It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Are You Ready to Own A MakerBot Cupcake?

Which is a different question than, “Is the MakerBot Cupcake the right 3d printer for you?”

If you have the budget to buy a production-ready 3D printer, you probably shouldn’t be looking at a MakerBot. Production systems have better resolution, support contracts, schmancy STL conversion software and all sorts of other niceties. The MakerBot Cupcake is not a Stratasys, you’re not just going to plug it in and be cranking out pretty models a few hours later.

However, if you don’t have a huge budget and you’re willing to spend time debugging, tweaking, and generally getting your hands dirty; if you’re ok with the smell of ABS fumes, the stepper motor “songs“, and tending to an occasionally fussy machine that will botch a part for no obvious reason; and if you enjoy hacking and iterative exploration of technology, then maybe you’re the right sort of person to put together a MakerBot Cupcake or other reprap-based 3D printer.

Home scale fabrication is the domain of garage-carpenters and basement-machinists, the MakerBot doesn’t replace either. To some extent, building and running a MakerBot requires some of these related skills. Do you have a feel for how tight you can turn a bolt holding two pieces of wood together before it snaps the wood? Do you know how to shorten a screw with a hacksaw and keep the threads clean? You already own a multimeter, do you have a thermistor probe as well? How are you at diagnosing a wiring problem in a stepper motor?

Of the various reprap-related projects, MakerBot Cupcake is pretty clearly the easiest to put together. I got mine up and running without much fuss, but I’ve been building things from kits or fabbing things from raw materials for many years. I still needed help from the MakerBot mailing list to sort out a couple of minor problems and I’ve been able to help a couple of other people with their problems.

If you’re primarily a designer, there’s a reason you should consider taking the plunge even if you think you aren’t the sort of person who is ready to build their own 3D printer: self-education.

I’ve learned a lot about fabrication working in the opensource 3D printing world that I was never exposed to using commercial systems. Learning how to use Blender to create models has been painful at times, but I find myself liking it more than Solidworks for simple projects. I’ve learned about bad STL code, the relationships between temperature and speed when laying down plastic, and more about the physical properties of ABS than I ever thought I would need to know. Assembling the MakerBot from parts exposed me to a few neat tricks you can use to make 3D objects out of sheets of acrylic, and some new joining techniques for thin surfaces.

This new knowledge is also helping my ongoing education as a designer. Now that I know some of the printing capabilities, I can change my sketching and ideation process to work around limitations or integrate limitations of the printer. I’ve also rediscovered the old metalworking path of designing a mold to create a basic shape that is finished on machine tools, but instead I’m printing 3D plastic that I can finish using hand tools or machine tools.

It hasn’t been the easiest tool I’ve learned to use, but building and using the MakerBot might be the “funnest” tool I’ve learned to use in recent years.

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posted by jet at 13:19  

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why does Google hate Design?

Decided to give SketchUp Pro a test-drive after discovering that Blender is problematic on the G5/PowerPC and that the free SketchUp is missing some features I need.

On the download page is the usual demographic survey, which includes this gem:


  • Architecture
  • Cabinetry
  • City Planning
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer Consulting
  • Construction
  • Contractor
  • Entertainment
  • Facilities Management
  • Gaming
  • GIS
  • Graphic Design
  • Hobbyist
  • Home Building
  • Interior Design
  • Landscape Architect
  • Marketing
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Software
  • Survey

First, note the lack of “other”. You are going to tell Google exactly what it is you do or you cannot download the software. How can you have data-driven decision-making when people can weasel out and choose “other”?

Now, note the horrid inconsistency in the hierarchies of the various industries listed and the amount of overlap in some of the categories.. We go from the extremely broad categories of “Entertainment” and “Software” to the very specific discipline of “Cabinetry”. I guess if you’re a furniture designer who doesn’t specialize in “Cabinetry” you’re just an “Interior Design” person. Or maybe “Entertainment”, because people sit on your furniture while being entertained. Isn’t “Gaming” a form of “Entertainment” and “GIS” a type of “Software”?

Of course, the only design disciplines mentioned are “Interior” and “Graphic”, I guess Industrial and Interaction Designers aren’t really designers, they’re “Mechanical engineering” or “Software”. It’s also interesting that the only two design disciplines called out are also the ones commonly (and incorrectly) associated with women designers: interior and graphic.

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posted by jet at 19:53  

Friday, November 13, 2009

baby’s first 3D printer

[This is the first in a series of notes about home-based 3D printing based on my experiences with a MakerBot Cupcake.]

In the 1980s the average person didn’t own a home computer. Those who did were likely to be gamers, hackers, tinkerers, or someone else interested in owning a computer as a hobby, not as an everyday tool. ~30 years later, computers are a part of everyday life, used for paying bills, keeping up with friends, publishing photos, and a whole host of other uses we could never have predicted back in the days of the SE and AT. We knew that home computers would change things, but we couldn’t predict how, no matter how many episodes of Star Trek or Max Headroom we watched on multi-generation VHS tapes copied from friends.

Today, 25 years after the Great Pagemaker Massacre of 1985, we’re on the verge of another massive change in how our world works. I have no idea how that change will manifest itself, but I’d like to be one of the first to find out.

I just built a MakerBot Cupcake 3D printer, which is itself based on the reprap project printers. Since the first question most people ask me is “how much did it cost?”, I’m going to start off this series of notes talking about the economics of 3D printing.

In raw dollars, the Cupcake cost a little less than my first computer, a Commodore C64 with monitor, printer, and omfg, floppy drive instead of cassette recorder, all of which set my parents back a bit over a grand. While a grand or so in the early 80s bought a fair bit more than it does now, like other home computers, you couldn’t just buy the computer. We probably spent another few hundred dollars on software, joysticks, blank floppies, that weird “computer-paper” that the printer used and so on. Most of those things came from third parties, so there was competition to keep the prices down — you weren’t locked into buying blank floppies only from Commodore.

Like the C64, one of the selling points for the Cupcake is that it’s a cheap, no-frills device. Part of the fun in having a Cupcake is the DIY aesthetic of figuring out how it works, why it works, and how to keep it working. Another not so obvious selling point, is that the Cupcake is based on opensource software and hardware. If you’re not familiar with the 3D printer market, you’re probably thinking “so? I bought a cheap PC built from parts and run linux? What’s the big deal about an opensourced 3D printer?”

Commercial 3D printer companies, like most 2D printer companies, operate by selling you the “razor for cheap then making it up on the blades”. The profit isn’t in the printer, it’s in the supplies the printer uses and the support contract to keep it running. Next time you see a really inexpensive inkjet printer for sale, research the cost of a set of replacement ink cartridges. Compare the volume of ink in the cartridges and their price and compare that with the price of refill ink, or look at the effort some manufacturers put into forcing you to only buy new cartridges by using DRM. (There’s an excellent eBay scam that takes advantage of the pricing disparities: buy a printer, pull the ink cartridges, then sell the printer “like new” for near what you paid for it to someone who doesn’t know how much the replacement cost of the cartridges.)

Two things you usually have to buy from the manufacturer if you own a commercial, closed-source 3D printer are the material to print with and the base that you print on. The printing material is probably a spool of ABS plastic in a vendor-specific housing and the printing base is also ABS and also vendor specific. There’s a nice article over at Time Compression that goes into cost details to be considered when buying a commercial 3D printer, but we’ll skip to the chase and say we’re talking about US$ 1-2 per cubic inch on the proprietary systems vs. USD $10 per pound of raw ABS from MakerBot. Oh, and instead of those $5 one-use print surfaces only available from the vendor, the Cupcake prints on a variety of surfaces available at any art supply store, some of them reusable for dozens of prints. (I’ve used a small piece of acrylic for ~20 prints on the Cupcake with no signs of wear and tear.)

This is opposite to how 2D printing has worked going back to the earliest days of printing. Once someone had the idea to cut blocks of wood or cast lead as type, the printer could control costs by simply buying raw materials for the best price they could negotiate and recycling them when possible. Cast some metal into type, then melt it down when you no longer need it. Screw up a print run? No problem, we can recycle that paper. Wore out your wooden printing block? Have someone carve another and get back to printing.

When I learned to type (“yes, grandpa, on a typewrier, we know”) it was on an IBM Selectric that used a ribbon and “typewriter” paper. The ribbon was sold by IBM, but replacements were available from third parties. Likewise, I didn’t have to buy my paper from IBM, I could buy it from any office supply store. I could even buy paper that IBM didn’t approve of (as if such a thing existed). If my typewriter needed repair, I didn’t have to call the IBM tech, I could go to any typewriter repair shop I choose.   

This is pretty much exactly opposite to how 3D printers work now. If you own a FooCorp X1000 you are pretty much locked into buying everything from FooCorp. Having problems with your X1000? Is your support contract paid up? Are you allowed to even open it and try and fix it yourself without violating your contract?

While the Cupcake is opensource, and one is not locked into buying ABS from MakerBot, it isn’t a completely self-sustaining ecology just yet. The first problem is that there’s no way to convert ABS models and scrap back into spools of ABS for printing . The technology to melt and extrude ABS plastic is there, it’s just a matter of someone building a melter/extruder that’s safe for home use. Safety might end up being the real problem as ABS fumes aren’t something you want to breath on a regular basis. Instead of recycling ABS on the individual level, perhaps the local door-to-door ABS recycling firm comes by and trades your scrap for fresh rolls of ABS, similar to the newspapers for toilet paper biz in Japan. One step further would be the ability to take broken ABS items and recycle them into replacement parts. If a knob or some other small part breaks, bring it over to my place, I’ll print you a new one then give the old one to the recycler in trade for more plastic.

So there you have the costs — under a grand and a dozen or two hours of your time to assemble it, adjust it, and get it running. Some of the money you’re “saving” by buying a DIY printer is going to be translated into hours of your time assembling, adjusting, and generally tweaking your Cupcake to get a decent print.   

Next we’ll look at who the real customer is and whether you should buy a Cupcake or just ship your STL to RedEye.

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posted by jet at 10:54  

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