate around π mm3.

Material Diameter Temperature Nozzle Weight Flow rate
HDPE 3.1 mm 240 C 0.5mm 4.60 Kg 3.81 mm3
HDPE 3.1 mm 200 C 0.5mm 4.60 Kg 2.39 mm3
PCL 2.8 mm 150 C 0.5mm 4.60 Kg 3.44 mm3
ABS 2.7 mm 240 C 0.5mm 2.32 Kg 3.67 mm3
PLA 2.9 mm 200 C 0.5mm 3.32 Kg 6.95 mm3

The viscosity of PCL and PLA drops rapidly with temperature, for example PLA would not extrude at all at 180°C but was very fast at 200°C.

The next thing to try is putting a taper in my PEEK extruder and evaluating the copper welding nozzles.