Tuesday, March 18, 2014

3D Printing

Seth Stevenson at Slate has a column about his disastrous attempts to run a 3D printer.  The picture to the left is one of his attempts.  His experience seems educational, given that the price of printers continues to fall.  Slate apparently gives Seth a bigger hobby budget than my wife gives me, since they bought him a printer.

The Solidoodle 4 looks like a really nice little hobby machine.  Steel frame and covers, compact footprint, relatively large working volume ( a cube eight inches on a side -- you can build relatively large things), ability to use either ABS or PLA plastic.  Billed as being driven over a USB connection by any of Windows, Linux, or a Mac.  With a retail price tag of $999, fully assembled (many low-cost 3D printers come as kits, with some degree of assembly required).

Seth's experience, though, demonstrates that's there more to 3D printing than just taking the gadget out of the packaging and firing it up.  Calibration, cleaning, temperature selection, little details like sometimes spraying the bed on which the object is printed with hair spray so the plastic adheres properly, putting up with the noise and stinks.  If the experiment had been more successful, there would have been the longer-term problems of maintaining an inventory of materials (ie, do you have enough red plastic on hand to make that spiffy Christmas tree ornament?).  The list of problems reminds me of homemade printed circuit boards.

You can make a printed circuit board at home in your garage or basement [1] in a matter of hours.  The results look like homemade PCBs.  OTOH, if you need to make PCBs infrequently, you can upload the computer files to a service bureau who will, at a cost of a couple dollars per square inch, make the board for you and mail it to your home.  You get a much higher quality result, at the cost of time (a couple of weeks is typical) and a bit more expense.  When I built the World's Most Sophisticated Whole-House Fan Controller™™ a few years ago, I had a service bureau make my boards, and was very happy with the entire experience [2].

There are a rapidly growing number of 3D printing service companies.  Generally speaking, they're going to have better printers than I could possibly afford -- unless I become a service company myself -- because they keep them busy; they already know things like the proper temperature setting for all of the materials they use; they have experience with the idiosyncrasies of their equipment; and they keep suitable stocks of material on hand.  I would be very interested in reading a column where Seth tries that route, as well.  Certainly for time being, any 3D printing experiments I conduct will be done through a service bureau.

[1] Given the nature of the chemicals and the stains they can make, don't try this in your kitchen.  Trust me on this.

[2] Some of that might be that I ordered two copies but they sent me four for the agreed-upon price.  Since I eventually used three of the boards (due to operator error and a voltage surge), that turned out very well.

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