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  

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