New Project, New tech

I’ve had a passing interest in 3D printing for some time, but even the basic kits have cost too much to justify buying what would be a fairly expensive toy. Recently however the cost has reduced and I found that the ethos behind some of the printers is one that is very similar to the open source software. RepRap is a project which is trying (successfully) to develop a minimal cost printer that can reproduce a quantity of the parts it is actually made of.

Adrian Bowyer is an academic (Engineer/Mathematician) who started the RepRap project, he describes the project as:

RepRap is about making self-replicating machines, and making them freely available for the benefit of everyone. We are using 3D printing to do this, but if you have other technologies that can copy themselves and that can be made freely available to all, then this is the place for you too.

It is a clever approach because (in theory) as each machine is able to reproduce at least part of its self it reduces the cost of making the next. This benefits everyone and leads to a knock-on reduction of the consumables as the community becomes larger. As more technologies are involved the machines will gradually be able to make more parts, further reducing costs hopefully.

The ability to create parts, coupled with the open source ethos and promotion of community contributions frames the project in evolutionary terms. This means that not only can a printer reproduce its self, the owner of the printer can redesign all or part of the machine and then release his plans into the community for adoption or extinction. This process has been in play for some time and there have been many iterations of the initial plans and numerous new machines so far.

If the only goal was this grand experiment then it would be pretty pointless, however the printer can make pretty much any shape that fits within the confines of its printbed. Whether these objects are useful in the real world depends on the application, after all plastic is not be suitable for every situation.

The plastic filament used to create the objects varies in cost and quality, but I have seen it from on sale from £10 including postage and packing. So long as I can get a reasonable number of small items out of a roll of filament I will gain a lot of flexibility and save money (just on postage and packing if nothing else)

Personally I want to use the printer for making enclosures for some electronics projects I want to do, to fix a few things around the house, and to gain some mechanical engineering knowledge.

Simplistically the printer plans all consist of a frame, the print head (hot end), extruder drive, rails or arms for supporting the hot end on, motors and electronics for actually moving the hot end/ arms extruder drive, a print bed, and the electronics for actually controlling the printer.

The controller is usually an arduino based microcontroller board which can take gcode and turn it into the head movements and extruder commands to build an object in the printer. The gcode is usually exported from software running on an external computer although because it is text based can be written directly!

I have dabbled in electronics and work in software development so from that point of view I am not a beginner. However I was under no illusions that the mechanics would be a challenge for me. If I had to do everything from scratch I’d just fail because I would not know how to begin. Luckily there are businesses that sell kits meaning that I just have to follow the instructions – adult lego 🙂

I decided to get a Fisher Delta printer kit from RepRapPro although they as a company decided to get out while they are ahead (too much competition in the market). Other designs are available as kits from many other sources so there are many options out there. When the kit arrived it was complete and contained a lot of parts. I had pre-read the instructions and made sure that I had the “required tools”. I just needed time to put it together.

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