Getting Started With the Printrbot Simple Metal

Created by will on Aug. 29, 2014, 6 a.m. Last post by UABMaddog 4 years, 10 months ago.

Norm and I kicked off July by building a 3D printer, the Printrbot Simple Metal It was the third printer we’ve built, and it was interesting building a printer with a metal frame, but once we got it assembled and did a couple of test prints, we didn’t have time to touch it for a month. I’ve spent much of the last week dialing in the printer, figuring out its nuances, and getting decent prints out of it. We’ll do a Tested In-Depth video with it at some point in the future, but in the meantime, here's what I've learned so far.

First, in the time since we finished the build, the instructions for building the kit version of the Printrbot Simple Metal have been updated. The kit’s assembly instructions have been completely revamped, addressing many of the issues we had during the assembly. Along with good pictures, the newest version of the instructions provides written instructions for non-obvious steps.

I love that the Printrbot makes it easy to make slight Z-axis calibration changes in software rather than hardware.

The instructions for calibrating and making the first print are quite good, and I love that the Printrbot makes it easy to make slight Z-axis calibration changes—a common cause of bad prints—in software rather than hardware. It took two or three false starts, but we were able to print a fan shroud that was good enough to work in two or three tries. Because of the way this type of 3D printing works, it sometimes takes a few minutes for failures to become obvious. To give context, when we built our first printer, the original Makerbot Cupcake, it took almost a week of tweaking to get usable prints.

Once you get past the first print, configuring the software gets a little hairy.

Your printer software lets you place objects on the printer’s build platform, then slice those 3D objects into two dimensional layers. Those two dimensional layers are then converted a series of instructions that describe the movement of the print head and the build platform that the printer can understand, called gcode. The software that Printrbot recommends, Repetier also lets you control the stuff you need to do to maintain the printer--move the print head, the build platform, turn fans on or off, and adjust the temperature of the extruder.

Repetier handles the housekeeping, but gives you multiple options to convert your 3D objects into gcode. Printrbot recommends Slic3r for this task. Configuring Slic3r is tricky. Both Slic3r and Repetier are designed to work with many different types of devices, so you need to do a fair amount of configuration to get them to work with the Printrbot. Some of that is handled by configuration files provided by Printrbot (I had the best luck using the Simple Slow Config), but you’ll also need to tell Repetier about your printer’s printable volume.

I was surprised at the lack of profiles for the Simple Metal that work with different vertical resolutions. Switching the vertical resolution reduces the number of layers that you have to print, which lets you print much faster. While I was able to find a very reliable 0.2mm vertical resolution profile the 0.1mm profiles didn’t work particularly well with our printer. They under-extruded, printing a test cube that had a grid of plastic (think Chex cereal) instead of producing a solid layer of plastic. I love having the granular controls over every variable that this setup provides, so I’m sure I’ll eventually have a 0.1mm profile that’s reliable, but I wish there were better configuration files available for fine, medium, and coarse prints.

I also experienced a few technical problems as I started printing. When we were assembling the printer, we hadn’t locked the hot end into the block well enough. When the printer heated up and the extruder pushed filament through it, the hot end slipped out of the extruder block and dragged through the model and across the build platform. I gouged up the platform pretty badly. Before I realized that the hot end was actually loose, I thought the z-axis sensor had slipped out of alignment and spent some time adjusting it, which was undoubtedly a mistake. Luckily, I was able to cover the damage enough to get good, flat-bottomed prints using blue painter’s tape.

While we’re on the subject of blue painter’s tape, this is the first printer I’ve used in several years that didn’t have a heated build platform (there is a $100 upgrade available though). Typically, users recommend applying a layer of blue painter’s tape to the print bed to help your prints stick and also make them easier to remove once the print is done. If a print breaks loose before it’s done, it’s essentially impossible to recover. At first, I just used whatever tape we had laying around the office, but I had problems with that tape breaking free from the platform and causing the prints to warp. After a quick trip to the hardware store, I had six different types of tape, and eventually found that 3M's Scotch Blue Painter's Tape for Multi-Surfaces #2090 worked really well. I still had some slight warping at the edges of very large prints, but for the most part, the tape stayed stuck to the platform, objects stuck to the tape, and I was able to remove the tape from the prints.

If you’re having adhesion problems, the first thing to do is wipe down the build platform with rubbing alcohol, let it dry, apply your blue painter’s tape, then wipe it down with rubbing alcohol too. The alcohol takes off any leftover manufacturing residues and removes your fingerprint oil. It’s best to get in the habit of wiping down your print surface before every print. Not much sucks more than spending hours on a print only to have it break loose after 5 hours.

I also noticed that the Printrbot is really sensitive to tension on the filament line. If there's any tension in the filament at all, it stops feeding and your print will get messed up. to solve the problem, I put together a simple spindle holder using a couple of pieces of scrap wood and a dowel that I had in my garage, and then printed a couple of filament guides. It solved the problem, but I think I’ll eventually end up making something that holds more than one spindle of filament.

It’s important to note that 3D printing is still in it’s infancy, especially for consumer-priced models like this one. If you’re having other problems, and you will have other problems, this troubleshooting guide will walk you through the most common issues and fixes. In my experience, the most common causes of failed prints are adhesion problems, slicing problems, or poor z-axis calibration. Once you nail those three things, you’ll be able to crank out consistently awesome 3D prints.

I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by what this printer is capable of. It’s $600 assembled or $540 in kit form. After spending a few hours assembling it and a dozen or so hours getting the settings dialed in, I’m getting impressive prints out of it. Best of all, it’s an extensible frame—there are already kits that let you add a heated build platform and upgrade the print head to work with multiple extruders. Because of the way the printer is designed, it wouldn’t even be particularly difficult to upgrade the print volume.

I’ve set up Octoprint on a Raspberry Pi and am now using that to control the printer instead of Repetier. Octoprint is a phenomenal little piece of software that makes the printer essentially standalone—normally, you need to leave a computer hooked up to it while it’s printing. Octoprint lets you control the printer from a browser, check on its progress, and even queue prints. If you have the appropriate camera, you can even watch a live feed of your prints or shoot a timelapse of your build. Next time, I’ll explain how I set up Octoprint and share some timelapses. In the meantime, let us know how you are doing with your 3D printer in the comments below.

Next: Configuring Octoprint and shooting timelapses from the printer's bed.

  • Thanks for this informative article. Good to learn from someone's experience with a new product by their trial and error so I do not make the same mistakes. Anyhow some great things to remember when using the PrintrBot especially since for my birthday present to me I am purchasing one myself this week. Thanks for the article.


  • You guys need to hire someone with OCD to keep your workspaces tidy.

  • I'm saving up for a Printrbot. Can't wait to get going and work out the kinks.

  • @willsmith I have to thank you for the rubbing alcohol tip. My makerbot 2x hasn't had a print break free since you told me about that. The tip of cutting my kapton roll lengthwise has similarly saved me time and effort. I also want to say to anyone here looking for a 3d printer, I have had lots of trouble with makerbot including their latest 5th gen. People seem to like ultimaker but starting with something less expensive and do it yourself like this printer is probably a good idea.

  • Also saving up for one of these. I was looking at a few other cheaper products before you guys posted your initial build video. This one looks like a better option for just a little more monies. Thanks for the post! The filament comparison you mentioned on this weeks podcast would be a good read (or vid)!

  • I've just got a Simple Metal and spent a number of days figuring out how to get a reasonable print quality out of it. Blue Scotch Tape and alcohol are definitely the way to go. I also invested in a software package called Simplify3D to slice and print my .stl files and that made a huge difference, I'd recommend looking at it if you can afford it as it's made a world of difference to what I can now produce.

  • @willsmith Are there specific objects you can print to test the configuration or do you just pick something and go?

  • @Kevinthomas1138: When your first calibrating your Z axis its best to stick with the presliced fanshroud I have found. When you get the layers smooth, without the head being to high or low. You will have yourself zeroed in for 100micron accuracy. Though it will take making adjustments down to 100 microns at a time when you to that last little bit. But It will make all the difference in the world if your looking to do 100 micron prints.

  • I've had a rough month with the printrbot. Took them 3 weeks to ship to me initially. I ended up ordering one off amazon instead but right as I went to cancel my order directly through them they finally shipped it. So I ended up with two of them, Which is fine cause I figured set one up for abs and the other for PLA. However the 2nd of the two has had an ongoing series of failures, that hasn't been resolved yet. In part cause its extremely time consuming.

    Otherwise been pumping out some nice high quality prints and learning to deal with the ups and downs of 3d printing and tight tolerance printing. Made a functional Roller bearing from scratch. That is a one piece print, took about 10 revisions. Even managed to print one in ABS without a heated build platform.

    Right now I am working on a series of assemblies for functional reproduction of a prop. Just for fun though. Here is Last nights 8.5 hour print for it. (the orange cylinder) with some of the other parts of the assembly. Shell Casings, moonclip, 1 bullet on the shell casing. As well as the prototypes for the advance mechanism that goes off the shaft for the cylinder.

  • @TsunamiJuan: Thanks for the info. Your prints look great. I'm currently in the process of justifying a purchase with the wife. Fingers Crossed

  • After watching the video of you guys building the printrbot i knew it was the machine for me, I ordered one up the next week in white and once it arrived set to and had it built in around 90 mins followed by another hour of tidying wiring lol

    I did manage to trash my Z axis sensor not paying attention when reconnecting the extension cable after tidying up my wiring but managed to score one on ebay for next day delivery.

    Printed my fan shroud first time and was impressed with the initial results, spent another day messing with it fine tuning before printing some parts i designed for a customer.

    I must say it gets addictive and after seeing the robot jeremy printed on last weeks podcast i decided i had to have one. I decided to swap colour of filament and thats when it all went wrong lol i couldn't get a good first layer so started messing with settings then changed back to the colour i was using before and found that i had really made a mess of my settings lol spent another couple of hours messing trying to get it back before finally realising my issue was my bed.

    Turns out i had been using a vinyl decal squeegee to make sure the tape was down good and i had managed to dish my bed from pushing down to hard. Im now in the process of adding a little reinforcement to stop this happening again but I'm hooked and already wanting a bigger build platform lol

    Im currently working on a metal version of the plus as plywoods not my bag and once finished i will rebuild my simple into the new hotness :D

    Below are some items i designed and printed and the current rendering from fusion 360 of what the New Hotness will look like

    I also found if you need a little more adhesion with tape 3M spray mount works great

  • After watching your build video I knew I needed one. I didn't know why, or what for, but I needed it.

    Got one last week. Spent the weekend calibrating with the PLA that came with the printer then went to start playing and noticed that I screwed up and ordered ABS from Amazon instead of PLA. So waiting a few days for my Prime shipment of a couple of rolls of PLA and then back to calibrating.

    I'm currently printing Sean Charlesworth's Tardis model in the background. It's coming out great. Still fighting a little bit of warping on the corners, but found that adding "feet" to the model (after seeing a recommendation on RepRap Squad's website) has helped significantly.

    I still don't know why I need this thing, but I'm having fun with it either way.

  • @willsmith after watching your livestream of testing out the printrbot i realized just how much i love watching 3d printer time lapse videos, which there are not a ton of quality ones on youtube of. So i can't wait to see the ones you have to show us :D

  • @GuanoLad said:

    You guys need to hire someone with OCD to keep your workspaces tidy.

    These shots were taken from @will's office ...... at home. 😉

  • @Thoseposers: 3d printers are stupidly addictive things to watch. I had to move mine into a different room cause otherwise I had a tendency to watch it all the time. Besides the fact that its kinda loud and annoying. Had some friends over and we where making random stuff with it, and we all sat there and watched it for around 3 hours...

  • I ordered an assembled with the heated bed 2 weeks ago. When Jeremy praised it on the podcast after the build videos I just bit the bullet!

    And guys, NO REGRETS! This printer is simply awesome. Got it 3 days after ordering, unpacked, read instructions on their site, it was almost perfectly calibrated out of the box. Made a few adjustments and got familiar for 2 hours, then i printed the shroud!

    With the heated bed, it makes a huge difference. At first I though it was just for ABS so i didn't turn it on, still had warping on blue tape with alcohol cleaning. Then I decided to set it to 40C and completely flat prints, no warping!

    The biggest challenge I had so far was printing a hearthstone card. Most of the problems came with Slicer's (IMO) abysmal supports. Tried Meshmixer but it seems to be really for figurines or weird shapes. Going to try Simplify3D since I've been getting a lot suggestions for it, even on this thread.

    Right now I'm printing my biggest "thing" to date, a Groot bust (from GotG)...a 9h print!

    Anyway, it's great and I am thankful you guys make such great content!

  • @Malchom

    Whats the fan shroud model? it looks better than the stock print


  • I'm very glad you posted this. I got my Printrbot as soon as I watched your week of building it. Since I'm completely new to this stuff my experimentation took a bit longer than yours. And I'm still not at a point where my prints are 100% consistent. That's why I took away a lot from your article and will definetely use my weekend to further tune in my printrbot :)

    thanks for everything you do at tested!

  • Just finished an upgrade to this printer. matrix precision build volume upgrade and a heated build platform. No more curling PLA.

  • One thing I'm finding is that my belt tensioners have loosened themselves over a few days of printing. Both X and Y. Had the X belt slip during a print. I checked the tension and it was very loose. The screws had actually backed out some on the tensioner piece.

    Tightened them back up and the next print was great.

    Need to start looking into the heated bed...

  • @GR$EME: This is the fan shroud I got, it reduced warping for me but the heated bed really sealed the deal

    @StephenWestervelt: Here is the finished Groot bust print this morning :

  • @Malchom Thanks, its queued to print once i fix my bed

    I want to go heated bed but it will be done on my upgrade as i really want the bigger build volume having found that i like the whole 3D print world

  • @benhewitson: Thanks for posting pics with your upgrade, I didn't realize there was someone making a both a build platform upgrade kit and a Z axis upgrade kit. That looks to be of much better machining quality than the Aluminum heated bed kit I got from printrbot.

    So for that largest Item I have printed is the parts to a wing for a RC plane I am building. They came in at 151mm high and had to put them on the bed at a 45 degree angle. Since it was about 180mm or so long by about 40 wide.

  • @Malchom Have you tried Repetier 1.0+ yet? Cause that has Cura as a slicing option which I have heard better things about from people. But haven't tried it yet. It also nicely integrates into octopi if your using that with your printer. Since Octopi is built somewhat around the early versions of cura.

  • @benhewitson: I was reading about that Matrix Precision upgrade. Definitely looks good. I'm waiting for them to release the updated version for the newer Printrbot Metal. Heated build plate would be a nice addition as well.

  • @TsunamiJuan: Just bought SImplify3D this morning and setup my first print, printing looking great so far, I tried Cura in the past but i couldn't get a working print for some reason...

  • @Malchom: I've found if i stick to the material rules of nothing over 45 overhang i am good, or If I have to have a overhang like due to holes cut through stuff, I will bring the stuff into meshmixer and add support pillars first. I also avoid printing multiple parts at once if i can, I find when I print 4-5 items at a time on the bed, it increases the likelyhood that the head will hit objects unless they are 100% flat, and you really have your calibration tight. It probably helps a good deal that I am mostly printing my own designs. So I am not trying to slice someone elses design that might not take such things into account.

  • @TsunamiJuan: I was having a problem with *slight* scratches even within a single piece when the head moved from one end to another. I suspect it's due to my build platform being about .5mm off between corners. I've only seen it happen when the head moves from the low side to the "high" side. I saw a recommendation to add a "Z lift" of 1mm when it moves. In Slic3r I found the setting as "Lift Z" in Printer Settings. I set it to 1mm. I don't see any negative repercussions yet. But you do get a little extra noise from the Z motor as it bumps up and down during movement and between layers.

  • @chrisfowler99: I've played with Z lift aswell, if your printing at 100 micron it will cause little ooze peaks that increase the head hit chances and potentially gaps at time. My best solution has been to measure the amount of head drag/scratches I have and use it to make super small changes to print height, or just avoid going between multiple assemblies. Since sometimes its cause by deflection of the arms due to high travel speeds.

    Often during high speed travel when going between items the X Y move much faster than the Z is capable of compenstating for, similar to the over acceleration problems that can happen when printing radiuses. This will also cause head drag, scratching and the head to break a small print loose.

  • Im working on addressing the Z axis on my conversion by adding backlash to the Z axis threads, if you lift the Z Axis carriage on the stock simple metal you can feel the play in the threads which considering we are all trying to print .1 or .2 is kind of funny

    Ignore my Z axis threaded rod being off centre, but you can see the block has a slot and 2 threaded sections, these can be adjusted by a second screw with a back nut forcing the gap open or closed