What Makes 3D Printer Filament “IC3D Filament?”

We’re not resellers of 3D printer filament…. we make our own!

In late 2011, a small group of desktop 3D printer enthusiasts embarked on a journey to learn all they could about the fascinating technology called 3D printing.  Shortly thereafter, IC3D Printers was born with the goal of providing the highest quality and user-friendliest desktop 3D printers and 3D printer consumables to our customers. In early 2013, we were thoroughly fed up with using and reselling filament that came from manufacturers who sold something to an industry they didn’t understand.  Leveraging our backgrounds and resources in mechanical and electrical engineering as well as in manufacturing, we set off on the long trek to make our own. Having no prior commercial plastic extrusion experience, we were only armed with our engineering problem solving skills,  3D printing experience and the passion to create the “perfect” spool of filament.  This lack of prior extrusion knowledge made the learning process slow and arduous.  However, it allowed us to build a system and process from scratch that produces 3D printer filament the way it should be produced.  In the IC3D factory, we’ve designed, built and implemented much of our own processing and control equipment.  With quality held above all else, we focused on the following characteristics.

Purity

Our filament extruders are set up to process only one type of plastic in only one specific compound of that plastic.  This is the 100.00% guarantee that there are no foreign types of plastics in the stuff we make. Why is this important? Imagine you’re printing with PLA that extrudes nicely at a temperature of 190C.  Now imagine a tiny little particle of PC (PolyCarbonate) that is just slightly larger in size than that hole in your nozzle and wants a temperature of 260C in order to melt.  Instant hot-end / nozzle clog. Commonly, plastic profile extrusion shops serve various industries and will process any of the infinite formulations of thermoplastic their customers want.  This allows them to maximize production time on their equipment to maximize profit.  The problem is, even if a purging material is used to “clean out” the barrel and screw of the extruder, or better yet, the screw itself is removed and cleaned, it’s still nearly impossible to guarantee that 100% of the previous material is purged because of all the little nooks and crannies of all the other components that can’t be easily cleaned.  An easy visual is this:  Think about how long it takes to “purge out” BLACK plastic using WHITE or CLEAR plastic…. Now imagine a commercial extruder being ~100x bigger than the hot-end on your 3D printer! Purity of 100.00% doesn’t matter for “non-sensitive” products and is probably overkill. This doesn’t really matter for products such as plastic welding rod, broom handles or weed whacker line.  For 3D printers, however, this supreme level of purity is a MUST.  Yes, it’s more expensive to limit the processing of only one type of plastic formulation through an extruder, but it’s the right thing to do.  IC3D only extrudes one specific formulation of plastic out of each extruder.

Diameter

The importance of the diameter of the filament being tightly toleranced and controlled is probably the easiest to understand.  A strand of filament that has a greatly fluctuating diameter will yield poor 3D print results because the extruder is outputting material at a constant linear speed (for the most part).  A diameter fluctuation actually causes a fluctuating volume of material to come out which will cause inconsistent layer quality and bonding characteristics.  Too much material (fat strand) will cause globbing and poor top layer quality.  Too little material (skinny strand) can cause poor layer adhesion which leads to a weaker part.  This can lead to a catastrophic failure if the part is used as a structural member.

Ovality

Ovality is just a fancy industry word for roundness.  Simply, this is the difference of the major and minor diameters of filament divided by the average of the two diameters.  Ovality is typically expressed as a percentage.  For example, if a given cross-section of filament has a major diameter of 1.77 and a minor diameter of 1.73, then the ovality is 2.29%. Why don’t retailers and manufacturers advertise this value? To talk about ovality, we need to talk about lasers.  For round rod extrusion (like 3D printer filament), a laser gauge that measures and monitors the instantaneous diameter is used.  These lasers accurately measure the diameter to about 1 micron.  Many extrusion companies employ “single axis laser gauges.”  This means the gauge is measuring in only one direction.  So, if the gauge records a measurement that is in spec, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the diameter is in spec if measured in the other direction. The reason why a company would choose a single vs. a “dual axis laser gauge” is cost.  These high-speed laser diameter gauges are very expensive pieces of equipment and can sometimes be more than half the cost of just the extruder itself.  For producing 3D printer filament, a dual axis laser gauge is a necessity. A dual axis laser gauge has two lasers that lie 90 degrees to each other to take both instantaneous measurements over a cross section of rod.  Only when you analyze the diameter in both directions can you understand the ovality of your filament.  On IC3D’s production line, the “X and Y” diameters  are both recorded and the ovality percentage is calculated and displayed instantaneously.  Our specifications limit the ovality to within 4%. Before you buy from anyone else, make sure they have a valid spec for ovality.

Color

Do you ever get disappointed that the color of the part you just 3D printed is more “milky” or “pastel-y” than you expected?  There are two factors that contribute to this.  The first is the pigment ratio to natural resin.  This is simply the amount of pigments contained in each masterbatch pellet (the industry term for pigment + carrier resin) and then the amount of masterbatch used per base resin during the extrusion process.  While using a lower ratio of pigments will make the actually strand filament just slightly lighter in color, this difference gets enhanced when the filament goes through another heat cycling (as in during 3D printing).  The other cause to the milky color is simply using low-grade masterbatch (pigments).  The heat from processing the filament through the extrusion process and then once more in a 3D printer can degrade these pigments. We use a high ratio of pigments obtained from well-known suppliers so that the printed part actually looks as vibrant as the actual strand of filament.

Spooling

Wrapping 3D printer filament onto an empty spool.  This is one of those simple little things that can ruin an afternoon of 3D printing if not done correctly.  Filament should unwind smoothly off of the spool in order to continuously feed into your printer.  When care isn’t taken during the spooling process, different coils of filament can overlap with one another which causes it to bind.  This will lead to filament stripping in your extruder, or worse, damage to your printer. Since we couldn’t find adequate spooling equipment out there, IC3D designed and built its own to handle the job.  It’s designed to perfectly lay down each coil of filament.

Packaging

Packaging is another simple little thing that’s easy to overlooked.  Here, we’re not referring to the aesthetics of the box, but rather how the filament is protected through transit from our factory to you.  To reduce cost, most companies ship out their filament in a 3-mil (0.003″) bag without a box.  Although most do vacuum pack the bags, holes get rubbed into them during transit, stocking and fulfillment, etc.  The bag loses its vacuum, air and moisture into the bag, and the filament can become “wet.” IC3D has implemented several methods to ensure the filament arrives to you as dry as it leaves our factory.  At the end of the extrusion line, the filament gets spooled onto large coils.  They get spooled off into smaller units and packaged very shortly after so that they don’t get to sit around and have a chance to absorb moisture.  Each spool gets vacuum sealed with a 6-mil thick polybag along with a packet of desiccant.  The spool then gets placed inside a sturdy cardboard box to prevent spools from rubbing holes against each other during shipping.  There’s one more feature we implemented to further prevent holes.  We worked with our spool manufacture to have a radius designed into the two outer rings of the spool itself.  Besides being more pleasing to the eye, this prevents any chance for a sharp spool edge cutting the bag. We think the extra cost for all this material and process is well worth it (if not a necessity!).