Making a maker: The 3D printing floodgates open

I did it: I 3D printed something. And now I don’t want to stop.

It happened last Friday at Noisebridge. Disheartened by what appeared to be hardware problems with the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3D printer I’ve been struggling with for weeks, I wanted to switch to using the Ultimaker the hackerspace also has laying around.

Noisebridge Ultimaker

Like the Thing-O-Matic, the Ultimaker is an older 3D printer that’s not particularly known for being friendly to beginners. But someone had fixed it recently, so at the very least I could count on only worrying about my own ineptness.

I met up with Noisebridge’s resident 3D printing guru who showed me how to use the RepRap a few weeks ago. This time, though, I wanted to run the print job from my own computer. And I wanted to learn how to use the machine well enough to run it on my own.

To start, he gave me an invaluable tool: the software settings that help achieve the best possible print job. These include the temperature at which the 3D printer prints, the speed, how dense the printed object should be and on and on. These are the details that 3D printer users spend hours and hours figuring out. Being handed them makes it much easier to ease into working with a printer.

I have a few tweaks to make to the design of my water bottle cap (which I’ll get into next week) so I decided to pick and print a simple design off of Thingiverse. Thingiverse is a vast showcase of objects you can download and print for free, and it’s a great way to get a sense for the power of 3D printing. It feels like shopping online, except once you find something you want, it’s free and begins printing instantly in front of you.


I settled on a tiny turtle and scaled it up by 200 percent to be slightly larger than a quarter. While one software program concentrated on cutting the turtle file into the thin slices the 3D printer will print it in, I used another software program to begin physically preparing the Ultimaker to print. I heated up the nozzle, which melts the plastic, and then extruded a coiled mess of it. Doing this ensures the especially molten plastic that’s been sitting in the nozzle during the heating process isn’t used to print your object.

I plucked the hardened plastic off the print platform, fed the sliced-up turtle file into the software program and hit print.

The next step felt a bit like surgery. The Ultimaker doesn’t automatically place the print platform at the right height. You have to do it yourself with a combination of movements. First, you reach into the back of the printer with a longish tool — say, a pair of tweezers — and push on a tiny metal lever to quickly raise the print platform to a position relatively close to the nozzle. Then, to raise it more precisely to the level of the nozzle, you twist a plastic piece located near the floor of the 3D printer. Like manually focusing a camera, it’s not always clear when you have it exact. You just have to eye the stream of plastic coming out of the nozzle to gauge when the nozzle is getting perfect contact with the platform.

The turtle printed fairly flawlessly. It took about 45 minutes, which is in line with a print job on any 3D printer. The Ultimaker, it turns out, is a fairly impressive machine. It’s much faster than the Thing-O-Matic, and can print up to 300 mm of plastic a second.

Noisebridge Ultimaker turtle 3D print

Emboldened by the cute little turtle I had just created, I picked another design: an “8-bit videogame coaster” with a picture of Kirby on it. Aside from the homage to my past as an expert Super Smash Bros. player, it also had some interesting, small details that would test the Ultimaker’s precision.

After printing a few layers with good results, I sped the printer up a little bit. This is one of the neat parts of working with a printer aimed at a more advanced user. As you advance through the print job, you can tell the printer to take actions like print at a different speed, output more plastic and so on.

But it was the wrong move. The coaster started to look a little messy. The print head didn’t seem to be laying down plastic in some parts, and in others it left stringy blobs. It wasn’t pretty.

Noisebridge Ultimaker coaster 3D print

I wasn’t going for perfect, so I continued with the print job. The final version of the coaster looks pretty good, though you can still see the messy layers below Kirby. It took an hour and 45 minutes.

Noisebridge Ultimaker coaster 3D print

I’m feeling pretty good about printing my bottle cap next week. What else should I print?