Earlier this year, desperate for a new toy, I purchased the cheapest 3D printer kit I could find, in the hope it would give me hours/days/weeks of fun (a) trying to make it work at all, and (b) trying to make it work well.
I settled on the Creality Ender 2, a 3D printer that’s delivered in kit form and requires (a little) assembly to get it going. I chose it over the alternatives primarily because it has a reasonable community behind it, is based on standard parts, and provides ample opportunity to tweak and toy without risking too much if and when it breaks.
What follows is a lengthy, slightly technical essay on the machine, and the fun, trials and tribulations I’ve had with it.
Assembling the kit I received was fun, taking less than an hour. Although it came with an SD card containing an assembly video, I chose to ignore it entirely and use a combination of guesswork and an unofficial guide to work out how to put everything together. Fortunately it was reasonably easy, the key was to get the right pieces assembled in the right order, but it came together really well, and turned on first time!
The first step was to level the hotbed - this ensures that the printing head is as close as possible to the surface, without actually touching it. For this, I used this Ender 2 Levelling GCode on Thingiverse, which automatically moves the head over each of the three adjustable screws, prompts for input, after each adjustment, and performs a test print. (I now run this before every print if I’m at all unsure about the bed level.)
The first few prints were surprisingly good given the minimal tweaking, but inconsistent. There were ‘waves’ in the print, signs that there were loose fittings. Fortunately, tightening the X/Y belts and adjusting the eccentric nut that joins the X arm to the Z axis to ensure it was tight and free of wobble fixed those issues immediately.
Initially, the printer was working well - filament was extruding neatly, it was adhering to the bed, and the layers were building up very nicely with minimal zits (tiny ‘blobs’ visible on the outside of the model where too much filament has accrued) - so per tradition, I printed out the “Benchy” steamboat model. It came out well - not perfect - but more than good enough for my purposes, and it showed that the printer wasn’t an entire waste of money.
However, there were a few issues.
The smell produced during printing was horrid, like inhaling a mix of burning plastic and oil, and it filled my home. Within minutes of a print starting, myself and my partner found ourselves with headaches, and they lasted hours after printing stopped. I tried again the next day - again, within minutes, a headache. Same the next day. And the next.
However, I persisted, as the smell got weaker with every print. After about a week the smell had subsided completely, and the headaches were gone. I’m assuming there wasn’t anything horribly carcinogenic in these fumes, and just some solvent or chemical used in the manufacture of the printer parts that took a while to clear out during the first few runs. (I was concerned it was a part burning out, but from visual inspection the PSU, mainboard and wires all looked fine.)
There are two main sources of sound from a 3D Printer - fans, and stepper motors. Fans are a necessary evil to prevent overheating and ensure correct operation, but can often be replaced with quieter variants, or slowed down slightly to reduce their volume. Normally though, they just provide a gentle hum.
However, the stepper motors aren’t so easy to ignore. These marvels of engineering constantly rotate in tiny steps one way, then another, and it’s these tiny adjustments and counter-rotations that send small amounts of kinetic energy into the frame of the printer, which is then amplified by the structure to become audible.
There are typically two solutions to stepper motor noise - fitting dampeners, or getting better electronics.
Dampeners are cheap and easy to install - they fit between the motors and the frame via a rubbery membrane that absorbs some of this motion. This doesn’t reduce the sound completely, but it radically reduces it, and dampeners can be obtained for only a few pounds, making them an incredibly attractive and economical option.
The second, more expensive - and, arguably, more fun - option, is to replace the stepper drivers with higher quality variants. These small chips on the mainboard tell each motor when to rotate, how much by, and how fast. While they don’t produce any noise themselves, fancier stepper drivers distribute the commands they send to each motor to reduce the amount of large motions the motors perform - so instead of making one large rotation, a motor might make many smaller ones. This not only makes the motors themselves quiter, but also reduces the energy transferred into the frame.
Replacing stepper drivers is, theoretically, a case of swapping out 4 or 5 chips on the mainboard with an alternative. However, on the Ender 2 mainboard, these chips are soldered on (rather than socketed), and therefore would replace a full mainboard replacement. So, I’ve just got the dampeners, for now.
In addition, I swapped the fans out for (slightly) quieter models, and sat the printer on a piece of foam that it shipped with, which just so happens to perfectly match the printer’s footprint. The printer is a long way from being silent, but has gone from being a constant irritant to a gentle hum in the corner.
Like many 3D printer kits, my Ender 2 had arrived with a PSU designed for powering LED strips. These typically feature an array of exposed electrical contacts on the back; you’re instructed wire the 230v AC contacts straight to the mains, and the 12v DC contacts straight to the printer. A simple plastic case and zip ties were provided to screw onto the case, covering the contacts from wandering fingers, and providing rudimentary strain relief to prevent the cables falling out and electrocuting someone.
This setup works fine, but I wasn’t keen on the printer being permanently wired into the PSU, which in turn is permanently tethered to a cable plugged into the mains, as this made it tricky to maneouvre or disconnect. A preferable arrangement would be akin to a laptop, whereby the mains cable plugs into a PSU, which in turn plugs into the laptop (or in this case, the printer.)
Secondly, the PSU was from one of the many no-name Chinese manufacturers who produce Meanwell-style PSUs very cheaply - although I’m not aware of any issues with the particular model the Ender 2 ships with, there are many clones in this style. The fact it came with a 13A fused plug (far higher than required - 3A would be more than ample), made me hesitant to trust it.
Thirdly, it was another contributor to overall noise, by virtue of having a big 60mm fan in it that seemed to always run at 100% regardless of load or temperature.
My initial thought was to buy a widely-recommended Meanwell PSU and print out one from the many designs available on Thingiverse with included switches, fuses, and XT60 connectors (a high-amperage connector that is perfect to sit between the PSU and the printer, allowing them to be easily disconnected.) However, a bit more research showed a far cheaper and more fun alternative - use an old Xbox 360 PSU.
The original (fat) Xbox 360 just happens to require an input very similar to a 3D printer - 12V at 16.5A for a total of 203W (versus the 12V/20A for a total of 240W in the PSU that came with the printer.) It’s also a reliable, quiet, high-quality PSU that was mass-produced and very easy to find for less than a tenner. While it ships with a proprietary connector designed to plug into the Xbox 360 console, there’s a plethora of videos and resources on the web that show how simply it can be converted into a regular 12V PSU, and I found many testimonials from other owners of the Ender 2 who had done exactly that.
Typically, the operation involves snipping off the standard Xbox 360 plug from the PSU, and either wiring it directly into the printer, or using XT60 connectors. I wanted the flexibility of the latter option, to avoid the same ‘tethering’ problem as the original PSU. However, I also wanted to avoid damaging the Xbox 360 cable in case the conversion didn’t work, so for a few quid I purchased an “Xbox 360 to Xbox One converter” off eBay, providing me with a separate dongle I could mutilate by snipping the Xbox One connector off and attaching my desired XT60 connector. Unfortunately, after recieving the dongle up I discovered it wasn’t sufficient - it had a cheap and nasty connector, and the short cable was clearly not up to the amperage required for the printer. So I chucked it and decided to just modify the Xbox 360 PSU lead directly as others had done.
This should have been straightforward, but it took longer than I expected due to little niggles along the way. The XT60 connectors are a little fiddly to hook up, and you want to make sure they’re secured with heatshrink and/or glue to stop them becoming exposed. Many of the online resources put the XT60 connectors on the wrong way around (the female connector should be on the PSU, the male on the 3D printer), introducing a small risk of electric shock or shorting out the contacts.
My first attempt failed. While the 3D printer powered up, every few seconds it lost power, the display dimmed, and the extruder motor skipped - it could print, but only just, and the output was inconsistent. For a while I feared the Xbox 360 PSU was simply not providing enough current to drive the hotbed, the hotend and the motors, but it seemed to be working for everyone else - why not me?
Fortunately, it was just a case of wiring. The Xbox 360 PSU’s cable contains 10 wires - 4 black and 4 yellow wires supply 12V, while the red and blue wires supply 5V. The 5V wires can be used for powering electronics, but the PSU also uses these to work out when to apply power to the 12V line. So in DIY projects the two 5V wires are shorted together (or attached to a switch) in order to ensure the 12V is “always on”. (In an actual Xbox 360 console, pressing the power button enacts this behaviour to deliver the 12V the console needs to operate normally - whereas the always-on 5V line powers the ‘standby’ electronics.)
In my case the 12V wires were the source of my problem. There are 8 wires in all - 4 positive, and 4 negative - but if you look closely, you notice that one of each is slightly thinner than the others. As they were wired in with their thicker counterparts on the Xbox 360 connector, I treated them equallity, and wired them into the XT60 connector as well. This was the fault, and the correct approach is to leave them unconnected, or else the PSU does not supply ample current. I rewired the XT60 connectors to only use the thicker wires and everything worked perfectly again! (I’m not entirely sure what purpose the thin wires serve, but I suspect they help regulate the supply when connected to the Xbox 360.)
So far, this setup has been working well, and has been so much quieter than the original PSU.
My Ender 2 shipped with a custom chipset running a custom firmware based on Marlin, the most popular open-source firmware for driving 3D printers. It worked fine, but had one or two shortcomings:
Firstly, the provided firmware did not have thermal runaway protection enabled, meaning a failure in any of the heating elements or supply cables could cause overheating and, possibly, a fire.
Secondly, remember the levelling code I mentioned earlier? That makes use of some commands that are not implemented in the firmware on the printer, causing the input prompts (where you press the control button to tell the printer to advance to the next levelling stage) to not display properly. Not fatal, but not great either.
Fortunately the chipset is upgradeable - if you have the equipment (an Arduino or USB programmer), and the firmware, such as TH3D’s reverse-engineered, unified firmware. It was a reasonably simple affair, but well worth it for the improved safety and additional features.
I also took the opportunity to replace the hotbed surface to a magnetic PEI sheet. While the provided surface is surprisingly good, the lure of a modern, flexible sheet that removes the necessity of using a (supplied!) steel scraper to prise the print off the hotbed was too much to resist. So far, it’s worked wonderfully, allowing me to pop finished pieces off within a few minutes of completion.
Overall, the Ender 2 has been plenty of fun, and fulfilled exactly the purpose that I bought it for - entertainment. It’s great for tweakers and tinkerers who get as much enjoyment out of making something work as they do from the product of their invested time (and, to a degree, money!)
So what have I been printing with it? Besides calibration prints, just spares, mostly. I’ve been modelling a new key to replace one that fell off my office keyboard, and I’ve been designing cases for little IoT projects I’m fiddling with. I’m designing a few wall mounts to secure and route cables, and make little areas of annoyance a little less, well, annoying. And I’m considering the ways it can be used to make personalised presents, gifts, and decorations for those that enjoy that kind of thing.
It’s also been an excuse to re-activate the 3D modelling part of my brain that has been somewhat dormant since I stopped level designing. In particular, parametric modelling using OpenSCAD, which has the benefit of simultaneously stretching the areas of 3D visualisation and programming logic. Knowing your effort results in an actual, physical item that you can hold and share makes it quite distinct and attractive from working from within purely virtual worlds, and I really enjoy it.
For those who want something that Just Works™ with minimal fuss and hassle, it’s not ideal. Buy one of those smart, professional, all-in-one cubes instead and you’ll save yourself a bunch of time and effort getting prints to come out well. But if you want to learn how these things work, how they go together, and get your hands dirty, it’s perfect.