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.
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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. 
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