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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

“So why would someone own a 3D printer…

…or be glad that their neighbor did?”

Recently I picked up a Barnes and Noble NOOKColor. It’s an Android-based, e-reader/tablet with a good web browser and PDF display package. I don’t plan on buying many e-books (I prefer paper), but having something bigger than a phone and smaller than a laptop that can display a PDF or browse a “howto” site while I’m in the studio is seriously useful.

Except for one slight problem.

Like most tablets/e-readers, it’s meant to be hand-held and not parked on a bench. If I lay it flat on my bench it’s hard to read, and while it was amusing to have my hand model hold it, that didn’t work well either.

So after a frustrating day of trying to use it to browse instructions on some MakerBot mods…


… a trivial NOOKColor holder.

posted by jet at 20:54  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Latest Design/Digifab Experiment: From Cupcake to Shapeways

[This is going to get a bit nerdy, but don’t worry, I save the hardcore stuff for my nerd blog.]

I had an idea recently for a different way of making ground plane antennas for the 2M band. Don’t worry about what they actually are, suffice it to say that they occupy a lot of volume and are a pain to transport. Imagine a pyramid made out of four 60cm coathangers with another 60cm coathanger coming out the top of the pyramid and you’ve got a typical ground plane antenna. On the other hand, they’re cheap, easy to build and can be tuned/adjusted with the SWR meter in a decent VHF radio.

(Ok, that’s pretty much all the geek stuff out of the way. See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?)

So here’s the problem. What if you want to toss a ground plane antenna in the back of your car, carry it somewhere on your bicycle, or have it as part of an emergency “go bag”? Are you really going to cart around a delicate bit of metal sculpture that occupies a rectangle a half-meter on each side and a meter tall? No, you aren’t.

This became a problem with an interesting combination of design and fabrication: How I could make it easier to transport and store but still be easy to set up and function correctly as an antenna? The idea of making it fold up seemed like the most obvious solution, but folding means moving parts which means more chance of coming apart. However, most people use this sort of antenna in a fixed location, often inside an attic or outside resting on a flat surface. At worst it might be used outside in windy situation and I’m thinking about a second version for that sort of environment. I started my process with the traditional sketching but instead of making foamcore models I decided to fire up the MakerBot Cupcake I built last winter and start out with ABS prototypes.

Total time spent modeling and printing each iteration was about an hour, and it was easy to fit that in at night after dinner over a few nights. The first few didn’t work very well but I quickly hit one that did work and that was a relatively simple piece of plastic. (Ok, it worked better after a bit of filing and sanding, but it worked.) Within a few minutes I’d bent and cut some welding rod, soldered a stick of it to an adapter, tweaked the resonance a bit, and I had a working antenna for not very much money.

The problem quickly became “How do I share this with other amateur radio operators?” Sure, I posted the STL on Thingiverse, but you have to own or know someone with a 3D printer for that to be of any use.

I think the answer is going to be Shapeways. I’ve ordered printed items from them in the past and while they aren’t cheap, they have wonderful print quality and ship worldwide. I’ve started the process of setting up a store there and in the spirit of Amateur Radio will offer my antenna mount for minimal markup.

In a few months we’ll see how this experiment worked: Can a design concept prototyped on a hobby 3D printer be turned around and sold for a small profit by a commercial fabrication shop? What are the unexpected surprises or hidden gotchas that need to be solved for this to be more than a hobby and instead a viable business model?

posted by jet at 22:34  

Friday, March 26, 2010

Documenting Design

On my recent trip to Japan I took my hand-me-down-but-new-to-me DSLR with the intent of documenting my trip and stuffing my swipe file to the brim. I didn’t take my video camera because it was too bulky and required too much attention: tapes that have to be managed, batteries to be charged and swapped, etc. Once I got there I quickly regretted not bringing the video camera and picked up a pocket-sized HD video camera, a Sony HDR-TGV5.

The DSLR is a great tool for documenting 2d and 3d design, but for 4d design you really need something that can capture video. (It’s true that some DSLRs now capture stunning video, but only for short durations and quantities and you’re still lugging around a full-size camera.) My “should have brought the video camera” regret kicked in as soon as I started experiencing how differently Japanese people interact with technology and their environment. Sure, I could take lots of photos and copious notes, but those aren’t nearly as good as 10-15 seconds of video.

It’s not just recording video that’s important, it’s being able to record video conveniently, in high quality, then easily move the video off the camera. With my full-size, miniDV video camera it’s pretty much impossible to take quick snippets of video given the overhead of getting it in/out of the case, turning it on, etc. On the other hand, the TGV5 is small and light enough that I can carry it in my pocket and within a few seconds have it out and recording video. (It’s even faster than getting my Droid out and recording.) Cheap/free software makes it trivial to take a 10-20 second clip, trim it if needed, then “Save As” for Flickr or Vimeo.

As an experiment I’m starting to document design — especially 4d design — using only short video clips. I’ve posted a couple of short clips to a new flickr set, “Japan + Design” which I’ll be filling with video and still clips as I get around to processing the backlog of photos.

There’s no chance of my getting rid of the DSLR any time soon as there’s no substitute for huge glass when it comes to taking good photos. However, I have stopped lugging it around unless I’m intentionally on a trip to take hiqh quality photos as the TGV5 is becoming my “go to” camera for documentation and swipe files.

posted by jet at 13:12  

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  

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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