The 3D Printing Hype Cycle

3D printing continues to transform industry, put power into the hands of amateur creators and gain widespread adoption.

In education however many people that I speak to have entered the trough of disillusionment as they realize that 3D printing technology, at the price point that most schools can afford, is still problematic. The reality is that it requires some expertise. It requires patience. It requires an investment of your time in figuring out how they work, how to troubleshoot and probably one of the more overlooked skills – competence with a CAD package.

A typical journey of skill acquisition is as follows:

This is where you think “This is awesome!” and then promptly head over to Thingiverse and download and print a miniature Yoda Head on your new 3D Printer.

Advanced Beginner
You have printed a number of small objects and are thinking “This is still awesome! How do I make my own stuff?” So you go over to TinkerCAD, start playing around and follow some of the tutorials. Inevitably you get frustrated. So you download and print a T-Rex head that takes 22 hours to print.

And this is where the skill acquisition usually stops because the next level requires a steep learning curve. TinkerCAD is great, but to take yourself to the next level you need to invest some time in SolidWorks or AutoCAD – industry standard platforms used by real designers and engineers. Spend 100 hours learning one of these packages and you will be on your way. Also, nothing will accelerate your understanding of 3D Printing technology like actually building one. So I recommend buying a Printrbot kit and putting it together. During this build you reach the stage of competency.

You are making some progress but start thinking “This is hard.” Solidworks won’t quite do what you want it to do or you find that you have assembled your Printrbot wrong. At this point you throw a mini tantrum and think “This is shit” immediately followed by “I’m shit.” Don’t despair though. Keep at it and you will reach the Proficient stage.

You get over your tantrum, get your Printrbot working and think “This might be ok.” You feel pretty good about your CAD skills. You are making your 3D printer sing. You start incorporating cross-curricular design challenges with your students. Someone at work tells you that they have broken a part on their pBone. A pBone is a fully functioning dual bore Eb alto trombone constructed in ABS and glass fibre. With all the benefits of the normal trombone but smaller and lighter. An ideal instrument for beginners.


You take a look at the part, which is called a water key and say “leave it with me.” You go away and replicate the object in Solidworks and then print it out.

Much like the early personal computers, 3D Printers are a game changer. Its what you can do with them that matters most.

Then you think “This really is awesome.”

Building Prosthetic Hands

In July, I took some students to Swinburne University of Technology to be part of the Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria Conference.

A group of six students ranging from Year five through to Year eleven worked together and built a 3D printer from its basic components and printed and assembled working prosthetic hands. These hands, designed as part of the E-Nable open source project that has brought together engineers, artists, makers, occupational therapists, prosthetists, garage tinkerers, designers and many others from all over the world, can be printed and assembled for less than $50.

Real-world projects like this enable students to become deep, independent thinkers, who take responsibility for their own learning and solve problems that have a real outcome as they experience first-hand what it is like to be a designer, a mathematician or an engineer. Our students are empowered to be the creators and inventors of tomorrow’s technology by having the mindset that nothing is impossible and that you can create whatever you imagine. Whilst the designs of the hands are downloadable the deep learning is during assembly, the understanding of an interconnected system, the engineering and in the linear and parametric scaling to ensure hands are printed to the correct size.  It made the local paper – SCT August 20th 2015

Two prosthetic hands have now been completed as our students go about identifying a potential donor so their work can go to someone in need.

Advanced Calibration: Z-Axis Offset

Easy to understand Z-Axis calibration for Makerbot.

Resolving Homing Errors

From the MakerBot forums:

“A homing error occurs when the extruder nozzle doesn’t reseat properly after pressing against the build plate during homing. A message will appear on the LCD panel and will look similar to this:
HOMING ERROR. Homing failed. Your extruder nozzle may be stuck. Please try again.”

How to Resolve a Homing Error

  • Make sure your build plate is firmly in place and not crooked or resting on top of the platform.
  • Make sure your build plate tape adheres evenly to the build plate. The surface should be smooth, and the tape should completely cover the build plate.
  • On the control panel, navigate to Filament > Load Filament. Hold the Smart Extruder in place and try to push the filament through. You may want to grip the filament with a pair of pliers to help you push. Then choose Unload Filament. Loading and unloading filament will help align the nozzle.
  • If this does not resolve the error, you may need to reseat the nozzle. First, wait for the Smart Extruder to cool. Never touch the Smart Extruder while it is still heated. Once the nozzle has completely cooled, remove the Smart Extruder from the extruder carriage and hold it with the nozzle pointing upward. Press the nozzle down into the Smart Extruder. Move the nozzle gently back and forth and around in circles. Then release the nozzle. The base of nozzle should pop into place and stick out from the Smart Extruder.

A video explaining the process:

How To Resolve A Homing Error from MakerBot on Vimeo.


Having written previously about using Autodesk’s 123D Creature in relation to character design and printing an Elephanticus, I was excited to hear of Autodesk’s new offering Tinkerplay. Tinkerplay is a free app that lets you design and customize your own creatures and characters on your mobile device and then make them “real” using a 3D printer. It goes in a different direction then 123D Creature (which is now called Sculpt Plus) in the sense of creating snappable parts.


It’s easy to use, multiple platform and on my first attempt I was able to get something pretty reasonable on a Makerbot 5th gen.

*Off the print bed, the individual parts probably need a little finishing with some sand paper or acetone but in the photos below no finishing has been attempted.

Unblocking a Smart Extruder

The MakerBot Smart Extruder is “smart” in many areas, but they still can not find a clog and then subsequently unclog it by themselves. We are probably still a few generations of printer away before these extruder’s can be completely automated when it comes to self-diagnosis and repair. So how do you fix a blockage?

Optimizing Print Quality on MakerBot 5th Gen


We have a suite of Makerbot 5th Gens at our College and out of the box they worked great.

However, being in high-traffic, high-use environments with students from Year 4 to Year 12 utilizing these 3D printers we started to have maintenance issues spring up on almost a daily basis. Through trial and error, reading forums and talking with MakerBot tech support and the guys at ThingLab, we know have our printers fully optimized and printing better then ever.

Some tips that we have learned over the last 12 months that I thought may be helpful to others include:

  • Be vigilant about dust – you need to keep your 3D Printer as dust free as possible which may mean investing in a dust cover for when it is not in use.
  • Firmware should be updated regularly. Latest version is v1.6.3. This can be updated from Devices -> Update Firmware.
  • Ensure you are using the latest version of MakerBot Desktop.
  • Print and make a dust filter or universal filament filter available from Thingverse – trust me this makes a huge difference! This video explains the fitting and you can also try a little WD40 in the filter.
  • Check the PTFE (white tube) is in a nice arc, just touching the rear edge of the filament drawer and that the end sits between the two lines marked on the filament drawer. Leave your filament drawer in the upright position whilst printing.
  • Instead of blue painters tape on the build plate consider using Buildtak. It is a much better alternative.
  • Manually adjusting the Z offset allows you to set a better distance between nozzle and plate. This will greatly improve your print experience, the quality of your prints and prolong nozzle / smart extruder life. To best calibrate your Makerbot Replicator, perform this procedure:
    • Go to Devices -> Device Preferences -> Z Offset
    • Set manual offset to -0.4mm
    • Level the build plate, ensuring that you tighten the two bed levelling screws before calibrating. Once the procedure is complete, perform levelling again, skipping the screw tightening at the start. This will ensure the plate is very level.
    • Go back and now offset the plate to +0.4mm, apply changes and run a test print with ‘Chain links’. If the raft is ‘squiggly’, incrementally adjust the smart extruder up till it no longer is running test prints to check the first layer. As soon as it adheres well (no squiggles), this is your Z height.

Once the plate is level, take the plate out to remove parts and you won’t tamper with the level. The printer will then check the level between prints to ensure that it’s still level.

In all the excitement that 3D printing generates at your school, eager students may bump the printer on occasions so re-levelling fairly often is recommended. As students are learning CAD, it is also important to check their designs for size, shape and form and talk to them about what would print well, what wouldn’t and why. All part of the fun!

Elephanticus (Painted)

One of my colleagues has painted the Elephanticus.

End Result:

Painted Elephanticus 123D


Elepanticus minus support material

A 3D printer combined with 123D lends itself to projects involving game characters – see previous postSomething else that would be awesome would be a project where students had to create a board game – the rules, the board, the miniatures etc. Would be great fun.

123D Elephanticus

Elepanticus minus support material

Most of the support material has now been removed and he doesn’t look too bad. Next step is to have the Elephanticus painted.

After a 10 hour print at 0.254mm layer resolution this is what the Elephanticus looks like pre-soak. Most of the support structure should break away after a couple of hours soaking.

Original images on our Flickr.