Saturday, March 2, 2013

Makerbot Madness: My Early Experiences with 3D Printing

Thanks to a Federal grant called The Carl Perkins Fund (think industry magnate, not "blue suede shoes"), this year I received a Makerbot 3D printer for use in my classroom. The specific model I received is the Makerbot 2. Sadly, not the new and improved black version pictured on their web site but a very cool wood, plastic, and steel model. With some educational discounts, our unit cost a touch over $2k. 3D printing is like science fiction come to life. Here's a picture of our little mad scientist: 

What's the big deal about 3D printers? Here are some example scenarios which may be coming to you in the near future:
  • Instead of ordering a new plastic replacement part for your dishwasher, you simply download it and print it.
  • Before you buy a new set of silverware, you want to see how it feels in your hand and examine the design more closely - download/print.
  • The plastic handle on the hatchback of your car broke - download/print.
  • Finally, here's an odd one but totally plausible.Your daughter is studying AP Anatomy and Physiology at your local high school.  She downloads and prints the actual bones in her index finger based on recent MRI. She presents her research on phalanges, passes around her finger bones to the class as an example, and gets an "A" on her project.
3D printing applications are limitless. 
If you can design it, it can exist.

3D printers are all the rage right now. Obama even mentioned them briefly in his State of the Union address last month. How does it work? Here's a simplistic explanation of how we're using our Makerbot to print 3D objects:
  1. Find or create a 3D version of an object on your computer. To create models you can use many different industry-standard or free tools such as SolidWorks, Sculptris, Sketchup, Blender, and many more. If you can output to an STL or OBJ file, you're good to go. I highly recommend Thingiverse, an awe-inspiring library of free, downloadable models for 3D printers. These user-generated models, are so cool and fun. Visit the site - it's a great way to see the revolutionary power of this medium.
  2. Use a slicing program to create a 3D printer-compatible file. Although Makerbot makes it's own free program called Makerware, we prefer a program called ReplicatorG. The slicing program cuts the 3D object into layers and creates a unique tool path for each layer in the model. In addition, it allows you to 
  3. Print the object. This is where the magic happens. Our Makerbot uses plastic wire (or filament) that is fed through heated extrusion tips. These tips move along an X and Y grid, following the tool path and building the object layer by layer until it is complete.
Forms of 3D printing have been around since the 80's, but the exiting news is that it's now available for home and educational use. Makerbot is the clear leader in the consumer market. According to their Wikipedia page, "MakerBot Industries is a Brooklyn, New York-based company founded in January 2009 by Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach "Hoeken" Smith producing 3D printers. MakerBot builds on the early progress of the RepRap Project with the goal of bringing desktop 3D printing into the home at an affordable price." Think of RepRap as the home DIY version of the Makerbot. Btw, RepRap is very cool, and worth checking out. I'm thinking about building one this summer.

While these machines are wonderful, they are also very fussy. They require constant tinkering to get good builds. Personally, I enjoy this process. However, if you're thinking that 3D printers are just point and print - we're not quite there yet. For every three builds, we get a disastrous glob of melted, spider-webbed plastic. 3D printing can take a long time. When I come back to my classroom in the morning after an overnight build, sometimes I see joy or failure. If you're using 3D printers, here are some tips:
  • Adjust the temperature settings of your extruders and the heated build plate. If you're using ABS plastic filament you can run at higher temps, PLA can run at lower temps.
  • Use calipers to measure the actual thickness of your plastic filament. Use those more accurate measurements to tune to the settings in slicing programming.
  • Play around with the support material settings. If you're printing a complex model, using the right amount of support material can really help the quality of the build.
  • Cool air drafts affect build quality. Many makers are building plexiglass plates to cover the printer openings, or even creating a large box to put on it during printing. A cheap solution is to place a cardboard box over it to keep the build space nice and warm.
  • Blue painter's tape seems to be an excellent alternative to the supplied build plate tape. If you've had trouble with the model coming loose from the plate during the build, this seems to be a a good solution.
I would encourage you to learn about this new technology. It's incredibly fun and definitely revolutionary. Embrace your inner Maker! Here are some recent builds that we've done in class. The first two pictures show the supporting material which surrounds the build, and the final Reddit Alien character. The last picture is a Go Pro camera mount for a student's senior project. My class is just about to begin a unit where we design an build 3D models. I'm excited to get started.


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