Thursday, March 6, 2014

Object[printing]Lesson 2: Be careful when feeding filament for Mr. Jaws.

Duuun dun duuun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun BOM BOM dun dun dun dun dun dun doo dedoo doo dedoo dede doo dede doo dededoo

Yes, that's the theme song to Jaws (thanks to Textual Songs for helping me with the lyrics).  Wait, this is supposed to be about object printing, right? Why would I open with that?  Well, for some reason, once I received my printer, that song started going through my head.  I think it's the pressure of expectations - those made to myself and my family about just how awesome and useful this printer was going to be!  Well, there it was, sitting on the dining room table in all its laser cut wood and aluminum glory.  With everyone gathered around, it was time to show what it could do.

Ok, truth be told, I may have had a little anxiety.  This isn't your average purchase; it's basically a robot that melts plastic and forms objects.  I had only ever seen one in person at CES a couple years back.  Even then, just a glimpse through a glass/plexiglass case.  Now it's sitting there waiting for me to jump in the water.  Somehow, it's Jaws and I know it's about to consume me.

Duuun dun duuun dun dun dun

First things first.  With all 5 pairs of eyes on me, I just needed to set it up.  Let's see, I have a Mac and the last time I bought a printer, I just had to plug it in and, well, that's it.  Pretty much shows up on the system and can start printing.  Nice and easy.  Let's be clear, it's not that.  Maybe someday, but not now, not this one.

Firstly, there were no clear instructions included in the box.  There were, however, some instructions etched into the wood on the side of the printer - something about cutting zip ties and removing.  Woah!  Hold your horses.  I have to cut zip ties and remove something?

Duuun dun duuun dun dun dun

Yep, and that's just what I did.  The printer comes with some extra packing material (throw away laser cut wood) hooked together to keep pieces from moving about during shipping.  I was nervous and the etching wasn't super clear, but I seem to have done the right thing.  So, don't be surprised if you have to cut a couple of zip ties.  I wish I had done a full "unboxing video" to show this, but hindsight is 20/20.

Now, power it up.  That's straightforward (or not, more on this later), which is nice.  After, plug in the USB.  That mini USB port is a bit hard to find.  Look for the main control board of the Printrbot - it's the metal doohickey with the Printrbot logo on it.  The USB port is right on the edge on the left side when facing the logo.  It's up toward the topside.  Connect it to your computer as well.

From here, I needed help.  I located the Getting Started Guide Simple instructions on the website, downloaded and got started.  Have a look at the link, the basics are there including a workflow.  It's a pretty good guide.  Chapter 5, Connect your Printrbot only has 4 easy steps!  Wouldn't you know, I failed these 4 steps.  I had what appeared to be a physical connection, but proceeding to Chapter 6, Configure Software, I learned I had no connection.

Duuuun dun duuun dun dun dun

It's plugged into the power outlet, check.  It's plugged into the USB, check.  It's plugged into the computer, check.  Now what?  I was unable to see the USB device register on the list of devices in the printer software nor in the Mac system profiler.  Now, as to power, the printer itself didn't show any lights.  I figured there weren't any lights.  Turns out, though, that there is a light.  The main board has a green light that lights up when powered.  No light, means no power.  I had no power.  My power brick was defective.  When playing with the cords, suddenly the light turned on!  I carefully placed the brick into position without changing the angle of the cords, restarted the printer software and the printer appears for configuration!  The music was beginning to fade in my head - I had to be out of the water and into the boat by now.

This is a good time to mention Printrbot support. I contacted them about the defective part and within 3 days, I had a new power brick at my house, no questions asked.  Great customer service!  The new brick works without a hitch.

Now, let's drop back a second.  I had to have something to print.  As the theme for Jaws was running through my noggin, I decided on a shark.  Seemed appropriate.  There is this fantastic community called Thingiverse that allows people to post designs to be download and printed by others.  A quick search for "Jaws" and I found Mr. Jaws.

Mr. Jaws - a chip clip!
Mr. Jaws is a chip clip, which is basically a 2D extrusion.  Nothing complicated about this model - no overhangs, support material, or unusual curves.  This is just what was needed.  I downloaded the .stl file (this is the standard file format for 3D printers) and began to get excited.  The kids, by the way, had all but lost interest at this point - "wake us up when you get it figured out."  Thanks for the support, kids.

3D printers work by melting plastic filament and layering the melted plastic in the shape that is defined by a slicing program, which takes the full 3D shape and figures out how to "slice" it into layers.  Once I had the software all configured per the instructions and the imaged sliced, I was ready to print, but the filament needed to be loaded.  It's like ink for your inkjet printer, only much bigger and more difficult to deal with.

Aluminum extruder
The picture to the right is of the extruder.  This is a key component of the printer.  It holds the filament and pushes it down into the heating unit to be squirted onto the print bed.  You'll need to locate this - it's hard to miss.  On the top of it is a hole.  That's where the filament goes.  I pushed my filament into there and started printing.  Nothing came out.  I tried to manually extrude some material using the printer controls in the software, still nothing.  Didn't seem to matter what I did.  Nothing printed.

Looks like I'm going to need a bigger boat! Queue more Jaws music.

The getting started guide showed entirely different pictures than what I had physically in front of me.  This extruder, the aluminum one, was different than in the guide, which showed a wood extruder.  Turns out the 2014 Printrbot Simple model is upgraded and the docs are not.  I found a guide for assembling the aluminum extruder on the Printrbot site which helped.  This pic made the difference for me:

filament feeding in

Here's how you, too, can feed Mr. Jaws:

  1. Heat up your extruder to about 185C with the printer software.
  2. Loosen the screw on the left of the extruder.  This will drive that nut under the spring downward, reducing the tension on the spring. Don't remove the whole screw - it's hard to put back in. The whole top assembly acts as a kind of clamp to hold the filament against the rotating drum, which pushes the filament down during prints.  
  3. Squeeze the extruder to open the space for the filament to be pushed in.  I use my left hand placing my index finger on the top left and my thumb below the bottom right side of the extruder.  You should see a gap open in the middle.
  4. Push the filament with your right hand down into the top hole, past the drums, into the lower hole while squeezing still with the left hand.  Keep pushing.  If you have followed step 1, the hot end will be hot (so be a bit careful not to touch the area near the red tip) and some melted filament should push out of the nozzle onto the print bed.  You can stop pushing when you see some.
  5. Tighten that screw back up.  You will see the nut raise against the spring.  I stop when that nut is level with the metal at the top of the "U" shape (see the filament feeding in pic above).
  6. Use the printer control software and manually extrude some more filament.  This will test the extruder motor and tension in the unit from the screw you tightened.  More melted filament should come out and it should come out in a single strand.  If so, clear off the test plastic and you are ready to go.  If not, try running the manual extrude a couple more times.

Once I finally arrived to this point, I started Mr. Shark printing.  He printed quite well.  Here he is:

My Mr. Shark

Now we finally get to the main lesson: Filament feeding is critical to get a print!  Mr. Jaws didn't print at all without feeding the filament all the way in and preparing it properly.  With the extrusion temperature up to at least 185C, push the filament in until you see some melted material come out the "hot end" (that's what the nozzle is called).   Then, be sure to tighten the screw.  This is the first step to a good print!

Let me know how your first print went and come back for Lesson 3: Guard your power to prevent a Creeper from exploding (yes, that's a Minecraft reference - I have 4 kids, remember?)!

Read More »

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Object [printing] Lesson 1: Simple. Do your homework.

The decision has been made, we will be printing objects at my house (see my last post, entitled Why I chose to print objects at my house).  I now have to select and buy a printer.  How hard could it be?  It's a new space, right?  Can't be too many options, right?  Wrong.  Boy, was I in for a surprise.  It's clearly a craze; everybody wants to make a 3D printer!  I guess, in this way, things are different from 1984 when, to my recollection, it was pretty much Mac or nothing if you wanted WYSIWYG printing.

In 1984, your only option was pretty expensive.  As I recall, dad spent something like $3K for the Mac and the printer together.  Oh, it hurts to think of how much that was for compute power that was far less than what we have in our phones today!  I digress.  The upside of this 3D printer craze is a wide variety of choice and price.  In fact, by the end of my research, I had discovered more than 2 dozen different printer models to consider!  It's hard to find just the right one, as 3D printer stores aren't found on every corner or even in places you might think, like Best Buy, at least not yet.  So, despite all the information on the web, you are likely buying without seeing the real deal.  So, it's important to do your homework.

I started with a name I had heard about before, Makerbot.  They look like fabulous printers and there are good reviews for them.  However, the base price was, for me, a bit steep given my objective.  Next was to Google 3D printers.  Quite a few will come up.  I salivated at what could be produced by the professional printers manufactured by Stratasys, who recently purchased Makerbot.  I found and looked at Cubify, RepRap, and 3D Systems. I was surprised to see Amazon selling a variety of printers.    I began to be wooed by the Solidoodle and was thinking that might be a good one for me.

Then I discovered the Bible of 3D Printing, MAKE: Magazine's Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing.  If you are thinking about buying your own printer, make the $10 investment and read this.  I put it on my iPad and read it cover to cover.  Fantastic stuff in there from how 3D printers are being used to reviews of 23 different printers to information about the materials and software.  It's a wonderful source of information.  After reading this guide, I was even more excited about the space and made my selection.  The printer for me would be the Printrbot Simple.  It won the "Best Value" category in the reviews and I liked what the reviewers had to say about it.

I went to the Printrbot site to order the printer - it turns out there are options.  They make 3 different printers, but beyond the models, they also sell them as kits!  So, if you are a capable "maker", you can assemble it yourself and save $100!  Yeah, I didn't do that.  I'll take a pre-assembled piece of precision electronics, motors, and wires, please.  Remember that I mentioned Amazon?  Before placing the order from Printrbot that indicated a 2 to 3 week lead time for an assembled printer, I checked Amazon.  They sell assembled Printrbots and ship free via Prime.  Sweet.

I ordered from Amazon and added filament to my order.  Buyer beware here.  If you choose to buy with Amazon, pay very close attention to the filament and get the right type.  Amazon showed ABS filament (it's a type of plastic that has a higher melting point) with the printer.  However, the Simple only support PLS filament.  Guess which one I ordered?  Yep, ABS.  Discovered that after shipping and had to return it.

There you have it, Lesson One:  Do your homework.  There are many many options and a wide variety of prices.  Get the magazine and pay close attention to your filament purchase!

BTW, my printer is here.  It's surprisingly small.  I knew it had a small print volume (4" cube), but the printer itself is much smaller than I expected, like only a foot long and a foot tall when fully extended.    I have sample filament that came with it, but no extra filament due to my poor observational skills.  It's time to print something!

Stay tuned for Lesson Two: Be careful when feeding filament for Mr. Shark.
Read More »

Monday, February 17, 2014

Why I chose to print objects at my house.

Noise of 3D printing has been buzzing around quite some time.  This 30 year old technology is much like those pesky flies around the picnic table.  I say pesky, because, even in our busy lives with so much churn in technology, 3D printing has become difficult to ignore.  I never really saw it as a bad thing, just another thing.  Maybe just another fad, but it's becoming difficult to ignore.  At least for me.  

So, I've been asking myself, is 3D printing going to stick?  Is it just for digital artists, those who know how to work with 3D software and understand how to think in polygons?  Is it just for the manufacturing industry or architects?  Where does it fit?  Who is it for?  I've come the conclusion that it's going to become very important and will disrupt the world in many ways.  Per Richard D'Aveni in the Harvard Business Review 
And yet, by enabling a machine to produce objects of any shape, on the spot and as needed, 3-D printing really is ushering in a new era.
Signe Brewster in a recent Gigaom article says,
It’s pretty easy to imagine a future where almost anything you would ever want to print has already been created and is accessible by a quick online search. 
For me, the decision to get deeper into object printing, as I'll call it, came with an epiphany as I thought about my own experiences in technology.   So, first the story and then the epiphany!  Stay with me.

Back in 1984, I was in high school and an aspiring programmer.  I had purchased a Commodore Vic20 with my lawn mowing money and connected it up to a small black and white TV.  It was here that I first learned to program, working with media and very simple graphics.  Now, my dad wanted to write a curriculum of Biblical Greek for high school students and teach it, so I whipped up a simple word processor that recoded the display to show greek characters, having mapped them to the certain keys on the keyboard.  It worked well enough, but had a couple of limitations, the main one being that we couldn't print the content.  Back then, printing was done via a daisy wheel.  You just sent the character and it typed it for you.  We looked at having a greek daisy wheel manufactured, but it was prohibitively expensive, so I stopped the project.  

Along comes March 1984 Popular Science (read it here) with an article about a new computer being released called an Apple Macintosh (page 99).  The computer, of course, was very exciting and, yep, I wanted one!  How to get one though?  It was expensive!  Then I learned about the printing.  Along with the Mac, came the ImageWriter printer.  The dot matrix technology had been around, but with this one, the computer controlled the print head allowing it to print anything the computer could send it.  I knew this was the answer - surely, it could print greek!  I convinced dad to go to a local store and look at one.  He was astute and had run his business with a computer for some time.  He believed in them, so that made it easier.  I told him that I thought this could solve the greek problem.  Once we talked to the sales people, he was sold and bought that first Mac with an ImageWriter.  Within 3 months, there was a greek font he bought and was off and writing.  

After the ImageWriter was the LaserWriter.  Kinkos came out with computers and LaserWriters waiting to allow you to come and print what you needed.  WYSIWYG printing was starting to be embraced by the masses.  It was a few years before people had all of this in their homes.  It's commonplace now and we take it for granted.   There's the epiphany - where we are today with 3D printers is similar to where were were around 1984.  The printing and technology works, but it's not quite ready for everyone.  At the same time, its growth and future is unmistakable.  Object printing shops (the Kinko's of 3D printing) are beginning to pop up all around the country.  It's only a matter of time before these printers are as prevalent or nearly as prevalent as the paper printers of today.  They may not be in every household, but most will likely need or want access to printing objects.

Back to the story for a moment.  Thanks to my dad, his vision, and the availability of the Macintosh system, I had access to technology that gave me a "leg up" in the tech world.  I used that computer all the time and learned about being productive on a computer in a way to be relevant in the business world.  Concepts learned related to writing, graphics, analytics, programming, and printing with a computer enabled me to get started and thrive in the modern world.  

This experience and my view of the future of object printing has led me to step into this new space and invest in object printing.  It's really to invest in my children to provide for them exposure to the new world that's coming.  Ok, that may be a bit of a hyperbole, but early experience with the hardware and software may provide, for them, a "leg up" in a world that will soon be changed by designing and printing objects in your home. 
Read More »