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Transform Your Cheap 3D Printer Into a Maker’s Dream

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The 3D printing market has exploded over the last decade or so. New printers hit the market each year, with options available in just about every price bracket. But can you improve the 3D printer you’ve spent your hard-earned money on once you get it home?

You certainly can! To make this process as easy as possible for you, this article will explore some of the best upgrades you can use to turn a cheap 3D printer into a maker’s dream. All of these options have been picked thanks to their ease of installation and impact on your printer.

Bed Leveling Knobs

bed leveling knobs

Let’s kick this off with something simple and easy: bed leveling knobs. The vast majority of budget 3D printers come with hex screws or wingnuts that allow you to alter the tension on each corner of your print bed. While they work, they can also be very fiddly, making it challenging to dial in just the right tension in each corner.

Bed leveling knobs can solve this problem in a flash. You can buy knobs like this for many printers, but you can also find 3D-printable options available that can be made on the printer you’re upgrading. The knobs pictured above are on the venerable FlashForge Creator 3, and they feature useful markers to show how far you’re turning them.

Auto-Leveling Sensors

BLTouch Auto Leveling Sensor
Image Credit: antclabs.com

Leveling a 3D printer’s bed is usually done with one of two tools: a piece of paper for most people, or a feeler gauge for those who are obsessed with precision. But why bother using measuring tools like these when you can let digital sensors do all of the work for you?

Auto-leveling sensors, like the popular BLTouch one pictured, can help you to tram your bed without having to use tools like paper in the process. Of course, you need to make sure that your printer is compatible with the auto-leveling sensor that you buy, as they will usually connect to the main board of your printer.

Some printers come with this feature built-in, though you won’t find any budget options that do. Even some premium printers lack auto-leveling.

Filament Spool Holders & Guides

spool holder

Failed prints are inevitable from time to time, even if you spend a small fortune on your 3D printer. This can be incredibly frustrating when the cause of a failure comes down to the way that your filament is being held, and it makes sense to look for ways to ensure that spools unroll evenly and the filament is properly guided into the extruder.

You can find an array of spool holder projects on websites like Thingiverse, giving you the chance to find an option that will work for your printer and the space it occupies. Likewise, you can also find filament guides for most printers when you search online. Filament guides are most important for direct drive 3D printers, but they can also be useful for those that use Bowden tubes.

Fan Air Direction Ducts

3d print fan duct

The material you use when you’re 3D printing makes a huge difference to the settings you choose. Many people don’t realize that the materials they pick also affect the type of cooling that will be optimal during prints, with materials like PLA benefiting from dedicated part cooling and ABS being better with as little cooling as possible.

Your printer will already have a fan on its hot end, enabling the machine to regulate its temperature. You can add shrouds to your hot end fan that can direct a portion of the air towards your part during printing. There are printable fan shrouds available in loads of shapes and sizes online, giving you the chance to find the perfect fit for your printer.

As a side note, it’s worth thinking about the fans on your printer. Most low-cost printers come with extremely cheap fans that tend to break and be noisy. Replacing these fans is easy, and can be another worthwhile upgrade.

Full-Metal Hot Ends

metal hot end

This next upgrade is heavily debated in 3D printing communities, but it can come with some real benefits depending on the type of printing you do. Most cheap 3D printers come with hot ends that have plastic components built into them. Full-metal hot ends are different, with the whole component being made from metal that will be durable and long-lasting.

Along with improving the life of your hot end, full-metal options will enable you to print at higher temperatures with materials like nylon. That is, as long as your printer can reach the required temperatures for the materials you’re using. They may come with flaws, but it can be worth living with the occasional blockage to be able to work with a variety of materials.

You can find full-metal hot ends from a range of companies, but you need to make sure that the one you choose is designed to work with your printer. This upgrade can be quite expensive, so you must know what you’re doing when you install it.

Webcam Mounts

3d printer webcam

Going back to the idea of prints failing, it’s time to consider an option that could save you hours of wasted print time. Many high-end printers come with cameras already installed, but cheaper examples rarely come with this feature. Installing a webcam mount to your 3D printer can be a cheap and effective way to overcome this sort of issue.

You can find options for just about every printer on the market online. Some mounts will work with standard tripod screws, while others are designed to work with specific cameras. Once you’ve found the right camera, you can use a device like a Raspberry Pi to enable you to view the feed remotely over the internet.

Of course, you should never leave a printer unattended for long periods. You should at least remain in the same building during operation, checking on your printer regularly to ensure that nothing is going wrong.

Glass & Flexible Print Surfaces

glass printer bed

This final upgrade comes with two choices that will give you very different results. Most cheap 3D printers will come with either a smooth aluminum surface or a rough surface that is based on BuildTak. These surfaces may be fine when you first start out, but they can also come with adhesion problems and are likely to get damaged over time. Glass and flexible surfaces are available for most printers.

  • Glass Print Surfaces: Print surfaces made from materials like borosilicate glass can produce extremely smooth bases for your 3D prints. You may need products like 3DLAC for good adhesion to surfaces like this, and you will need to hunt down a piece of glass that is the right size for your printer.
  • Flexible Print Surfaces: Flexible print surfaces are designed to be removable, with a coating that resembles BuildTak. Rather than having to scrape prints off, you can simply bend a print surface like this, reducing the risk of damage to your print while also making it easier to work with complex designs.

Not every printer will be able to have a replacement print surface installed. You will need to do research for your specific printer when you’re looking at options like this, but this shouldn’t be too hard as long as you have a relatively common machine.

Upgrading Your Cheap 3D Printer

Upgrading a 3D printer can make sense for a lot of different reasons. Not only will you improve your experience with the machine you love, but you may also be able to improve its performance. Considering the price of a new 3D printer, these upgrades are all very affordable, and they give you the chance to learn more about your printer in the process.

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