Tobold's Blog
Saturday, August 05, 2017
3D printing supports

The technology used in most home 3D printers is fused deposition modeling or fused filament fabrication. Which means the material is fed to the printer in the form of a plastic filament, and the print head melts that plastic and deposits it layer by layer on a print bed. The obvious disadvantage of this bottom-up layer-by-layer fabrication is that you can't deposit plastic on an upper layer if there isn't some support for it on the lower layer. You can print overhangs of up to 45°, so your model can be bigger on top than on bottom. But for example printing a figurine with an arm stretched out horizontally is a problem.

The general solution for that problem is printing supports, that is printing something that goes from the bottom up to the outstretched arm, so that you can print the arm on top of it. Once the print is finished, you can then remove that extra support part. The 3D printing software XYZWare that came with my XYZ printer is able to automatically add supports. So far, so good.

My main application for the 3D printer is still printing figurines for my Dungeons & Dragons game. And lately I've been printing animals, like spiders, hyena, or an elk. If you think of how these animals look in nature, you will realize that they have relatively thin legs which aren't directly below the center mass of their body, but rather in the corners. Which means that if you print them in 3D, you need to print them with supports. That works, but I was getting more and more annoyed with the way that XYZWare is adding supports. Basically the software adds supports everywhere, so that the whole area under a spider's body is filled with it. So at the end of the print there is a lot of work to do trying to remove the support with a scalpel, while not breaking or cutting the thin legs. Also there always remains a visible trace of the support, so these models end up full of imperfections.

There is better software than XYZWare which gives you better control over supports, but unfortunately that software isn't compatible with the XYZ Printer. So I had to find a different solution: I am importing my models into TinkerCAD, and I am adding 1 mm thick columns manually at selected locations. The I print the result without automatically added supports. If I added enough support columns at the right places, that works just as well as the automatic supports, but I need to remove far less material afterwards.


Print upside down.
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