Writing Advice from my 3D Printer

I’m feeling like Cassandra this morning. After reading some news and some very bad takes on Twitter, I’m looking into the future and seeing things clearly that I’m powerless to change, and no one would believe me if I told them. So I’m not going to talk about any of that.

Instead, I’m going to talk about 3D printing and how the lessons I’m learning apply to writing.

The 3D printer is my big Christmas present of 2021. There are a few projects I’m really interested in doing, including a completely homemade keyboard and a radio controlled plane. These projects are going to challenge me in new and interesting ways, and I’m going to have to develop some skills I haven’t used in a long time. To prepare myself, I’m doing smaller, easier projects on the 3D printer.

After setting up the printer and watching a few videos to help me learn how to balance it, I sent a test print that came with the device. Then I downloaded some models and printed those. Then I tried some different filament and a couple of other models, including prints that helped me upgrade the printer itself. Now the spools can hang off the side of the printer instead of on top, making the device short enough that it can fit on a shelf, and allowing the filament to enter the bushing at a far less severe angle.

The printer works! It does a good job! I printed a couple of benchies to check the quality of the prints, then gave them to Melissa. She loves the little boats and has them sitting under her monitor in her work space.

Satisfied with the quality of these prints, I moved on to the next step which is creating 3D models of my own. I decided that I wanted to print a small drawer set. It isn’t particularly complicated, and once I get it right, I can store loose screws and hardware in my work space. A really functional learning experience.

I started the print for the main body on Friday night. The application said it was going to take 40 hours to print, which seems like way too long, but I figured I’d let it go over the weekend. Long prints are common with these devices, right? And while this piece was going to be the largest thing I’d printed to date, it didn’t seem particularly complicated. It’s all flat planes and right angles. Should be easy.

When I got up Saturday morning, I found the printer still going, spitting loose black strings into the air. The glass printing surface was on the ground along with the malformed print. I stopped the printer and put everything back together. It looked like part of the print peeled off the printing surface, so when the extruder swung by that section, it caught the print and pulled everything out of place. The glass unclipped from the aluminum, and the whole thing tumbled to the ground. I’m lucky the glass didn’t break.

Stilling wanting to complete this project, I went back to my 3D model. Maybe it was too large a surface to stick directly to the glass. I decided to put a bunch of holes in it and break it up. It doesn’t have to be a solid piece. It also might look cooler with the holes. I changed the 3D model, compiled the gcode, and sent the new model to the printer.

This print attempt didn’t go that long. It looked like the filament wouldn’t adhere to the glass. The lines it laid out were not precise, and it was obviously going to go bad if I let it keep going. I killed the job, then took a step back. Did the first failed print mess up the printer? I tried printing another benchie. That print job failed, too.

Was it the filament? I changed to a color I hadn’t used before and tried another benchie. Another failed print. So it’s not the filament. It’s the printer itself. Something happened with that first bad print, and I had to fix that before it would print anything properly again.

I feared the worst. Maybe the temperature gauges were incorrect, so the filament and the platform weren’t reaching the right temperatures in order for the print process to work. Maybe the extruder was damaged when it unclipped the glass. Perhaps it was some other mechanical failure I couldn’t imagine.

After a few minutes of worrying, I went back to the original videos I watched when I set the printer up in the first place. A major part of the setup was getting the printing surface balanced. It’s manual, and it takes a bit of time. I went through all of those steps again, finding the printer badly out of alignment.

Twenty minutes of fiddling later, I printed another benchie, this time in mustard yellow. It worked. Then I printed a calibration cube in the same black filament as the failed print. This one also worked, though it wasn’t perfect.

The printer is fine. It was just out of balance. Last night, I tried the large print again, and while I had to cancel that job before it failed completely, it was doing a better job than before. The balance still isn’t quite perfect, but it’s good enough for smaller jobs. I’ll need to keep tweaking it before I try something large again.

And that’s the lesson.

As a writer, I was producing really decent stories right up into 2020. I had inertia going for me. Then the pandemic hit, which threw me off balance. For a while, I wasn’t able to write anything at all. Then I was able to muddle through some smaller jobs, none of which were perfect, but they were serviceable. I’m still not able to take on a larger project, because I’m still off balance. I need to get myself back into some kind of alignment, maybe get back to basics, and then I’ll be functional again.