hits counter

3D printing, the journey FINALLY begins!

I can remember very clearly the moment I decided I would be investing in a 3D printer.  The January, 2010 issue of MAKE Magazine (probably my favorite magazine of all time) had just arrived, and I was reading it while on an overnight layover in Los Angeles.  The cover story was on Makerbot IndustriesCupcake, which was at the time a serious breakthrough in the emerging world of home 3D printing.  It was one of the first complete kits available on the market, and had all the things that tend to make me excited about new technology: it was open source (more on that later), had an active user community, and compared to the previous rapid prototyping systems I was familiar with, it was dirt cheap!  As far as I was aware, stereo lithography, the “old school” method of producing 3D objects, which involves lasers and photopolymers, was the only real “magical” way to create 3-dimensional thingies, and was ridiculously expensive.  As in university and major industrial lab type of expensive.

The Cupcake offered something that got my imagination fired up to the point of sleeplessness.  Here was this magical little cube that used a spool of plastic filament to create just about anything with a volume smaller than a 4-inch cube.  It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to really start running with the idea.  Any little plastic widget you might need was at hand.  The possibilities for my model railroad layout alone were staggering!  Need something interesting to haul on an HO scale flatcar?  No problem!  Camera mount for your motorcycle helmet? Easy!  Break the little plastic doo-dad that holds the dome light up in your car?  No, you don’t have to pay $200.00 for an entire new assembly, just draw the part you need, and print it!  This thing had serious potential!

Luckily for me, I didn’t have enough money in my checking account, or I surely would have ordered one immediately.  That turned out to be a lucky break, since the 3D printing scene was in a state of rapid flux and weed-like growth.  Now, three years after that MAKE article, the Cupcake is something of a quaint, nostalgic icon of where we once were.

Makerbot industries held my attention for a long time, as they were certainly the first to market with their product, and introduced the Thing-O-Matic, followed by the Replicator, and really managed to slickify their printers, eventually dropping the open-source part, and opening an Apple Store-like boutique in New York.

For me, this was really depressing.  It seemed Makerbot was acknowledging that they had gotten what they needed from the Maker community, and no longer felt like they needed them.  Say what you want, but for me, going from open-source to a proprietary model is not what I need to encourage me to pony up three times the cost of the original Cupcake kit to own a black powder-coated conversation piece, even if had awesome styling.

For a brief while, I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t going to be doing a lot of 3D printing after all.  I obtained a copy of Make Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing, which included some reviews of what looked like some very nice machines, including a number that were still open source projects, and some others that were also available as kits.  I had narrowed my field down to about 2 or 3 units, each of which came with some rather serious compromises.

For home-based 3D printing, there are basically two types of plastic in common use: ABS, which is the type of plastic used to make Lego products, and PLA

Just in the nick of time, I stumbled across some of the newer builds going on in the RepRap community.

When I was doing my original research, RepRap machines were obviously the cradle from which the Makerbot printers had sprung.  The very name, “RepRap”, which stands for “Self-Replicating Rapid Prototyping”, sounded like a wonderful example of just what community-based open hardware technology could accomplish.

At that time, there were no RepRap kits, just a few sets of written plans and bills of materials (BOM).  Then as now, the machines all required a few specialized parts.  The idea was that you would print these parts on another RepRap, or create a “RepStrap”, which is a lower-quality but functional version of the RepRap, who’s sole purpose was to print out the required parts to make the real RepRap.  Even when that was done, the RepRaps of the day looked kind of like something had exploded in a parts bin:  They were spindly contraptions, made with a lot of steel rods, with exposed motors and printed circuit boards all over the place.  It was hard to imagine one existing anywhere except on a workbench.  I also have to admit that, at the time, I wasn’t interested in going out and sourcing all my own parts, and looking around for someone to print the specialty parts that I needed.  I was looking for a kit.

When I looked with fresh eyes, it didn’t take long before I discovered that there had been a LOT going on in the RepRap community, both in terms of new printer designs, and the availability of printed parts, and in many cases, complete kits.

I was particularly impressed with the Prusa designs, which have reduced part counts, and seem to be much simpler machines to build.  The newest version is called the Iteration 3 (or “I3).   The kits I was able to find were also going for about a third of the cost of the other designs I had been looking at.

I find it a little ironic that it was on a long layover in Las Vegas that I stumbled across this MakerFarm Prusa I3 kit.  In this case, what happened in Vegas definitely did not stay in Vegas!  I completely failed to find a good reason to resist, so I went ahead and placed an order.  The MakerFarm kit seems to be complete, just add power supply and a sheet of glass, and away you go. As would be expected with a completely open-source design, each version of the I3 kit seems to have made some slight tweaks to the design.  Some will probably add some expense to increase ease of build, and some will probably make compromises to allow the use of more easily obtained parts.  The MakerFarm kit involves a lot of laser-cut wood parts, and looks to be a very easy, bolt-together assembly.

As of this moment, I am patiently waiting for Santa Claus to arrive in his summer brown. As soon as he shows up, watch this space for a build log!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>