Getting started with the Ender 5 Pro 3D printer

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Article from Issue 242/2021

Just unpack and get started? It's not so easy with hobby 3D printing.

Whether it's decorative elements for a new case-modding project, custom trees to add a flourish to the Gloomhaven board game, or homemade gears for quirky gadgets, 3D printers make craft projects much easier – or so I thought. I had been struggling with my conscience for a long time about buying a 3D printer and weighing the arguments. Do I really need this? Isn't there a lot of work involved? Could I maybe invest the money in a better way?

Eventually, I gave in to my cravings when Chinese manufacturer Creality3D offered the Ender 5 Pro [1] for just EUR350 (~$414). Two weeks later, the package reached my home. After I unpacked, one of my first fears disappeared. I thought the DIY assembly would be complicated, but it was actually relatively easy (Figure 1). However, I soon discovered that the initial assembly was only the beginning of my quest. Of course, this story is only about one man and one 3D printer model, but many of the issues I faced are similar to problems you might see with other hobby printers. This article is intended as a practical case study on what it takes to get a 3D printer assembled and working in the real world.

Figure 1: The easy-to-assemble Ender 5 Pro. © Oliver Nickel

Successful Build

The Ender 5 Pro arrives with some pre-assembled parts. You won't need to assemble the printing bed, the extruder, or the microcontroller (including the display). An easily understandable set of build instructions and the right tools for the bolting work are also included, and everything is packaged between soft foam pads.

The first thing to do is to connect various aluminum rods together and join the already-marked connectors for the axis motors, the distance sensors, the mainboard, and other parts. You can't really go wrong with these simple steps; however, the final build might look a bit improvised if you forget about the cable routing – like I did. For example, the ribbon cable leading to the nozzle was hanging loose in the air (Figure 2). At least everything worked after a short test.

Figure 2: The cable routing has some room for improvement. © Oliver Nickel

Turning the Wheel: Calibration

If you think you can simply start printing after the build, forget it. It takes a huge amount of preparation to achieve good printing results: starting with calibrating the printing bed.

The Ender 5 Pro does not have an automated calibration function. Instead, you have to carefully push the printhead by hand into the four corners of the print bed. You can adjust the tilt and height with the four large adjustment screws underneath (Figure 3). Calibration is complete when a sheet of paper fits between the printing bed and the printing nozzle at all four corners.

Figure 3: Calibrating the bed is a painstaking task. © Oliver Nickel

The fact that the Ender 5 does not offer an automatic calibration function, even in the Pro version, makes the process somewhat frustrating. In my case, however, I first had to solve another problem that seemed less obvious: No filament came out of the nozzle, and the stepper motor, which is supposed to push the Polylactic Acid (PLA) filament material through a tube into the extruder, seized.

At first, I suspected faulty wiring of the motor causing it to turn in the wrong direction. I swapped the cables at the connector, which reversed the rotation direction of the motor as expected. By the way, this seems to be a fairly common problem with 3D printers.

In the case of the Ender 5 Pro, the direction of rotation can also be set via a firmware update and by changing a value in the configuration file. However, this option requires an Arduino Uno, which provides the bootloader for flashing the Marlin-based software [2] via a USB connection. I didn't have a suitable Arduino at the time of installation, but that didn't matter: A wrongly adjusted motor was not the problem.

Clogged Nozzles

Feeling significantly more frustrated, I turned to my second guess – that the nozzle itself might be clogged. With a pair of pliers, and with some effort, I loosened the feed tube of the extruder and pressed an excess piece of filament into the opening.

In fact, some black residue now flowed out of the bottom; this residue was what had been clogging the nozzle. After a few minutes of squeezing and pressing, the path seemed to be clear. Full of anticipation, I loaded a test print from the SD card and started the printing process – only to find that the filament was still not sticking to the bed. The calibration screws of the Ender 5 Pro had become misaligned again with all of my tinkering, and I had to repeat the tedious manual calibration process.

Five test prints, 30 minutes, and a few dozen bouts of hair tugging later, the filament was sticking as intended. But I already had an idea for improving the calibration step. In fact, a calibration sensor is available for those who are willing to put in the manual work – which should safely include any 3D printing enthusiast. The BLTouch [3] automatically levels the printing bed.

I immediately added the BLTouch to my list of potential upgrades. Another thing that was a pity: The Ender 5 Pro cannot connect to a host via WLAN or Ethernet out of the box. Printing is only possible via a USB cable or an SD card. Since I wanted to put the printer in a broom closet or a little-used room, I started looking for a solution.

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