Wednesday, June 05, 2013

My Favorite Obsession...

No, not that one. Maybe I should say, one of my favorites, especially as I close in on finishing a project I started researching over a year ago:

I'm building a 3D printer.

There are advantages to living in the future.

I first heard about such things over a decade ago, when only a very large business (or more likely, a fairly large and technically-centered college) could afford the several thousand dollars it took to buy one, much less buy the supplies to keep it running. They sounded interesting, but far from being anything I could ever get my hands on, much less own.

In the past few years, though, something happened, something that would change everything.

The patents on all those printers started running out, and anyone with a mind to could (legally) make their own. More importantly, they could share what they knew with anyone who was interested.

By 2006, the RepRap project was underway, with the goal of developing a self-replicating, rapid prototyping machine, one that could make (at least) most of the parts needed to build a copy of itself. The project has a page at, with instructions for building a growing number of printer designs, the 3D model files needed to print out more parts, and a history of how the project grew and changed over the years.

I first became intrigued at the idea of the 3D printing movement when I saw an issue of "Make" magazine with the Makerbot Thing-o-Matic printer on the cover. At the time, I was discouraged to discover that the printer was still out of the impulse-buy range, going for around $500, but it was still something I could plan on getting when I had enough saved up.

I was crestfallen when, after some time, I found myself in a position to be able to consider making a purchase, but the Thing-o-Matic was no longer available, and its replacement was up in the thousand-dollar range, too much for me to consider a practical price.

So, I relegated the idea of owning a 3D printer to the realm of pipe-dreams, and went on about my business as usual. Then, one day, I discovered that there were other 3D printer designs, and though the cost for an entire printer might still be in the hundreds of dollars, I could buy the necessary parts a few at a time, and only the printed parts might be hard to come by.

Now, I was intrigued. I began comparing printer designs, pricing the parts for the different models, and slowly worked my way through all the options I could find until I had a few I was watching carefully, waiting until I could find a source for those precious printed parts.

Finally, I found someone with a set of printed parts for the RepRap Huxley for sale through one of the sites that sold kits and parts to eager would-be hobbyists like me, made by established hobbyists around the world. (Not an exaggeration; those first parts I bought were made and sold by someone in Germany.) There were several variations for that one model, as well as the particular components, and this set of parts had most of the parts I had found in my research to be the most practical and reliable variations to be had.

For days after I ordered the parts, I waited eagerly for them to arrive, hardly able to imagine what they were like for all the time I'd spent looking at them on the various pages dedicated to the hobby, and the picture of the particular set of parts I'd ordered. Finally, they arrived, and I immediately began carrying them around wherever I went, trying to explain to everyone I showed them to what they were for, how they'd go together, and how they'd been made by the same thing I was planning on building.

I tried not to be a crashing bore about it, but I'm fairly sure I failed miserably. I was very excited, and tried to communicate my excitement without coming across as a fanatic. Again, I most likely failed.

In the following weeks and months, I began to buy the other parts I was going to need. The parts I bought were made for using 6 millimeter smooth and threaded rods, but I had seen some indications that they could be adapted to use 1/4 inch rods instead, which was a relief after I found that metric rods were going to be hard to come by, or expensive to order.

One stumbling block was the lack of a detailed bill of materials for the model I was trying to build. I had some measurements, but no list of the number of nuts, washers, or particular length of rods I was going to need. Still, I managed to put together the parts a few at a time, trying to buy more than I'd need without having too much left over at the end.

Then, I reached the point where I was going to need more expensive parts than I was able to buy at the time, and my enthusiasm slowly began to wane. I stopped working on the printer frame, and the parts I'd assembled began to collect dust in a corner. I only rarely looked in on the world of 3D printing, and hardly thought of what parts I still needed, since I was still a way from needing them.

Finally, with my birthday approaching, I started to think about my printer project again, looking over my options for the electronic parts I'd need to control the whole contraption, the nozzle to melt the plastic, the plastic itself, and a power supply for everything.

So, now I'm at a point where I just need a few more parts I can pick up as I come to their place in the project, and I'm getting excited at the prospect of being able to do some of the things I imagined when I first started thinking of what I'd do if I could get my hands on one of these amazing machines.

A couple of other sites of interest:


A good starting place if you're curious about what people make with these 3D printers. People can post their designs, and pictures of their prints of other designs. One popular category: improvements on parts for printers.


A site that lets you combine basic shapes to make more complex shapes, then download them to print, and/or send to Thingiverse to share with the world. A fairly jaw-dropping example of what's possible is the Pocket Tactics series of gaming figures and pieces.

EMaker Shop

The site I got my first printed parts from, and where I'll likely sell some sets of parts once I get my printer going. Like I said earlier, literally all over the world.


The 3D printer that really sparked my imagination and started me thinking that maybe I could get one of these machines after all. Small, reasonably priced, and designed to be more easily portable; it's capable of being folded and put into a laptop bag. The company is now working on designing a new generation that will be even more portable (preliminary designs are at their old site,

I love living in the Future!