3D Printing as part of your display
See a comparison of the hardware used to run the displays between 2007 and 2019.
This page is basically a list of ideas, tips and tricks for 3D printing parts for your Christmas Light display.
In 2015 I purchased a Flashforge Dreamer from The 3D Printer in Melbourne to allow me to 3D print LED covers and clips etc that form part of the display. The reason I decided to 3D print rather than buy was simply an economic one - the price I was quoted for LED covers from China was just under 50c each delivered, with shipping being the vast majority of the cost. Calculating how much it would be to 3D print covers ended up being less than 10c each, so my journey into 3D printing began.
What started out as 1000 covers turned into close to 2000 covers in 2 different styles, LED Light pole caps and bases, fan covers for box vent fans, and new display items being the 12 point Pixel stars, and ideas for a LOT more items for next year.
3D Printer and Filament Suppliers
There are literally hundreds of suppliers of 3D printers in Australia, from kits, to parts, through to fully built machines and everything in betweeen. Rather than list them all, I will just mention a few that I have dealt with, along with comments on how I have found them.
The 3D Printer is where I bought my 3D printer, and where I get many of the spare parts. Based in Melbourne, they are a small company and have excellent after sales service. They also sell filament and other items you will need. While I buy the majority of my filamet from the next supplier, these guys have a great selection of unusual and more exotic filamets such as temperature changing ones that are great fun to print with, and many of our phones have 3D printed cases in temperature changing filament now. I purchased the majority of my early filament from them, and the filament is excellent quality, so they are very much a one stop shop for all your 3D printing needs.
Aurarum is another Melbourne based company and my preferred filament supplier, as it is 100% made in Australia. They also sell Flashforge printers and have just released a new Australian designed and built printer called the Wombot, and I have one of these on order at the moment. Because the filament is manufactured in Australia, I tend to get the majority of the filament here, but there are some that they dont supply yet. Again they can be a one-stop supplier of printers, parts and filament
I will stop short of saying buy at one particular store, as both these suppliers have first rate gear, service and after sales support, so it is up to you to choose whichever supplier suits you form the 2 above, or another suppler entirely. I still buy from both these suppliers, depending on what I want, so that says something about their service.
Now you have your printer, filament, whats next? Well you need software to print stuff out. Most printers come with free software that takes the file you want to print and slices it into layers and sends it in a format your printer can handle eithor via USB, wireless or more commonly saving it to an SD card that you place in your printer. Personally I print simple jobs via USB as my Flashforger Dreamer buffers the file internally, allowing you to turn off the computer once the file has been sent. For prints I will do a number of times, I will usually save these to the SD card, as this allows me to come back and reprint them a number of times, or at a later date without needing to tweak the settings to get the print right.
Many of the software packages that come with the printers are slightly limited, and do struggle in some areas, but work well for basic prints. For other more complex prints there are paid programs that you can use, and personally I use Simplify 3D as it has a number of advantages over the standard software - it works on a lot of different printers, it's FAST, and it works well when support is needed.
What to print?
So now you can print, but what do you print? You can design your own items, but initially you will likely want to print something a little more useful, but you need to find it somewhere. Thats where 3D printing file websites come in, so you can look at, and print, someone elses design. There are a number of these about but the ones I use are listed below.
- Thingiverse is probably the most known and most used source of items. There are literally hundreds of thousands of items here, but be warned, just because something is here does not mean you can print it, as some items are extremely poorly designed, or simply impossible to print. The vast majority are fine and can be printed on any home 3D printer. There are literally hundreds of Christmas items there, including a number of mine which I have shared for others to print. The website is backed by MakerBot, a 3D Printer manufacturer.
- YouMagine is much smaller than Thingiverse, but tends to contain an excellent variety of items, and some that have not been uploaded to other websites. This website is backed by Ultimaker, another 3D Printer manufacturer, and tends to contain quite a high percentage of 3D Printable items that can be printed on most home printers.
- Pinshape contains both free and paid items, and they are usually of a very high quality. I often browse here to see if there are any new, but unusual, items to print.
Once you have your items printed, you realise one thing - An Australian summer is not real good for plastic! UV Rays and heat tend to cause it to rapidly become brittle, so your time and financial investment may need to be thrown away after just a single season. This is where a hittle post processing of your printed items can easily extend their life by a number of seasons.
I print all my outside items in ABS as its higher melting point, and slightly better resistance to UV made more sence. Even items in boxes use ABS as those boxes can easily exceed 50 or 60c on a hot summers day which could cause the items to soften enough to cause them to fail. Next you need to realise that 3D prints are made by depositing layer after layer of molten plastic and building the print up, and it is these layer lines that cause the print to be much weaker than an injection cast part. With ABS plastic you can acetone polish the items, which basically means subjecting the printed items to an acetone vapor, hot or cold, so that it basically softens and partly melts the outer section of plastic and gravity causes them to fuse together. The overall result is that they become more shiny, but more importantly harder. I use an old rice cooker to polish up to 30 LED Covers at a time, and it takes less than 3 minutes from start to finish, and uses just 7ml of acetone per load.
Once you have allowed the acetone smoothed part to sit for 24 hours to release the acetone, it's time to paint your covers. Because we dont want the UV to damage the plastic, I chose a 2 part process that gives the best physical protection as well as UV protection. Initially I spray a decent coat of Dulux Plastic Primer (available from Bunnings), and once that has dried I sprayed 2 or 3 coats of Septone Acrylic Clear (Available at Supercheap Auto). Tests here showed that this produced the best UV protection, and also the hardest and longest wearing coat that I could find, but that does not mean there are not better combinations, it's just that I could not source the paints locally to try, but I did test 12 different coatings and primers for their compatibility and long lasting UV protection, with only 6 managing to make it 7 months in the weather without totally destroying the underlying plastic with UV and weather damage, and the Septone clear was by far the most durable of them all.
I need help!
There comes a time when you will find a file that you simply cant print, but what can you do? Well you can ignore it and move to the next one, or you can ask for help. Some of the websites above have comments or help forums where you can ask for help with printing on your printer and with your filament. You can also resort to Facebook and the myriad of 3D Printing groups there, and they are a great place for support for many printers too, so you can keep up to date on issues that are arising with the hardware.
Links to my designs
A link to the few designs on Thingiverse that I have created for my display. Click on the images for links to the Thingiverse page
Small C7 LED Cover with flat side. This was created as a slightly smaller C7-style LED cover that will be hard mounted against something like conduit, a wall or rope. The standard C7 will tend to stick out and look odd, so there is a flat section on one side to allow it to sit flat against the item. It may need to be printed with a skirt or two and an offset of 0mm to increase the hold on the printer bed.
C7 Style LED Pixel cover. This classic C7 style LED cover was printed over 1600 times for my display this year, and requires very little input once you get the base layers successfully down on the printer bed. The shell is 2 layers thick, and I found that to get the best strength and longevity you should consider acetone vapor finishing and then some sort of UV stabalising coating talked about further up the page.
Tint Tube Fence Bracket. The number of people using the tint tubes as part of their display has rapidly increased, and this year I needed to attach mine to a new fence along my driveway. Rather than over stressing the pole and pushing it on the fence at a single point, I created these brackets to allow a single cabletie to go around the pole, and 2 cable ties around the horizontal fence rail. You could even glue the bracket to the pole to avoid seeing the cable tie.
Tint Tube cover and base. The tint tubes we get do not have any end caps at all, so I created this pair of covers. One sits on the top of the pole, creating a waterproof top seal, and the other is designed for the base and has a slot for cable entry and also to allow any water to drain back out. A little silastic could be used to completely seal the cable entry point should you want to.
60mm fan cover. This was designed from an existing one on Thingiverse, and is to cover 60mm fans I use for box ventilation. Because many of the boxes are extremely crowded, forced ventilation is a big help in keeping things cool, but the airflow could cause the thinner wires to strike the fan blades, so this fan shroud is designed to minimise the chance of anything coming in contact.