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Hazz Design Interviews Toner Plastics COO Jack Warren about 3D Filament Quality

  • On May 28, 2015

WTFFF 026: Good 3D Print Filament Makes Good Prints Successful

3D printing results are owed in a large part to good input – good design, solid code, and especially, good materials. High quality filament can alleviate the most common problems of failed prints. Hazz Design’s Tracy and Tom Hazzard spoke with our Chief Operating Officer Jack Warren about what really makes good 3D printing filament, specifically PLA.

Listen to the full podcast here: http://hazzdesign.com/2015/05/21/wtfff-026-good-3d-print-filament/

Transcript:

Tracy: Hi, this is Tracy…
Tom: …and Tom…
Tracy: And this is the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast. This is our “Everything About Filament” episode.
Tom: We’re going to have an interview with a filament manufacturer…
Tracy: …a US filament manufacturer, who I’ve been to see.
Tom: That’s, I think, very important.
Tracy: I think it was really fascinating to me, to see filament being made. I’m a textile designer by trait. I know a lot about how you make fiber and filaments, in concept, but to see 3D printing filament extruded was another thing to me. I’ve always seen it done vertically, that’s typically the fibers, nylon fibers and all those things, are made. This is done in a water bath! We keep hearing all this stuff about humidity controls and all this stuff, and there it is being extruded in water, which is the cool down process of it.
Tom: That’s the way it’s supposed to be done, we’ve come to learn.
Tracy: Well, Jack is going to talk about the qualities that make good filament, but you want it round. You want round filament, and the water pressure actually helps make that round. It is such a neat concept, that there’s just enough pressure against it to keep the form… it’s fascinating to me.
Tom: I’ve got a lot of questions. We should probably get right to the interview.
Tracy: That’s right.
Tom: We are here with Jack Warren from Toner Plastics, in Longmeadow Massachusetts… is that right?
Jack: East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
Tom: East Longmeadow, which if I remember… I’m originally from New England… so I think that’s just outside of Springfield?
Jack: That’s right.
Tom: It’s nice to be talking with a US company regarding our subject today, because we understand you manufacture filament.
Jack: We’ve been producing 3D printer filament for the desktop market since late in 2012, a little more than two and a half years at this point. I’m the Chief Operating Officer for Toner Plastics, I’m responsible for running the company day-to-day. When it comes to 3D printer filament we have a team of engineers. We have a production team, a quality team, sales team, I kind of head up all of that. We are one of three companies that share common ownership… Toner Plastics is an extrusion company. We have a custom specialty compounding company, and they can make any different kind of plastic compounds for various industries. That company is S&E Specialty Polymers, also in Massachusetts. We also have an injection molding facility, in Hope Valley, Rhode Island. They make various injection molding products, most notably plastic beads. They’re the oldest bead manufacturer in the country at the present. These three companies comprise a family of plastics companies, we all work together. That helps us to leverage our strengths, as an all-in-one manufacturing solutions provider.
Tracy: I’ve been to their facility, Jack graciously let me tour it. One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t realize is how much of your product we’ve touched over the years. The eads, the gimp, and all of those things in Michaels are mostly made by you guys.
Jack: That’s right. Toner Plastics itself has been in business for more than twenty-five years, and The Beadery has been around since the early thirties. We have a wide variety of products we’ve been producing for a bunch of different industries. We produce for the craft industry, wire and cable, industrial safety. Our compounding company produces for wire and cable, also automotive and footwear. All kinds of different areas we touch.
Tracy: So we’ve probably used your products, and we didn’t even know we were using it, which is so great.
Tom: What I like, is clearly there’s a lot of plastics experience here…
Tracy: That’s right.
Tom: …I think we’ve come to the right person, to ask some questions about filament.
Tracy: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about 2012, when you guys decided to go into 3D printing filament, and how that happened.
Jack: It was an opportunity that came to us; we had a certain customer, that is very successful today, that needed some helping getting their operation up and going. They were buying from China when we were introduced to them. What had been happening, is they weren’t happy with the quality, the long lead times, and the money that has to be tied up when you’re dealing with overseas purchases. They were just trying to get going, and it was a time that was very critical for them to establish their customer base. They made the leap over and changed to us, and we assumed just about all of their business, and we’ve been in the business ever since. We’ve picked up many other customers; Toner Plastics has always been a customer service-oriented company. We get to know our customers, we visit them, we do our best to take care of them, and they stay with us for a while. We’ve been able to expand our business tremendously in the 3D printing area, over the last couple years. It’s been a very exciting, refreshing industry for us.
Tracy: It really has happened in a partnership with a printing company, and that’s really made your product more… how do I say… user friendly?
Jack: I would say so. Our customers tend to be the printer manufacturers, the re-sellers, the specialty companies that are experts in 3D printing themselves. They provide valuable service to their customers, so we’ve learned from them along the way. We’ve been able to bring our experience to the table, to help our customers who might not know a lot about plastics manufacturing, we’ve been able to help them avoid common pit-falls.
Tom: What really makes a good quality filament? What are the characteristics of a bad quality filament?
Tracy: Yeah.
Jack: A good quality filament, you want to be very round. One of the common terms used is ovality. If you have filament that’s shaped like an oval or an egg, it’s not going to feed as well into the printer, it’s not going to perform as well. The diameter is important too; diameter consistency. When you look at the average diameter of the filament, you would want that to be very consistent as you move down the length of the filament. If the diameter is changing, getting thicker, thinner, thicker, thinner, then you’re going to see poor results when you’re actually printing. On the higher end, if the diameter is too large… let’s say you’re in the middle of a six hour print, you get to the fourth hour and all of a sudden you hit a large section of diameter, that’s going to ruin your print. You have to invest all that time all over again, and basically start over.
Tracy: We’ve had that happen.
Tom: Yeah, we’ve tested a lot of different filament.
Tracy: A lot of bad filament.
Tom: We are interested more in the color of the filament, than we are anything else, because there aren’t a lot of colors out there. We’ve had to try many different filaments, even if we question the reliability of the source. Is there concern over voids, or moisture, some of these things we hear about?
Jack: Absolutely, absolutely. Moisture is one of the ones you tend to hear about. People take a lot of measures to keep their filament dry. A good manufacturer is going to make sure that there’s not moisture in the material, before he converts it to filament, to make sure there’s no moisture in the filament after. I honestly haven’t had a moisture-related complaint, but we know that they’re out there, that it happens with poor filament.
Tracy: I think that a lot of people don’t know that it’s made in water. I don’t think that they have an understanding and concept of that. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how it’s made?
Jack: Sure, so when the pellets are actually made they go through a process where they’re exposed to water. When we get the pellets, as long as it’s high-quality PLA, which is all we use, that will come in foil-sealed bags. It will be protected from humidity. But, before we use the material we have to dry it. That’s the manufacturers recommended process, so we follow that. The material is exposed to water, because when you extrude filament it goes through a cooling process. You have to be careful how you expose it to the water,
how long, how you remove the water from the surface and make sure that’s all gone
before you package it up. When you package it up, you should package it in a way where it’s sealed… we provide a desiccant, so that if there is any residual moisture it’s taken away. It’s not that difficult, but it’s amazing because that doesn’t always happen with every manufacturer.
Tracy: It’s interesting, because we have gotten quite a few humidity questions. One of them came out of New Orleans, maybe there’s a lot more humidity down there than there is up here, but we’ve never had a problem with anything that we felt was humidity-related in terms of our filament. We feel like most manufacturers, you especially because we use a lot of your product, it comes out perfectly dry. Because we already have a dry environment here, we don’t have a continued problem.
Tom: But I think that’s a question too. Drying the plastic in the manufacturing process, obviously is very important. Packaging it, so in transportation there’s no moisture getting into it. Once the customer opens the filament, does it need to be sealed ever time you’re not using it and storing it? We haven’t done that.
Jack: A lot of our customers are the same way, even when we have spools we have for our own prototyping at our injection molding facility. Like I said, we’ve never gotten a complaint of bonafide moisture-related issue. The spools stay out and we don’t see any issues with them. Are there extreme examples where you might not want to do that? Probably. You mentioned New Orleans, that would make sense. There’s literature online I’ve read, where if you put the filament actually into water, it can expand and soak up the moisture in a way where you can measure that change. I don’t think it’s that critical where if you leave your spool open for a few months that you’re not going to be able to use it. We’ve worked with printer manufacturers who have done some tests, and they don’t seem to be concerned about it either.
Tracy: That’s what we thought.
Tom: So it seems to be more of an issue in manufacturing the filament, than it is use of the filament.
Tracy: And transport.
Tom: …in a 3D Printer.
Jack: Moisture problems can manifest in different ways. ABS filament, for example, if you buy a poor-quality ABS film, you’ll notice it has voids, or holes in it. There’s a number of reasons why that can happen. If the materials not dried properly, if it’s not extruded and cooled down at the proper temperatures, these voids can be a nightmare. You can talk to anybody that’s printed with poor ABS, they’ll tell you that it can snap and it can ruin a print. It can be very bad. There’s a lot of other things you have to do when processing certain polymers, because not every PLA filament has the same manufacturing process. All very similar, but everyone is a little bit different, depending on the properties of the
polymer.
Tracy: Let’s talk a little bit about that, because people here still don’t really know what PLA is. They toss around the word like “Yes, it’s a bio-plastic”, but what does that really mean? What is the quality of PLA that makes it so great for 3D printing?
Jack: It’s got a good melt flow to it, so it seems to work just fine. It gets good printing results. If you want to compare it to ABS, for example, ABS has some harmful smells to it and fumes when you print with it. If you have a well-ventilated area, say you’re working in a lab and you have a hood or you have an open window nearby, ABS isn’t going to give you any kind of an issue. If you’re going to have your kids use a printer, in the house during the winter time, you don’t have a window open, the PLA is going to smell like pancakes. It’s not going to have a disruptive type of smell that either will make you sick…
Tracy: Yeah, we use PLA because we have a home office here and we don’t want to have the smell because our kids’ bedrooms are right off the office.
Jack: Some of the more specialty filaments aren’t for everybody. That’s why I think PLA is so common.
Tom: How many colors are in your standard line?
Jack: In a standard line of PLA, we have eighteen colors. But, we also have a whole bunch of colors that we do custom for certain customers. The total amount of colors we do is probably upwards of around fifty or so, for PLA.
Tom: That’s a better number of colors, than what we see from a number of distributors on the market.
Tracy: Yeah.
Tom: But, let’s say if we wanted to make a custom color of filament, what does it take?
Tracy: For one of our clients, or something.
Tom: What does it take to do that, and what is that process like?
Jack: It’s a fairly straight-forward process. The first thing I might ask, is what color would you like? Do you have a reference? A lot of times, customers will go to Pantone and pick a shade that they like. We’ll match the color, which means that we’re going to make a color chip out of the actual plastic that would be used to make the filament. We would then provide that chip back to the customer and ask if they like it, and is this what they had in mind. We might have to make an adjustment, or they might say it’s perfect and go ahead. That’s one way, if there’s known pan-tone reference. Say that there’s a proprietary color… it’s a retailer that has their own specific shade, and they don’t have a pan-tone. They can give us a sample of it, and we can match the color from that sample. We’ve done that before too. Once the colors matched and the customer gets the colored chip sample, and they approve if, then we get a small batch of color concentrate that we can then use to make the filament. We’ll get the small batch of color made, we’ll use it to produce the filament, and then we’ll see if at that point the filament still comes out to be the right color, which it normally does. We’ll provide that filament sample back to our customer, allow them to print with it, and if it meets their expectations the next thing they normally do is place an order. We’ll produce the color concentrate out of production quantity, and we’ll produce that color from then on for them.
Tom: What is the commitment that a customer would need to give you in order to justify making a new color?
Jack: It would depend on the customer as a whole, and what their needs were. If they wanted a custom color, but they didn’t want to pay much more for it, we would say okay if you give us commitment for three hundred spools… they wouldn’t have to take all the spools at once. They could take them over six months, or a year, whatever it works out to be. As long as we know we’re not going to waste money on the concentrate. We don’t really get hung up on that because there are other arrangements we can make. We can say we have this upfront cost with the color, I know you want a small quantity of spools, We can come up with an arrangement, depending on the customer and their needs.
Tom: The filaments that you’re making, or more importantly the plastics and color that’s going into them, are they toxic?
Tracy: Our babies always sticking this in her mouth, because it’s really fun shaped and it’s got little ridges in it. Should we be concerned? It’s PLA, by the way.
Jack: If it’s our PLA you wouldn’t need to be concerned. The raw PLA that we use is FDA approved; there’s different levels of FDA approval. Long story short, it’s okay. Every filament that we use is either FDA-compliant, or its toy-safe compliant. Toy-safe, I’m not an expert on the standard by any means, but it’s meant to make sure that toys that children could put in their mouth are safe. We only use pigments that belong to one of those two categories.
Tracy: That’s great to know. You were talking about transparency before, on this end of things, that’s really not clear. Are you getting a safe filament, or not? You have no idea. You’re finding a way for us to get that across, and understand what we’re buying is going to be so essential to the future.
Tom: Jack, what do you see on the horizon for the future of filament for 3D printing? Are you guys working on any new materials? Are you hearing about any new advances? What’s coming up in the future?
Jack: I think what’s happening in the industry is on one end of the spectrum you have the hobbyists that are using lower-cost, but lower capability. Then you have the really highend printers that can do all kinds of things, but they’re kind of priced out of range for the average consumer. I think those two extremes are converging toward each other. That’s exciting because, that I think is what is going to drive more demand for more materials. Some printers are dependent on only one material, they couldn’t print multiple types of filament. We offer a bunch of different filaments: TPU, Hips, we offer special propriety ones for certain customers. We’re bring out a new conductive filament, we can make
polypropylene filament. We’re well positioned as a plastics company, to bring these new types of products to the market. Each printer is different, and its technology has to improve along the way. There’s three main areas when it comes to 3D printing advancing: the printers themselves, the software interface and how the printers work, and the materials. As the printers evolve, and the software evolves, it will open up a lot more opportunity for newer materials. When we started making 3D printer filament, we had already been servicing Fortune 500 companies. We had to develop our manufacturing processes, controls and QC plans to be able to handle that level of expectation. 3D Filament was really just a drop-in to that; that’s the advantage of going with a more experienced company. We’re not really bumbling our way through the industry, and learning at the consumer’s expense. We know that there’s some things on our end, that are very critical, and that way the consumer doesn’t have to worry about it.
Tom: Well Jack, thanks so much for spending some time with us today, and answering our questions about filament. I’m sure that our listeners have learned a lot after hearing this.
Tracy: Jack, I think some of our listeners are going to ask us how do they know if they’re using your product, because you’re selling them in an OEM situation.
Jack: We do sell through Microcenter, you can find our products there. We sell other products to other customers as well. I guess the best way to ask is if you don’t know that your filament supplier is making their own filament, then ask who is making it. Probably the best thing to do is to ask for Toner filament.
Tracy: That sounds like a plan. Thanks again for your time Jack, and I really enjoyed my visit to your facility. It was state-of-the-art.
Jack: Well thank you very much, I’ve enjoyed the time we spent today.
Tracy: That was even more fascinating that my visit. There’s so many new things I just learned from Jack.
Tom: It seems there’s always something new to learn about filament, which you’d think would be a pretty simple process.
Tracy: Yeah, well plastics have been around for a long time! It should be simple, but it’s not. I think that kind of level of experience that Toner Plastics has and that Jack and his team have, it really is why their filament is better. We’ve tried it, we know it’s better.
Tom: We’ve also tried pretty much any filament we could get our hands on, from any source, to experience the difference. We’ve had some really lousy ones.
Tracy: Yeah, you can check it out on our Instagram. There are some bad, bad filaments.
Tom: Some epic fails of 3D printing, experimenting with a new filament.
Tracy: Yeah, and maybe we should mention to listeners who are new to 3D printing, what a bad filament looks like. I looks like it has hairs everywhere, like you can see little “blips” of filament coming off of it, off of your part. It can crack and fall apart.
Tom: Well that’s the thing, we had one where we had this new bronze, metallic kind of a PLA filament, and we print with it and the print never really finished. The material wouldn’t flow well through the extruder.
Tracy: Remember, you picked it up and it just collapsed in your hand!
Tom: That’s it. About half the product printed, and when I took it off the build plate it just crumbled. It had no integrity.
Tracy: I think that really the idea that Jack was mentioning at the end, that the market is converging and that the consumer side, or the hobbyist side is starting merge with the professional side and we’ll be going to this “prosumer” model… I think that’s really where filament is going to start to change. Where having the best quality filament is going to be so critical. You can’t be worrying about that. You and I know, we’re trying so hard to do very creative and challenging designs. The last thing we need is to be dealing with dialing in the right temperature of our filament… that’s something that he touched on a little bit, off camera.
Tom: I think that what Jack was talking about is knowing that your filament is coming from a quality supplier that has good quality control processes in place. They have a lot of experience, the consistency (and all of that), has everything to do with quality of filament. I also think it goes toward the temperature, the melting point. A lot of machines melt at two hundred and fifteen degrees, the closed machines like to make around. That’s what their filaments are engineered to do at that temperature. I think that not all filaments, especially all of the ones that we experimented with, from lesser-known suppliers and some overseas suppliers, their temperature isn’t as dialed in that precisely. I think it comes down to quality of process, quality and consistency of source of raw materials.
Tracy: Another thing is that as I mentioned that I toured Jack’s facility, I toured Toner Plastics a few months ago in the winter, but I also toured a Chinese factory of filament while I was in China in March. What surprised me so much about it is that their machines were the same kind of high-quality machines, but they were so new to everything. I think that that’s problematic.
Tom: They don’t have the experience.
Tracy: There wasn’t a lot of experience level there. I think that the other issue is that the printers they are testing on are old. They were using a really old replicator, and it’s not today’s printer. If you’re not testing in today’s printer, where the market’s going, I think that’s problematic. Jack mentioned that they rely on their partners, because they have big partners and that’s easy for them. These new guys that are developing need to be testing on the latest, greatest models of printers.
Tom: Also, if you just getting new, into it… I think this factory you saw is brand new, right?
Tracy: Yeah, it was brand new.
Tom: They weren’t even shipping filament yet.
Tracy: Yeah.
Tom: There’s no question that a filament manufacturer that has years of experience making it, and has learned (maybe the hard way sometimes), that they need to do things in a certain way to get good results, these new suppliers are going to be learning that all over again. I can’t imagine how they would not ship some off-quality material.
Tracy: Maybe that’s okay, when you’re buying one roll here and one roll there as a hobbyist. So, you get a bad one and you return it to Amazon, Amazon takes it back, there’s like no issue there. That’s okay, but you get into our level where we demand the consistency, and you just can’t do that. So, it really is about the “what”… what are you going to make, what are you going to FFF? If you’re “what” is that critical… and not that we didn’t experiment, because we are experimenting. We want color, that’s what we’re experimenting with.
Tom: I’ll try anybody’s filament once, especially if it’s a unique color. But, I do have concerns.
Tracy: Yeah.
Tom: I get the filament from a Chinese supplier, I don’t have a materials safety data sheet, I don’t know the source of that raw material. I don’t know the pigments, what’s in there. There could be toxic chemicals in there… I worry about my kid taking a printed part as she always does, and sticks it in her mouth. That’s not cool, but it’s nice to hear that a company in the US, like Toner Plastics is using FDA-compliant pigments.
Tracy: Yeah, and they give you that information. Another good tip that we’ve done is that it seems like “I’ll just use gray”, and “I’ll just use natural”; I’ll just make all my iterations in the cheapest filament possible… but it’s a mistake. We found that if you’re going to make it in mint green, then make it in mint green, every single time you make the iteration. The quality of that print is different, especially in the machines that are open source and you\ have to dial in the temperature in the settings. You got to do it in the final filament.
Tom: Absolutely, because you’re going to otherwise get false results. You’ll work it out in gray, or natural, and you think to use the same settings as mint green; but the pigments that go into the filaments…
Tracy: …are different.
Tom: They are adding different solids, different materials, they are changing the chemistry slightly. Sometimes you might get lucky, but I think more often than not, you’ll end up with unexpected end results.
Tracy: And it will take you a lot longer, and that’s the last thing you need because time is money, as we pointed out so many times on broadcast here. You don’t want to be redoing that and redoing your settings; you’re dialing it in, dial it in on the right material.
Tom: And as we talked about with Jack, and we’ve said before, don’t skimp on the quality of filament just to save some money on that spool. That ten or twelve dollars you may save on a cheaper spool of filament is going to be lost in time, we found. Using a cheaper filament, or going from a gray to your real color, you’re not saving that much.
Tracy: Right, and another tip that we’ve mentioned on a couple of our ask-us segments is that if you know you’re going to need a particular color for a client, buy multiple rolls ahead of\ time, at the same time. You’re more likely to get them from the same lot, and at least if you run out of that color in the middle of a print, you’re more likely to be able to match that.
Tom: You’re color’s not going to shift on you.
Tracy: Yeah. It depends on what you’re working on. If you have that kind of constraint, just think ahead and buy a couple rolls. You can always return the one you don’t use, if you are fine. It’s a good thing to plan ahead.
Tom: I think that was great. We’ve had a lot of circumstantial evidence, and things that we’ve read that we suspected about filament manufacturers. It was really nice to talk to an expert in the field, who has the experience and really knows.
Tracy: Yes, definitely. Well, this has been out twenty-sixth episode?
Tom: I think it is.
Tracy: This is episode twenty-six, which I feel, kind of like we’ve passed the twenty-five mark. Feels pretty good.
Tom: And I’m having fun with it.
Tracy: Yeah, I am definitely having fun.
Tom: And hopefully you’re getting something out of it as well, that’s obviously the goal. It’s nice that we’re having some fun, but hopefully you’re getting some useful information.
Tracy: Which, we need to dial in better, so you guys got to ask us some more questions! We need to hear from you! Ask us anything, you can definitely do that over at our website, over our speak pipe blink on our “Ask Us Anything” page. You can also do it over Facebook, on our Facebook page it says “send voice mail”. Tweet it.
Tom: Send us a Twitter message, or just go to our website and send us an email if that’s easier for you. Communicate with us, let us know if you have any questions, what you’d like to hear more about, and we’d be happy to drive the direction of this podcast somewhere that you’d like to see it go.
Tracy: And that’s hazzdesign.com, hazzdesign.com. Thanks so much for listening, and thanks again Jack for all your great information.
Tom: All right, this has been Tom…
Tracy: …and Tracy…
Tom: …and this is the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast. Talk to you next time.