Maintaining your 3D printer’s extruder
07 August 2017
For any filament-based 3D printing technique, proper maintenance of your machines’ extruders should be a regular part of your internal processes. This becomes even more essential if you are utilising different filaments with the same printer. If even small quantities of a different material are still present in the extruder during the next print run, it will affect the finished result, resulting in lost time and wasted material.
If you are in any doubt about whether a clogged extruder is affecting the quality of your printed parts, look closely at it during a print run. The printing material should leave the extruder in a clean, straight line at all times. If you see the material curving slightly as it is deposited, your extruder needs cleaning. However, it’s far better to prevent problems with your extruders than fix them when they occur. We’d therefore recommend considering the following steps in order to ensure your printers deliver their best for every project:
Clean your extruder after every job
This is the most straightforward thing you can do to avoid clogs. Simply remove your extruder and use a toothpick-sized object to clean out any fragments of material left inside. You might also consider periodic cleaning with acetone. Bear in mind that waste material can get into other areas of the printer, particularly moving parts, and affect their performance, so it is advisable to use this opportunity to inspect the rest of the machine and ensure it is kept clean.
You might also consider a ‘cold pull’, where a clean length of filament is heated manually and pushed into the extruder. The heat is then turned off, and the filament is quickly pulled out, ideally taking any waste material with it. This method can prove effective, although it does involve wasting additional filament, which can prove expensive in the long term.
Check your extruder has been correctly fitted
Whenever you remove your printer’s extruder for cleaning, make sure it has been fitted correctly once you are done. An improperly fitted extruder will affect your printer’s achievable accuracy and is likely lead to misshapen prints.
Make sure your filaments are suitable for your machine
Filaments for 3D printing are not universal in design. As the diameters of different filaments can vary between materials and manufacturers, it’s important to choose one that will fit your printer, otherwise you run the risk of the extruder becoming clogged. Consult your printer’s manufacturer and your material supplier if you are in any doubt.
Make sure you always use the right temperature settings
3D printing materials need to be heated to different temperatures to print effectively, so it’s you should check your printer’s settings and your filament’s specifications before every print run. If a material is heated to an incorrect temperature, it will not deliver a clean print and is likely to cause a blockage.
Consider investing in a cleaning filament
These are specialist filaments that can be used to scrub the inside of an extruder. They are loaded into your machine in the same way as conventional filaments, heated and extruded, drawing any waste materials out of the printer as they do so. While these allow your extruder to be cleaned without having to remove it from the printer, bear in mind that they will represent an ongoing material expense, and so may not be a cost-effective choice for large-scale operations.
Periodically replace your extruder
Extruders are functional parts that will inevitably experience wear and tear over time, particularly if you’ll be making heavy use of abrasive filaments. It’s therefore a good idea to periodically replace your extruders as they wear out, or to use different extruders for different filaments (a heavy-duty steel extruder for more abrasive filaments, for instance).
Make sure your filament has been properly stored
3D printing filaments need to be stored correctly to ensure their chemical qualities stay optimised, allowing them to print correctly. Your filaments will be supplied with instructions for storage, which should be followed to the letter.
Developing an efficient maintenance process
Of course, with any sort of production-scale printing, it is essential that all maintenance for your fleet of printers is factored into the wider project workflows to ensure it does not become a disruption. For example, you should avoid situations where — for example — production of a part has to be delayed due to the scheduled printer being unavailable due to necessary cleaning. Any routine maintenance should therefore be factored into your machine scheduling process, so engineers can have complete confidence that any printers listed as available will be clean, functional and ready to go.
This way, you’ll not only get the most out of your fleet of printers — you’ll enhance your whole operation’s overall performance.