Maintenance Tips for 3D Printers

Maintenance Tips for 3D Printers

3D printers are no different than any other machine or tool; keep it clean and keep it lubricated so that it gives peak performance. Let’s dive into the best practices for keeping your 3D printer running as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

Keep your 3D printer well lubricated

Over time, the lubricants used to keep your 3D printer running smoothly will dry up or be pushed out of the bearings by regular motion and use. You should only add more lubricant if you find your 3D printer’s rods are a little dry after several hundred hours of 3D printing. Everyone recommends something a little different, especially depending on the type of motion system used. A good rule of thumb to follow is to check the recommended lubrication guidelines in your 3D printer’s manual, otherwise, you want to use greases for lead screws (except when your leadscrew nut is plastic as the grease can degrade the plastic) and oils for rods. A simple way to apply lubricant is to move the printer to all the minimum limits, add lubricant to the rods and screws, then move the printer to the maximum limits and repeat. This should decently lubricate your printer but in some circumstances you may need to remove the bearing completely in order to adequately lubricate it. 

Dust the printer and its components regularly

As the 3D printer moves around, the seals on the bearings attached to each carriage will sweep dust to the limits of the motion system. You will find that the fans actually collect dust and can build up a sort of cobweb on them and anything near them including around the hotend. Any horizontal surface, no matter how hard it is to reach, will have some amount of dust. It’s an inevitability and while it won’t negatively impact your 3D prints (except if your build plate is dusty as that would prevent adhesion), it would be wise to give your 3D printer a good dusting off every month or so. A quick wipe with a microfiber cloth and canned air to clean off any of the hard-to-reach area is enough to keep your 3D printer in working order.

Check for loose nuts and bolts

Although it won’t often matter, in rare cases the fasteners that hold your 3D printer together can shake loose. Maybe they aren’t so loose they fall out, but I have found that some screws I thought were tight had actually loosened up over time and began affecting filament quality. Drive pulleys and lead screw couplers should be the first screws you check up on if you are already having 3D printer issues – screws that are key to proper motion are the most important to keep tight.

Clear any dust and debris from the extruder feeder wheels

A feature that is far from revolutionary, a 2.4-inch color touchscreen is your gateway to controlling the Ultimaker 2+ Connect. Touchscreens are something almost everyone is familiar with and they add a premium, modern feel to most products if done right. This feature won’t fundamentally change what is possible with the printer. Still, it’s a convenient gateway to quickly access settings, configure connectivity, and other sundry options. Hobbed gears are the key to your 3D printer reliably pushing filament through its system. Some gears have sharper teeth than others that enables them to have a firmer grip on filament, but if there’s a jam it can’t push through then you may find that the gears strip the filament and fill with filament dust. Clearing the jam at the nozzle won’t be the end of it, as now the gears will need to be cleared out before you can print again. With some extruders you can easily see the teeth and clean them out with some tweezers or a knife, others you will need to disassemble to get access to them. In general the teeth should be fine most of the time, but after a period of rough extruding, you will want to clean out the feeder gears. A feature that is far from revolutionary, a 2.4-inch color touchscreen is your gateway to controlling the Ultimaker 2+ Connect. Touchscreens are something almost everyone is familiar with and they add a premium, modern feel to most products if done right. This feature won’t fundamentally change what is possible with the printer. Still, it’s a convenient gateway to quickly access settings, configure connectivity, and other sundry options.

Make sure you remove loose bits of 3D printing debris

Skirts, purge blobs, failed prints and filament scraps have a tendency to accumulate around your 3D printer unless you are diligent cleaning it up and keeping a trashcan nearby. It’s much easier to stay on top of it before it becomes a problem, make it a good habit to pick up any debris whenever you get up to check on your prints, after you start a print and walk away, or when you grab your next finished print.

Check for overheated and deformed 3D printed parts

The proliferation of desktop 3D printers has meant that more and more of them are built using 3D printed components – components that would otherwise be much too expensive to manufacture using traditional techniques. However, because these printer parts are still made of plastic, they can encounter a phenomenon called “creep” where a stress exhibited on a part can over time cause it to sag and fail. Weight bearing components or heat-facing components can deform over an extended period of time and necessitate replacing in order to keep the 3D printer operational. The main printed parts you will want to look at are the parts under tension like bed-holders, belt tensioners, or spool holders or parts that may get warm, like motor mounts or hotend mounts. You don’t need to check for this often, maybe once every three months or so is sufficient, or of course if you notice some sudden difficulty with your 3D printer.

Tighten up your belts.

Typically, 3D printer belts are glass-fiber lined TPU. The glass-fibers add enough rigidity to prevent stretching yet are capable of bending around pulleys without weakening like steel-core belts. Stretching is going to happen as these belts will be under tension at all times, so regular replacement is necessary. An obvious way to tell that your belts are at the end of their lifespan is if the belt completely snaps or visibly stretches, or if your 3D prints are significantly over or under-sized despite your steps per mm not being changed from stock. Besides replacement of the belts, you should also give regular checkups to the tension overall as it is common for belts to slip from their attachment points, depending on what holds them in place. A quick way to properly tension is to tighten any belt tensioners to the point that the carriages stick and don’t move smoothly, then slowly loosen the tension just to the point where it runs well again.

Maintain and replace your bowden tube

Unless you’re using a PTFE tube as a guide tube on a direct drive 3D printer, you’re going to regularly replace the PTFE tube integral for bowden 3D printers. The small collet that holds the tube in place has small metal teeth and over time the regular retractions and extrusions that a 3D printer makes will pinch the bowden tube until it’s so worn out the collet just can’t grip it anymore. When this happens you will be able to see a clear difference in the outer diameter of the bowden tube or if you encounter even the smallest jam, the bowden tube will slide right out of the hotend or extruder, coiling loose filament everywhere. Temporarily, you can trim the bowden tube a few mm so the collet can grip a new portion of the tube, but you can only do this so much before the tube becomes too short to allow free movement of the printhead. Once it’s short enough, you will need to order a new bowden tube altogether and replace it.

Clean or replace your nozzle often

Almost every 3D printer comes standard with a brass nozzle for two reasons: brass is inexpensive to machine and is decently thermally conductive so it will heat up nicely. The benefits that make brass nozzles easy to make also means they are quite soft, well relatively so; jamming the nozzle into a glass bed or dragging it across the build surface can deform the nozzle orifice. Some 3D printing materials are abrasive, like the particles in glow-in-the-dark filament that makes them glow or the carbon fiber in Nylon, and they are abrasive enough to rather quickly tear up a brass nozzle, blowing out the diameter from 0.4mm to 0.8mm in less than a spool’s worth of filament in a worst-case-scenario. If your 3D printer just isn’t printing as well as it used to, a nozzle swap might be what you need to bring it back up to snuff. If you have a microscope or some magnifying glasses you might be able to see for yourself just how bad your nozzle actually is. Even if you never print with abrasive materials, you will want to replace your brass nozzle regularly, perhaps even once every 6 months of regular use.

Check that your bed is level regularly

Before the dawn of affordable bed levelling sensors, it was much more common to see 3D printers using springs and wingnuts to hold the printer’s bed to its carriage. Often this would mean that as the printer moves and vibrates the wingnuts and later thumb screws could shake themselves loose – maybe only a couple turns and in my experience even completely off the printer. Nowadays it is more often to see a bed rigidly mounted to the carriage and a sensor makes up the difference in the bed level before the start of every print. It’s much less pertinent to keep an eye on your 3D printer’s bed, but if your printer still uses springs, watch the skirt of your 3D prints at least once a week to be sure it’s not printing too far or too close.

Honorable Mention: Keep your firmware up to date

Firmware updates are just too important to ignore. One should regularly check if there is a new firmware update published for your 3D printer by the 3D printer manufacturer. These will often fix bugs or introduce new features for an improved performance, but unless your 3D printer has WiFi functionality and checks for itself for new updates, you will have to do the investigating yourself. Keep in mind that most manufacturers publish beta firmware updates that are mostly ready, but may have some kinks to iron out before calling it good to go, so keep that in mind before trying out any experimental firmware that you find.

Maintaining your 3D printer is an important yet often overlooked part of the 3D printing experience. As tedious as it can be at times to clean and take care of your machine, it’s just that, taking care of it to make sure it is always running at peak performance and you don’t have any premature failures of its components. 

Happy printing!

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