3D Printing PLA on a flexible metal build plate
By D. Scott Williamson
I love 3D printing. I’ve designed and printed hundreds of models on the Replicator 2 and have developed many useful skills and techniques. The Replicator 2 has a non heated polycarbonate build plate with MakerBot emblems laser cut into one side and the other side is frosted.
I don’t care for having the MakerBot logo in relief on the bottom of my prints so I print on the frosted side of the platform.
These are rafts but I don’t like having the MakerBot logo embossed on my work.
This worked well for hundreds of prints but eventually, scraping the prints off the platform smoothed the rough surface and parts started sticking harder and harder to the build plate. Ultimately they stuck so hard that the force required to get a spatula or razor under a part started cutting grooves into the build plate.
Two of the most common 3D printing problems are related first layer adhesion to the build platform…
If the first layer does not bond well enough it can result in corners lifting especially for broad parts on unheated platforms. In the worst cases the part breaks completely free from the platform partway through a print leading to a stringy mess, wasted time and filament, and in rare cases the PLA can stick to and damage the insulation on the print head.
Catastrophe! Lifted corner, parts broke free, filament everywhere, and damaged thermal insulation on the print head.
If the first layer bonds too well to the build platform the part or platform may be damaged when removing the part. When using blue tape, it may not be possible to completely remove the tape from the part.
I started using blue painters tape and Aqua Net hairspray on the build plate. I found this combination to work well with PLA, though I’m not sure how necessary the hairspray is. The problems are that the tape is damaged when removing most prints so needs to be reapplied frequently and can be difficult or impossible to remove from the bottom of finished parts.
Blue tape stuck to part.
Sometimes it’s impossible to remove all the tape residue.
Blue tape doesn’t last long and requires sticky messy maintenance.
I considered a heated build plate, and glass or metal build plates when the idea occurred to me to try to use a flexible metal build plate. I conducted several experiments using a cable chain model that is challenging to print due to fine detail and thin parts that need to bond well in the first layer.
Experiment #1: Aluminum flashing with 2 coats of hairspray dried with heat gun and held by binder clips
First I tried aluminum flashing with hairspray.
- Measured and cut the aluminum on a paper cutter and nibbler to perfectly fit the build plate
Aluminum flashing on roll with Replicator 2 build plate
Rough cut aluminum. Use gloves, sheet metal is sharp.
Cut aluminum to size on the paper cutter.
- Rolled flat
Thin sheet aluminum was curled and needed to be flattened.
Rolling the thin rolled sheet aluminum flat with pipe on foam. A towel could have also been used underneath the material.
- Cleaned with alcohol to remove oils/grease
Cleaned the sheet aluminum with ammonia and alcohol.
- Coated one side with a thin film of hairspray, let it dry, and applied a thicker coat of hairspray
Two coats of Aqua Net hairspray applied.
- Dried the hairspray with heat gun
Used heat gun to rapidly dry the hairspray.
- Clipped aluminum to build plate with binder clips at the edge
Aluminum plate clamped to build platform. (The clip in the upper right corner is about to get knocked off.)
- Leveled the build plate to account for the thickness of the aluminum plate
- Printed a test
The PLA bonded weakly to the platform and the parts detached easily in the second layer.
The upper right and lower left clamps had to be moved because the print head knocked them off.
The nozzle interfered with some of the clips and knocked them off. The PLA did not adhere to the build plate. Failure.
Experiment #2: Aluminum flashing with wet hair spray and binder clips
Aluminum flashing with wet hairspray yielded the same results. Failure.
Experiment #3: Aluminum flashing with glue stick held by clips
Using the back side of the same build plate I used a generous layer of glue stick.
- Using the back of the cut aluminum plate from Experiment #1
- Coated the plate with glue stick
- Clipped aluminum to build plate with binder clips at the edge where the nozzle would be less likely to interfere with them
The PLA adhered wonderfully and the print turned out great.
When done I removed the aluminum plate and was able to remove the print by bending the plate – Success!
But the aluminum does not lay flat and the part left dimples in soft thin aluminum plate before letting go. I need a stronger material.
Experiment #4: Steel sheet with glue stick held by clips
I scrounged around and found a stiffer steel plate salvaged from a magnetic children’s book many years ago. I did not try to cut the steel plate to fit the platform because I don’t have a shear and did not want to dull my paper cutter cutting steel. I can cut the steel on the metal shear at Workshop 88.
- Using paper towels, I cleaned the steel plate with ammonia to be sure to remove oil or grease, then with alcohol, and finally with tap water
- Coated the plate with glue stick
- Clipped steel plate to build plate with binder clips at the edge where the nozzle would not interfere with them
- Leveled the build plate to account for the difference in thickness between the aluminum and steel plate
- Printed another test
The print turned out great!
But the plastic clips that hold the build plate to the printer are raised causing the plate to be irregular and warped and not flat against the polycarbonate platform beneath it.
If you remove a print by flexing the steel it pops right off but it is still possible to dimple the steel this way. The dimples can easily be gently pounded out with a broad hammer with the steel on a flexible surface like a neoprene mouse mat or a towel. Parts firmly attached to the steel are easily removed using a spatula and/or a razor so dimpling turned out to be a non-issue.
Experiment #5: Steel sheet with glue stick held by magnetic sheet
To get the platform to lay flat on the platform I attached a sheet of flexible rubbery plastic “refrigerator magnet” material originally intended to be a furnace vent cover to the platform with double sided tape.
- Cut magnet to size
- Attached magnet to build plate using double sided tape and pressed it flat using a rubber roller
- Aligned the steel plate with the platform and when laid flat the magnet holds it firmly and flat
- Leveled the build plate to account for the additional thickness of the magnet layer
- Coated the plate with glue stick
- Printed another test
Best results yet!
Excellent first layer adhesion with fine detail.
The build plate is flat and level, firmly attached to the platform in the center without using clips which makes it very easy to insert into and remove the plate from the printer. The finish on the bottom of every part is smooth and shiny, far better even than when printing with a raft.
Even though others reported using a coating of glue stick up to a dozen times, I found reused glue stick not to adhere well. Adding layers of glue builds up, so every couple of prints I wipe the plate down with a wet paper towel before adding a new layer.
I’ve added alignment markings to the build plate to help install the plate consistently, to help center parts, and to help apply glue only where it’s needed for each print.
Markings help guide application of glue and placement of parts in MakerWare software.
Printed right where expected, with a beautiful first layer and finish quality on the bottom without a raft.
Extremely challenging pinhole lens print
This pinhole lens is .2mm thick and each hole is printed separately with 2 shells then the rest is filled in, if any pop off the build plate it will stick to the hot end and gather the rest into a blob of plastic.
This folding phone/tablet stand (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:692523) is a favorite model in my house. It’s a hinged phone/tablet stand that prints fully assembled. If you look carefully you can see that there is some slight curling. The plastic is pulling upward at the corners and even though it has not detached from the build plate it is deflecting it slightly up off the magnet.
The finish quality of the base is comparable to printing on glass.
Not every print has been perfect though, this is another phone/tablet stand that started to curl. The print head caught one corner and moved the entire build plate on the magnet. You can see it continued to print offset before I stopped it. It is impressive that it moved the whole build plate without detaching from the platform. I was able to reprint this model successfully. Only a heated bed or chamber can really prevent this issue entirely, but a stronger magnet may require more force to move.
- Cut the build plate(s) to size on the shear at Workshop 88. The build plate is still larger than the platform and must bend to go over at least one of the platform holding clips.
- Cover the entire platform with magnetic material. The current magnetic material does not cover the entire platform, it is what I had on hand.
- Find stronger magnets. The print quality is wonderful but it is still possible for corners of large parts to lift the platform off the magnetic base while staying attached to the platform.
- After I started printing on steel I found PRINTinZ’s flexible build plates. I haven’t used them but check them out! http://www.printinz.com/printinz-3d-printer-plates/
Thanks for reading, and good luck with your 3D prints!
D. Scott Williamson