Printing for Failure: How a Finnish architecture firm lost its hopes in 3D printing

How a Finnish architecture firm lost its hopes in 3D printing

Before we begin the story about one of the leading architecture firms in Finland, ALA, we would like to point out a few things: The particular printer they bought has managed to print out less than 5 successful prints over the course of two years. This is also the second printer of its kind (the first printer did not have a working interface screen and was sent back to the factory). Furthermore, the removable extruder also had some technical problems, so a new one had to be ordered. With that said, this is our personal view and experience of a competitor’s printer. The performance of this printer might have been just bad luck, and it is very likely that for other owners the user experience might be different.

Earlier this month Platonics had the great opportunity to meet with ALA Architects. ALA is one of the top architecture firms who has built some of the most impressive landmark buildings here in Finland and abroad. ALA has a gorgeous office right in the heart of Helsinki city center. At their office, they have a 3D printer (whose manufacturer we will not name, but for the purpose of this blog we will call “X”). When we asked ALA how well the printer has been working they replied “Terrible, it’s completely useless”. Shocked by the response, we wanted to find out more about the problem.

The printer had been purchased from X’s official homepage approximately two years ago. ALA was interested in using the latest technology in advanced manufacturing and taking the full advantages of 3D printing in their design process. Thus, it just seemed like a logical choice to have a 3D printer in-house. Unfortunately, when ALA started to use the printer nothing was extruding from the nozzle, the material always got clogged. After many attempts of leveling the print bed, trying out different settings, cleaning the nozzle and going back to using the default settings, ALA gave up their hope on 3D printers. The printer was now stored in the back of the storage room, collecting dust and reminding the employees of ALA of the constant frustrations and headaches they experienced with 3D printing.

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Let architects focus on designing, not maintaining 3D printers

Architects do not want to spend countless hours trying to figure out how to use a 3D printer that should be a “plug and play”, and even worse, maintaining it. An architect’s time is very valuable and should be spent designing, not trying fixing 3D printers. Having an architect waste his time maintaining a printer leads to wasted time and productivity, which down the line has a negative impact on the company in terms of money and work output.

After better understanding ALA’s frustration with 3D printers, our team decided to give them a hand and take a closer look at their printer with the intention of fixing it so they could finally start printing.

Troubleshooting process

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Checking the stl. file

We first started out by having a look at the 3D model, thinking the problem could simply be related to the STL file.

The 3D model that was supposed to be printed was not the problem; they were simple-shaped objects that were going to represent some of their buildings on a larger site plan.

Trying out all possible settings, without any results

Our team started by taking a closer look at X’s software, making sure both the firmware and software were installed with the latest updates. After leveling the build plate we first tried printing with the default settings. After failing to print with the default settings and other presets (low, standard, high) we continued by making our own preset. As the filament was not sticking to the plate, and when it did it was warping, we assumed that the printer was printing too fast or the fans were cooling the material too much. Decreasing the movement and fan speed by 20%, 40%, 60%, 80% and 100% did not help, and the material was still not extruding properly.

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The test print

We tried to test print the “retraction and ooze” part made by “wemperor” on Thingiverse (that can be found from here). The picture below represents how close we got to a successful print.

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Levelling the build plate and Z-offset

We also tried all the possible settings for the Z-offset option. The Z-offset option lets you adjust the distance between the nozzle and build plate, which is very important to configure correctly if one wants good printing results. All possible configurations were tested here as well, with the same ratio as the movement and fan speed, without any success.

First impressions of X’s extruder

Since the problem was coming from the nozzle we tore down the extruder to have a closer look at what was inside.

Something fishy inside the extruder

Adjusting the fan shroud to the right position unfortunately did not solve the problem of the clogged material. Therefore, we started by taking out all the components of the intelligent nozzle, one by one. After taking out all the parts we noticed something was fishy with the PTFE tube, or Teflon tube. The Teflon tube is there to withstand high temperatures when the hot plastic material is transferred from the guiding tube into the heated nozzle. The Teflon tube was surprisingly short and did not go through all the way to the nozzle. For printing with PLA (which we strongly recommend) it is good to use a long Teflon tube. The Teflon tube is working as a heat insulator between the nozzle barrier and the melted plastic material which keeps the heat isolated. Another side effect of using a short Teflon tube are feeding and retracting problems that can lead to the filament getting stuck between the gaps. Here we got suspicious and felt we had found the source of the problem of the clogged nozzle.

Inside the thermal barrier

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Feeding is easy to understand, it is simply when the material is extruding from the nozzle. But why would one need to retract the material? This is needed when the nozzle moves to another print area, to print on a smaller area or print something that requires less material.

So, did we manage to fix X’s 3D printer?

Yes, we did.

But it required us to tear down the whole printer, scratch our heads (a little), a special type of machinery, eye protection and after countless of hours we finally fixed the ‘intelligent extruder’. We also managed to do this without spending over 200€ on buying the new upgraded intelligent extruder — as advised by X’s customer service.

We believe that a product that is designed, tested and shipped out properly — and purchased for a lot of money — should not require the customer to spend an additional 200€ on upgrading to something that is not 100% guaranteed to work.

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Final thoughts

Having a 3D printer from a market leader that has been in the business for many years should be trustworthy enough that these printers have been improved over time. Furthermore, it should give confidence to users that the technology has evolved over the years, that it has reached the point where these machines are accessible for most users.

However, that is our mission, to make 3D printing more accessible to professionals by improving the design and user experience of 3D printers. In such way, help professionals to focus on what they are best at, not at wasting their time operating complex machines. As more professionals start discovering how accessible the technology is becoming, more will be able to take advantage of this amazing technology.

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Julio Tiusanen