M3D – my tiny blue Mini Micro has arrived…

After backing the M3D Micro campaign on Kickstarter last year – one of the most successful ones ever to be launched with nearly 12.000 backers pledging around 3.4 million dollars – it has been a long wait and an even longer journey through 3D printing wonderland for me, most of which has been documented in this blog. When I decided to back the Micro, I did so mostly because of my very tight budget at the time – the $299 price tag was very attractive, even with an additional £120 factored in for shipping and import duties. Then the long wait began (the success of the campaign meant mounting delays and revised delivery schedules) and eventually the pressure of getting my PhD finished motivated me into diving into my savings and getting the UMO+ kit (which also took nearly 3 months to arrive from ordering – 3D printing is apparently for the patient). I have learnt a lot since then, and clocked up many hours reading forums, adjusting Cura settings and tweaking models to get that perfect print out of my UM.

So when I finally got the email to say that my Micro was ready to be shipped out in June, I was excited to scale up my operations with the addition of the tiny blue cube, but also wondering if I still really needed it now that I was churning out top quality prints in all sorts of materials with my UM. But then I saw the Mini Micro!!! I think I had not initially realised quite how tiny it would be, so when the box arrived (including some extra rolls of filament) I was quite taken aback both by its size and weight. This little printer has to put a new meaning to the phrase ‘portable’ – with a slick little body injection-moulded out of thermoplastic (available in blue, green, orange, black and silver I think), and the potential for an internal spool and filament path (I prefer to mount mine externally on the back to see what’s going on) this is the perfect printer to take on holiday, your mum’s house, college, your nearest Makerspace…anywhere really. While I know of a few people who claim the UM to be very portable, and who do take it along to events, I would never consider that as an option – even the UP! felt heavy to me when I lugged it around Dundee for an event, and that is a lot smaller than an UM. The Micro however, would be very easy to take anywhere – it weighs next to nothing and there are very few external parts to contend with. Box it up, stick it in your handbag, off you go! It is also very easy to move around different rooms of the house – as I type this, it is sitting next to me on the arm of my sofa, printing away happily and reasonably quietly. It looks and feels almost like a toy – a very advanced toy, but a toy nevertheless.

Now for the more technical aspects of the Micro. Its design reminds me a lot of the Rapman – a Z axis in each corner, with a central double y axis supporting the printhead and sliding along two x axes. All axes are direct drive, with the Y axes being rotated by a long metal rod connected to a motor and a double belt system (the belts look tiny and somewhat vulnerable). The platform is static and unheated, which will make printing ABS practically impossible if my experiences with the UM are anything to go by. Printing PLA seems to work like a charm, and I have had no problems with platform adhesion so far. The extruder is of the direct drive variety, and I can hear the small fan inside the enclosure whirring away busily when it’s printing – there are no external fans like on the UM. The extruder has an automatic filament drive, with a shielded bowden tube connecting to the internal spool holder (located underneath the printbed), and a tiny hole for feeding in filament externally. The Micro takes 1.75mm filament – handy for me, as it will now allow me to use any filament in my setup, and I love that they have enabled their customers to use ANY filament rather than just the one sold by them. The trend of companies and re-sellers trying to push the proprietary filament model is worrying and needs to be opposed vehemently by consumers. Altogether, I really like the way the printer looks and its handy size, but of course the proof will be in the pudding and the prints it manages to turn out.

So far on that front my experiences have been mixed. When I first got the UM, trying to print my Cocoon shape was a nightmare, figuring out the settings, raft, temperature, z-hop, retraction and speed. However, slowly but surely I was starting to get great results, with the help from many people on the UM forum and by trial and error. The Micro is far more consumer oriented than the UM – it comes with its own proprietary software, which uses the Cura engine to slice the model and then a spooler to translate the Gcode to the printer. It is meant to be truly Plug-and-Play – upload your model into the software, drop it on the virtual platform, choose from a few quality and infill settings, tell the printer what filament you’re using (the M3D filament even has a ‘cheat code’ with preset optimum temperatures) and press print. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, especially if you manage to find a setting that gets good results with your model. And I think the average user, who wants to download and print something from Thingiverse or Youmagine, will find that the Micro produces very decent prints. But I am already getting the feeling (and the jury’s still out – so far I have only printed two models on the Micro) that this printer would be capable of so much more in terms of speed and quality if there was an option to tweak the setting in Cura and then send the file directly to the printer, or if the proprietary software had many more adjustment options. I really hope that in the future this will be possible – the original Kickstarter campaign promised open-source software compatibility, and for me this is an important aspect of optimising print quality. Another tiny bugbear is the fact that is needs to be plugged into my computer at all times – quite annoying on longer prints, and not as handy as having an SD card to save models on, although I think opinions are generally divided on this matter.

Altogether I am pleased with my pledge – for a product to arrive on my doorstep at all is quite good, considering the many failed Kickstarter campaigns out there. I can see this printer producing good results with simple models as it is, and coming in really handy for taking to workshops because of its size. Whether it will eventually be able to match the fantastic quality of my UM remains to be seen – watch this space! Would I back it again, knowing everything I know now and with the market having moved on considerably in the last year to give us affordable, high-quality printers like the Printrbot Play? Who knows – we’ll see how capable and handy it is in the next few months, and whether its great portability outweighs other drawbacks. For now I am really enjoying my tiny blue cube…

 

xCoAx 2015 Glasgow

A few weeks ago I gave a paper at the XcoaX 2015 conference held at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow and this year organised and hosted by the University of the West of Scotland. When I initially saw the call for papers in January, I was intrigued by the eclectic mix of themes, encompassing computation, communication, aesthetics, human computer interaction, coding, digital installation art and the ominous ‘X’. When my paper on the aesthetics of creating stimulus-responsive jewellery was accepted, I was really excited to be a part of this diverse conference and could barely wait for the end of June to roll around.

This year the conference consisted of four different events, including an evening of digital performances and the eponymous ‘Algorave’ held at the GSA, in addition to the more traditional paper presentations and an exhibition of works. After a delightful evening reception on the Wednesday, the paper presentations were held over two consecutive days and consisted of five sessions, loosely linked by themes and content. I thoroughly enjoyed all the presentations, and was particularly intrigued by the amount of research focusing on sound related installations. This was a field I had been unaware of before XcoaX, and the idea of ‘live coding’ performances, where programmers write freestyle lines of code to create sound building blocks which in turn are assembled as electronic music is absolutely fascinating. Other highlights included Hanna Schraffenberger and Edwin van der Heide’s Sonically Tangible Objects which provided the audience with a brief glimpse into a future augmented reality, whereas Nicole Koltik’s short paper on philosophies of the artificial and Sofia Romulado’s analysis of videogames as an artform struck a particular chord with me.

On Friday evening we were treated to a string of performances, and Thor Magnusson and Pete Furniss gave a wonderful demonstration of how live coding and traditional instruments can be used to create a completely immersive ‘wall of sound’ experience in their piece Fermata. Another highlight was provided by digital artist Jung In Jung, who had brought dancers Dane Lukic and Stefanos Dimoulas to perform in their interactive sound and dance collaboration Thermospheric Station.

Altogether it was an amazing experience, and one I am hoping to repeat next year when the conference will be held in Bergamot. Better come up with some fresh material by then! I will finish this brief report with images from the exhibition. While all of the works on show were absolutely fascinating (and I finally got to try some real VR goggles!), two in particular struck a chord – Andreas Zingerle and Linda Kronman’s 5-channel interactive audio installation called ‘Let’s talk business’, a humorous installation exploring online scam narratives and Raul Pinto, Paul Atkinson, Joaquim Vieira and Miguel Carvalhais’ growth objects, which use mushroom spawn to create objects based on biological generative systems. See you next year in Bergamot!

Spam 1
Andreas Zingerle and Linda Kronman: ‘Let’s Talk Business’ Installation with Spam can telephones
Mushrooms 1
Pinto, Atkinson, Vieira and Calvahais: ‘Growth Objects – Biological Generative Systems’
Mushroom 2
Detail of a ‘Growth Object’

 

 

Filastruder Build … Electronics

After receiving my hotly anticipated Filastruder kit, I couldn’t wait to put it together. Starting with the mechanical build, completed over the course of a few afternoons, things seemed to be going smoothly. I had ordered the enclosure kit to go along with the Filastruder, and after a slight hickup with the interior fit of the upgraded v1.6 motor that Filastruder creator Tim Elmore helped me sort out quickly and efficiently via email, my small-scale home extruder was ready to be imbued with electronic life.

This was the part I had been nervous about from the beginning, and even more so as I read the sparse instructions included with the kit. While I have accumulated some experience with soldering PCB assemblies over the last year, and my Arduino skills are improving all the time, doing wiring on a much larger scale is not something I am totally comfortable with yet. I think mostly I struggled with visualising what the end product was supposed to look like – how the wires are held together (soldering or crimping?), how long the wires are supposed to be, how everything fits in the case with the motor. I found very little on this subject on the Solidoodle Forum, the first point of call for any Filastruder owner, and what I did find looked positively lethal and not something I would want to run unattended in my studio. I read on the forum that the extrusion process takes between 8-12 hours or even longer, depending on how much material you are extruding, and I felt that I needed to be completely comfortable with running the extruder for that length of time without worrying about electrical fires. So what to do?

The first clue I found when I finally had the time to get stuck into the electronics assembly were a few large crimp connectors that had been included to wire up the various switches. If you have been following my blog you will know that I have recently developed a bit of a thing for electronics crimping – albeit on a much smaller scale. Crimps are a great and very reliable way to form an electrical connection, and my interest in the huge variety of colourful larger crimp connectors had been stirred already during a previous visit to Maplin. Learning from my previous forays into crimping, I decided to make another trip to pick up some more connectors as well as the appropriate crimping pliers. If you are going to get involved with crimping larger style connectors, a pair of ratcheted pliers is absolutely essential – and not the right place to skimp; your wrists will thank you for using a decent pair that exerts enough pressure to form a secure connection the first time round. Armed with my new tools and an excellent YouTube tutorial on electrical crimping, I decided to tackle the switch connectors first:

Filatronics04After a few unsuccessful attempts and failed connections, the results of my crimping efforts were starting to improve and the wiring was beginning to take shape. The Sestos controller has screw terminals, so I attached ring terminal crimps on the ends of the wires to create a better connection than I would have by just simply attaching the bare wires. After a few more hours and some wasted crimps, this is what I ended up with:

Filatronics01The thermocouple posed another challenge – its two large prongs did not fit well into the screw terminals, and leaving it sticking out straight would have interfered with the case. I resolved this issue by attaching two more ring terminal crimps on one end and two small spade crimps on the other (hidden underneath badly applied heatshrink in the image):

Filatronics02The final adjustments I made was to use a JST connector terminal soldered to a small bit of stripboard to attach the fan and add female header crimps with housings (taped together with their male counterparts with electrical tape for a secure connection) on the heater wires, as I wanted these two elements to be easily detachable if needed.

Filatronics03I also made the decision not to ‘hack’ the original 12V power supply cable as suggested in the instructions but to use a screw terminal barrel jack instead as it seemed neater and more flexible should I ever need to replace the power supply.

At this point I would like to add that all of these modifications and build strategies were my own and should in no way be taken as gospel – if you do things in a similar way as described here when building your kit it is entirely at your own risk. I am still feeling my way around electronics and figuring out the best way to do things. Similarly, if you feel I made a mistake or want to suggest an improvement, please get in touch as I would welcome any constructive advice!

That’s my Filastruder fully assembled now, including cramming the finished electronics into the case. I have not had a chance to try it out yet, but I can safely say that I have finished the job to the best of my abilities. The Filastruder kit was certainly one of the more challenging things I have done so far, despite great email support from Tim. Can’t wait to get going now!!!

Filastruder…unboxing!

This week I finally got the shipping confirmation for my Filastruder kit. After a bit of wrestling with Parcelforce and paying the appropriate customs charges (don’t get caught out by these if you order stuff from the US – at the very least you’ll have to pay UK VAT!), I finally took my little brick of a parcel home. Unfortunately, it could really not have arrived at a worse time for me – between speaking at the Handmade by Machines symposium last Friday and giving a paper at XcoaX 2015 next week. So, having no time to put the ‘Struder together for another week at least, I thought I’d do a small ‘unboxing’ photoshoot to get it out of my system and inspect the contents of the package in eager anticipation…

Filastruder01

It might not look it, but this parcel packs a real punch in terms of its contents…

Filastruder02

…most of which I have yet to identify. Most intriguing bit spotted so far: a huge drill bit that has been filed down in order to create the internal lead screw of the extruder.

Filastruder03

And here are the contents laid out in all their glory. I ordered the whole enchillada, so what you see here are the both the Filastruder and Filawinder in bits, as well as a complementary pound of ABS pellets. I have already procured 12.5kg of PLA pellets for my research, and I can’t wait to feed these to the ‘Struder.

Another thing I was able to fit in between writing my paper for next week and doing the unboxing was to start printing the additional parts required to make the kit work. There are various ways to set up the Filastruder, and the design of the hopper depends on the way you decide to orient the extruder. My studio is starting to burst at the seams (especially since the Ultimaker entered my life) but luckily there is still a tiny bit of suitable wall space at the back, so I decided to print a vertical hopper mount that takes 2L bottles as hoppers from Thingiverse.

Filastruder04

I chose ABS and 100% fill, as this part comes under a lot of strain and needs to be able to take quite a bit of weight – it might have been total overkill, but better safe than sorry. Can’t wait to put it all together…watch this space!

The Wilderness of Micro Jargon or how I deciphered prototyping langugage

It has been an interesting week here at Smart Central, most of which I spent wrestling with the helpful language used on websites selling components and in their respective datasheets. Even though I have now been trying to get serious about prototyping for more than three years, some instructions given with regards to how to activate certain functions offered by components still baffle and confuse me deeply. So much prior knowledge is just assumed to exist on the part of the creative technologist by the authors of these sites and datasheets, and unless you happen to know someone you can ask what something means exactly, and more importantly how to execute a certain instruction, you run the risk of ruining your components. So I thought I’d write this post about my recent experience with the Adafruit Standalone Toggle Capacitive Touch Sensor breakout.

In theory, this is a beautiful component to use to Toggle Capacitive_1375incorporate a touch sensitive switch into your project – you can even replace the integrated touch pad with a conductive surface to make touch sensitive keys that blend in more discreetly with your project by soldering a connector into the pin below the touch pad. There is a momentary version of this sensor available, which is only active when contact is made, but for my current purpose the on/off toggle function works nicely. Now, because space is at a premium when working on a jewellery scale, even the tiny dimensions of this sensor (about 1.5cm x 2.5cm) were too big for my project and I decided to be daring and simply lop off the redundant integrated touch pad and status indicator LED with a jeweller’s saw. I don’t advocate this as the best way of quite literally ‘hacking’ a component, but in this case I felt the value of the learning experience outweighed the risk of ruining the sensor (I bought a spare just in case). However, much to my surprise the maimed component still worked perfectly afterwards – I made an educated guess about the connections I was savaging, and it seems to have paid off. Great – so far so good!

The next step is where things really started to unravel for me – I wanted to make use of the automatic timer function the sensor had to offer. I had read the following instructions in the Adafruit guide for this part (which covers all their touch sensors but none in greater depth):

It also supports a configurable time-out to turn off the output automatically after a delay. To select this mode, cut the ‘TIMER’ jumper and connect a resistor & capacitor to the TIME pin. For a circuit diagram and resistor/capacitor calculations, see page 13 of the datasheet.

You can also just connect TIME to Vdd and the chip will turn off approx 15 minutes after being turned on. Connect TIME to OUT and the chip will time-out approx one hour after being turned on.

Wow. There are a lot of assumptions of prior knowledge in that paragraph. What is the ‘Timer’ jumper (or indeed a jumper)? How do you cut it? Does the second part of the paragraph about the pre-programmed time-out function also require the jumper to be cut? Do you have to add a resistor/capacitor in that case? I decided to look at the datasheet to gain clarity. Unfortunately, the datasheet is not for the actual breakout board, but for the processor used on the breakout. It is highly technical. It did not address any of my questions, as it is clearly written for a highly specialised audience of electromechanical engineers, who know exactly what they’re doing. I was just about able to decipher some of the instructions relating to the timer function, but what I really needed was the map of the different connections and resistors used on the breakout board, also known as an eagle schematic. These I found tacked on at the very end of the guide thankfully, and soon things started to become clearer. Let’s take a look at the back of the board to start with.

A ‘jumper’ I found out after much googling, is a short length of conductor used to close a break in or open, or bypass part of, an electrical circuit. This can be either a separate component, a simple wire or a printed trace on a PCB. In this case it turned out to be the latter – the toggle breakout indeed has two jumpers, one for the timer function and another for the LED indicator of the integrated touch pad (hacked off in my case):Adafruit Toggle 1375 Back modifiedTo ‘cut’ the timer jumper, I discovered, means simply to use a sharp scalpel and scrape away the small bridge between the two larger pads:Timer CutThis, according to the eagle schematic, changes the state of the timer pinout to ‘high’ (or active) by removing its connection to ground (which rendered it ‘low’ or inactive). It is apparently possible to undo this change by connecting the two pads with a blob of solder, but I haven’t tried this as of yet. It is then merely a matter of soldering a wire between the TIME pin and either the VDD pin (15 min auto turn-off) or GND pin (60 min auto turn-off). You can also set the auto turn-off to any interval you like, by adding resistors and capacitors of the appropriate value as specified on the datasheet, but for me 60 minutes will be just fine.

This may seem like a lot of work merely to figure out a single component, but in the process I have also demystified the language used in PCB instructions and gained more knowledge, which is always a good thing…until the next time!

Enter the Filastruder…

So, my birthday has been and gone for another year. Knee-deep in my various PhD research projects, my parents asked me what I would like for a present this year to cheer me up in these stressful times. Imagine their faces when I told them that I would love a kit to build my own plastic filament extruder – probably not quite what they had in mind!

I first read about the Filastruder on Kickstarter about a year ago, before I even owned a 3D printer, and thought it looked really intriguing if a little dangerous. Kickstarter is a great way of finding out about brand new things happening in the 3D printing community, but even though I have been known to back the odd project or two, and so far have not been too unlucky (if you don’t count the month-long delays – Kickstarter is definitely for the VERY patient), most things presented there should be taken with a pinch of salt. Even vastly successful projects like the Form1 often benefit from a period of beta testing, and if your priority is reliability rather than ‘being first’ it often pays to wait a year or two for the technology to get more established and for kinks to be ironed out.

As I have started to experiment a lot more with my printer recently, two things have come to my attention. Firstly, even though PLA is not terribly expensive to buy, the cost soon adds up as I found myself going through filament at a scary rate in the first few months, especially printing out vital components for my research. Secondly, the amount of waste filament also builds up relatively quickly, either from support material or failed prints, which even despite careful planning can and do happen. So, enter the Filastruder. A relatively simple contraption, it is a build-it-yourself plastic filament extruder sold in kit form by the original Kickstarter developers in the US. Since its Kickstarter days, the kit has built up a solid following of DIY filament makers, with some, such as avid blogger Grayson Galisky,  documenting in great detail their filament making experiments on the Solidoodle 3D Printing Community. Of course, since the Kickstarter campaign other filament extruders such as the Filabot and more recently the Protocycler have come to the market – and I am definitely keeping an eye out for the latter. For a UK based option, the Strooder looks promising – compared to the earlier kits those newer machines are definitely heading away from the DIY aesthetic towards a more consumer-friendly look. But for the moment, the Filastruder is the most economical option actually available on the market (the Protocycler and Strooder are both still in their pre-sales phases with release dates estimated for late 2015/early 2016). I have also opted for the spooling kit, as I have run into tangles with loose filament in the past, and the spooler makes the whole assembly much neater altogether.

Making virgin filament is relatively straightforward – buy PLA or ABS pellets or powder in bulk, add a carefully calculated amount of ‘masterbatch’ colourant to the pellets in the hopper of the extruder, mix and start extruding! The pellets need to be completely dessicated to get a great batch of filament, so baking them in an oven for a few hours will really improve quality levels (and of course storing them correctly afterwards). The masterbatch colourant is either sold with the pellets (Colourfabb do this) or you can devise your own methods to make it up – as far as I can tell from the forums almost anything goes, including the addition of powdered metals, wood etc to make exotic filaments. The possibilities that await!!! And it is a lot cheaper than buying ready-made filament. Depending on where you get the raw materials, you could save between 50%-80%.

However, another major appeal for a lot of people will be recycling their failed prints into freshly extruded brand new filament. And this is unfortunately a lot more complicated. The main hurdle to this is really getting your failed prints and waste filament to become tiny granules again – to work in the Filastruder, they need to be less than 5mm in diameter. Plastic can be a really awkward material to work with, and anyone who has ever tried to polish acrylic will know that using powertools of any kind will lead to rapid melting of the material. So apparently will putting PLA in a food processor to chop it up. Industrial plastic granulators are not only prohibitively expensive, but also incredibly bulky – unless you have a massive garage or outbuilding and get really lucky on ebay or a used industrial equipment auction, this will not be an option for you. The second option is using a special plastic shredder. Filabot last year announced the development of their own mini shredder, the Filabot Reclaimer, which looked absolutely lethal in their original promo video and has since been revised to be operated with a hand crank. Within the EU, there is FilaMaker, with their hand cranked mini shredders which look amazingly robust but are expensively handmade to order. These are probably the only viable options for 3D printing enthusiasts at this point – the Protocycler promises to feature its own built-in mini shredder, which would be a massive boon, but who knows if it is still around in a year? If you live in a city with a large industrial base, you might be able to find someone who is willing to let you granulate your waste PLA/ABS. But failing that, it’s really a question I have no answer for as of yet.

Anyway, I will write updates about my new toy as and when it arrives…

 

3D Printing Event at Napier University

Last Thursday I attended the 3D printing event held at the Merchiston Campus of Napier University in Edinburgh and organised by the Scottish Plastics and Rubber Association. The speaker was Ralph McNeill, founder of the 3D Print Works based in East Kilbride, a retailer of 3D printers and consumables and manufacturers of their own brand of filament, Elefilament PLA.  Ralph had brought an array of 3D printers to the event for demonstration purposes, and it was quite interesting to see some of models I had only been reading about online in the flesh, particularly a RepRap Rostock they had built themselves. While the talk was interesting, it catered to an audience completely unfamiliar with 3D printing, and a lot of it was just a reiteration of familiar facts for me. However, towards the end things became more interesting, when Ralph passed around samples and a prototype of a large scale direct drive extruder printhead they had been developing in their workshops.

Ralph giving his presentation - note the RepRap Rostock on the far right.
Ralph giving his presentation – note the RepRap Rostock on the far right.
The first generation, scaled up, FFF direct drive extruder developed by 3D
The first generation, scaled up, FFF direct drive extruder under development by 3D Print Works
A sample print of Ralph's first generation large Printhead
A sample print of Ralph’s first generation large Printhead

Sample 2Now that FDM, or more precisely, FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) is increasingly moving into the consumer market, thoughts are turning to how to scale this technology to make bigger (read: more immediately useful) things. While everybody loves their ‘Marvin’ keyrings and PLA Iphone cases, these are consumer products of a non-essential nature. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could print tables or chairs with a giant 3D printer, or even whole housing estates as has recently been touted in China? Of the two obvious points of development that are being tackled in relation to FFF – quality of materials used and scale – the latter just has a more monumental, immediately impressive and immensely profitable ring to it. Imagine ramshackle shanty towns replaced by clean, cheap, 3D-printed housing! Imagine constructing structures that were impossible to even imagine a few decades ago in weeks rather than months. Free 3D printed furniture for all!

For anyone who has engaged with the ideas of Le Corbusier and his Urban Utopia, the rhetoric behind these ideas sounds awfully familiar. And the flaws become immediately apparent. While it is wonderful to imagine a world in which we all live in beautifully designed, open-plan housing developments featuring huge communal spaces and walkways in the sky (and anyone who knows me knows that I would love to do nothing more), these lofty ideals always get corrupted by the desire to either save or make money. While a future in which you custom design your own house complete with furniture and then take residence a few short weeks later when it has been beautifully printed by the contractors is immensely appealing, I fear that this approach will more likely lead to aesthetic abominations driven by a desire to cut costs and a race to the bottom. As of yet, scaling up the process of FFF comes with its own, very physical, realities – when increasing the nozzle size, you end up with thicker layers that tend not to blend together so easily.

Scaling resolution to achieve a desirable finish will be a huge issue – one the Chinese appear to have solved by encasing the 3D printed shells in layers of plasterboard in a very traditional fashion. But then, the question arises, what’s the point of 3D printing a house in the first place?