Adventures in 3D Printing — dealing with failure

For the last week, I have been fortunate enough to mess around with the Ultimaker 2 3D Printer. Having a 3D Printer 10 feet from your desk is an incredible experience, and the list of things I want to print is growing way faster than the list of completed projects. Complicated prints with this device can get upwards of 30 hours pretty quickly, but the end result is so worth it. I've made accessories for phones that I am really happy with, organization tools for the house that look nice, and little things for my kids to play with. I've been excited about 3D Printers for a while, but the feeling of satisfaction as the build plate sinks to the base of the structure so you can grab the finished print was something I wasn't really expecting.

There's another feeling I wasn't expecting in this 3D Printing adventure, and that's the whole-body cringe when I realize something has gone horribly wrong and my print has failed. I've had quite a few of those already, so it seemed right to share those experience as well.

3D Print fail

It doesn't take much to guess that your print is going to fail. 3D Printers are not smart machines, it gets a set of instructions and acts on those instructions until the job is done. Like old paper printers, there are no sensors to make sure things are going well. No 3D version of "paper is jammed" or "ink is running low". You're on your own, and unless you are intimately familiar with how the machine you are giving instructions to actually works it is easy to get lost. Even after using 3D Printers for quite a while, veterans in this ecosystem admit to a 70% success rate being a very good thing for users of any skill level.

What do those failures look like? Lets take a look.

3D Printing failures

These three are attempts to make a speaker dock for the OnePlus One. The purple attempts are with ABS fibers, which I learned the hard way require a consistent temperature inside the machine to avoid the base of your structure warping off the buildplate. Since the Ultimaker 2 isn't a closed system out of the box, I switched to PLA and tried again. That grey print in the middle failed when the filament got caught on itself on the spool, because it wasn't wound correctly before it was shipped to me. There was no filament getting to the printer, and the machine had no idea something was wrong. It just kept trying to print.

3D Printing failures

This was supposed to be a nice smartphone stand that looked like a tentacle, but at some point in the print process the left part of the print separated from the build plate and got smashed together with the rest of the design. The printer just kept going and finished printing the other tentacle, but obviously this isn't going to be holding anything.

3D Printing failures

I found this simple toothbrush holder on Thingiverse and thought it would look nice in my bathroom, but didn't think about how the machine actually prints things before sending the file to the printer. See, 3D printers operate in single line slices, and since there were no support structures for the top the machine printed lines of plastic that connected to nothing, leaving this mess as a result. Rotating the print so it looked like a "U" in the software fixed this problem, but not after I wasted 10 hours printing this monstrosity.

3D Printing failures

Every once in a while, the build plate on this printer needs to be re-calibrated. The printer works best when it is 1mm from the build plate, and if that doesn't happen you get prints like this. The lines don't connect correctly, and while it's technically a finished print everything looks sloppy. This is a quick thing to fix, but after re-calibrating this build plate a dozen times in the week I've had this printer I am all for auto-leveling being a standard feature in these devices.

3D Printing failures

I have no idea what happened here. This is my first attempt at printing a pocketwatch-style clip for the Moto 360, and should have been a fairly simple thing to print. I've been told by veteran 3D Printers that a lot of current-generation devices have trouble with little things. A second print of this design with a few tweaks turned out significantly better, but it's still not totally clear what caused this mess.

This is just a sampling of the failures I've seen so far, the stuff that actually looks like something and isn't just a blob of melted plastic or a series of tiny plastic wires. It's clear that the learning curve for 3D Printing in general is still very high, but in the space of a week I've managed to isolate a lot of problems and increase my success rate dramatically. A big part of that is support from the dozens of forums on the topic, where so many problems have already happened and been resolved before.

It'll be very interesting to see how manufacturers attempt to decrease the number of potential failure points in an attempt to make the technology more user friendly, and how skilled users will react to the changes that will undoubtedly happen to make those changes possible. Until that happens, my failure pile is likely to continue growing in new and bizarre ways.

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • When did this site turn into Engadget?
  • It didn't Posted from my Droid Turbo, Kelly and Ozone
  • I see what you did there...
  • Dude the title is about fuckin 3d printing, scroll your unhappy ass away and go read something you want too, damn. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • where you gettin 1200 ping from in nashville? we more advanced than that down here.
  • Anything for ad money and a slow android day Posted via the Android Central App
  • 3d printing seems like expensive fun I can't have. Although I have a few 3d printed Tenor Sax mouthpieces, that honestly don't sound that terrible. Kinda bright and possibly annoying, but they work and it's cool as hell. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • I never even thought of printing mouthpieces! I play the tenor, just so ya know. Now I'm even more excited for these things to go down in price. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I know you can find some online, but I did mine on campus at my high school and later college. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • Very nice man! I miss playing my Alto Sax. I may just go out and buy one 1 day.
  • Meh.. While 3D Printing seems like a nice hobby, I still don't see it being a replacement for basic stuff like this from China for cheap. Maybe I a couple decades when like star trek we just say computer "Tea Earl Grey, hot" Posted via the Android Central App
  • It's just fun being able to say wow I made that myself and didn't have to pay shipping or wait a week! Posted via the Android Central App
  • Thanks for the good article Russell. One of the things glaringly absent from the 3d printing arena are quality control parameters for devices and materials. While aviation and auto manufacturers are using generalized ISO and MIL standards to allows 3d printed products to be installed and sold, I do not see basic inspection type criteria anywhere. For instance, what constitutes acceptable filament winding methods and variations, filament diameter tolerance (e.g. .020" +/- ???,) feed rate calibration (furlongs per fortnight?) There's bound to be a flood of conflicting criteria as 3d printng becomes more common place and applied to general manufacturing.
  • Mind you that heretofore document had dry ink on it for many forknight.
  • It's not absent on commercial machines. That's why they cost far more than the hobbyist machines. 3d printing is very common in general manufacturing, at least in fields that leverage new technology. Military and Aerospace have been using production parts made by additive manufacturing for several years now.
  • Hey this was an interesting read. I think I pictured something like a mini sized industrial machine- program it to do what you want with some fancy template you made up or found online, load it up with the printer plastic, wait a little while for the machine to do its thing and everything turn out perfect.
    You really put it in perspective when you compared it to an old school printer. (I forgot all about paper jams and ink splatters all over the paper.) I haven't read up on 3D printers very much because I highly doubt I'll be getting one any time soon, but it's very cool to see what people make with them.
    I hope to see some of your creations after you have more practice and get the feel for the thing. Posted via Android Central App
  • .
  • *Dupe*
  • Any chance you could post what the print should have looked like? It would be nice to see the expected result compared to what actually came out.
  • In some cases (most on this post, actually) I haven't been able to go back and print that file successfully yet. I do have some of them here - I will have more on this soon though.
  • Have you tried any projects that require you to assemble multiple pieces or has it just been single piece projects?
  • I was hoping for maybe a screen shots or something. Good luck with your future creations!
  • Great read for anyone wanting to get started in this hobby. I had a solidoodle 2 back in the day and was thinking of getting a new one this year but it seems the 3D printers these days haven't improved as much as I had hoped. But if you're thinking of getting one, here are a few tips. Learn to CAD things. Thingiverse is great, but the real power of 3D printing is when you make a one-of-a-kind object. I use Blender (free and multiplatform). Youtube tutorials to get started. There are typically 2 types of plastic for basic 3D printers, ABS and PLA. Start with PLA because it just works. Its like the nexus phones (remember your first nexus? You'll get that feeling when you print with PLA). But if your plastic parts are melting or bending too easily (rarely ever), then grab a spindle of ABS. Heated print bed is recommended. ABS requires a heated print bed and walls (should be included or an option when you buy the printer). Also, get some hairspray (suave on amazon). It'll help the parts stick to the heated print bed. The walls are necessary if you want to make ABS prints taller than 3cm. ABS shrinks a lot when it cools which will either cause a corner to lift off the print bed, or split your print in half. Don't use ABS unless you absolutely have to. Gl hf Posted via the Android Central App
  • walls? you talking around the entire printer? i have been looking at abs prints on youtube for the last few days, particularly on the makerfarm prusa 12" that i have been looking at, and none of them mention walls. prints seem fine. i am not trying to 'call you out' or anything. just trying to get some clarification.
  • Some printers are completely enclosed, meaning that they can keep the heat in (like a greenhouse) to prevent any one part of the build from cooling significantly while the build is ongoing.  If you can find a printer that will "hold" the heat inside the printer, then you don't necessarily need the heated walls.  The trick is that you want the *whole* thing to cool down at once, not the bottom part cooling while the top is still being printed.
  • Great read Russell! Thank you! I'm curious about 3D printers myself. One day, I know I will own one and go through what you are.
  • Good read, thanks for sharing
  • RE: The main photo... "KIIIILLL MEEE!"
  • hey there Mr. Russell. are you planning on doing a write-up on the things you are learning? tips and tricks so to speak?
    i got the 'fever' thanks to these articles... but am still a bit skiddish on getting one. lots of things online to see and do, but there are also a lot of conflicting things online. when you return that machine, are you planning on buying something on your own? and if so... what are you looking at? etc. do you wish it had a larger print bed?
  • I will absolutely be wrapping this experience up into an overview post. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Yeah, at some point these will be huge. And the market for selling designs will be strong.
  • Wish I could have heard the story behind the com badge.