Wednesday 30 July 2014

PLA pipe cleaner

Yesterday one of my machines stopped extruding ABS mid print. I immediately suspected the filament as faulty filament is my main source of unreliability these days, having eliminated other things like push fit connectors and wires that break.

I removed the hobbed bolt to clean it and found that I could not feed filament forward by hand but I could pull it back easily, a sign that the nozzle aperture was blocked by something. I spent a long time trying to clear the blockage with several attempts that failed. Here is the method that successfully cleared it in the end: -

I pushed the shank of a 0.4mm drill up the nozzle aperture while it was hot. That cleared the blockage enough to be able to extrude but the particle of contamination kept finding its way back into the aperture causing the plastic to come out in a flat turbulent ribbon instead of a cylinder. That made poor prints with rough surfaces and strings.

PLA has a useful property that you can heat it to a temperature between its glass transition and its melting point where it becomes a rubbery solid. When you pull it backwards it stretches and becomes thinner, so it peels away from the walls of the melt chamber and comes out in one piece. Anything in the melt chamber is pulled out with it leaving it completely empty and clean.

ABS does not have this property and is more like chewing gum above 105°C. It can be pulled back at around 130°C but it usually does not all come out because it is a super viscous liquid rather than an elastic solid.

Because of this I decided to flush out the ABS with some natural PLA. I did this at 240°C until it was extruding clear PLA,. then I cooled it to 80°C and pulled it out. This is how it looked: -

As you can see it stretches until the last bit comes away from the walls of the barrel and the shape of the end matches the cone leading to the nozzle. The problem is this did not get the particle blocking the nozzle because that was pressed into the aperture by the flow of PLA when I inserted it.

The final trick was to push a drill shank up the nozzle to force the contamination into the melt chamber before cooling it to 80°C. That ensured it was embedded in the PLA when I pulled it out. Here you can see the particle that caused all the trouble.

So to recap:
  1. Heat to extrusion temperature and pull out the filament being used.
  2. Use a 0.4mm drill shank to clear the aperture.
  3. Insert PLA (preferably natural so you can see the contamination) and flush through the remaining original filament. You may need to keep clearing the aperture with the drill shank.
  4. Cool the extruder to 80°C with the drill shank in place to ensure the nozzle is clear.
  5. Remove the drill and then pull out the PLA.
  6. Inspect the end that comes out to see the culprit contamination.
Of course if you are using PLA you can just do steps 4 and 5.

This method of cleaning with PLA is much better than using solvents or burning out nozzles that I often see recommended as it can be done in situ and doesn't risk damaging anything.