Thursday, June 5, 2014

Got my 3D printer kit today

My first 3D printer kit arrived in the mail today.  I'm assuming it will be the first of many over the course of the next few decades.  I think this is comparable in many ways to the first computer my family bought when my brother and I were about the same age as my kids are now: an Apple II+.  I'm hoping that this will be as memorable an event in my kids' lives as that was in mine.  Maybe this time I can capture some of the magic.

3D printer kit fresh from Holland

So what prompted me to buy a 3D printer?  I've been reading about additive manufacturing in various forums for several years now, but what made me realize that these were in reach of the average consumer was the Makerbot Replicator 2 that appeared in a demo space to one side of the cafeteria at work, with the message that the folks maintaining it would print any files employees cared to bring in, work-related or not.  Here are a couple things Lockheed Martin is doing related to 3D printing: 

I got to talking about 3D printing with the guys at work, and found out that one person I knew had been playing around with it a fair amount, printing his objects using Shapeways.  He recommended using a piece of software called OpenSCAD to design 3D objects for printing.  An hour or two of checking this piece of software out convinced me that the time was right for introducing this new technology to my kids.  

OpenSCAD is essentially a 3D modeling programming language.  The beauty of this is that it provides almost immediate gratification.  With a few lines of code, kids can make a model that they can then print and hold in their hands.  It has a cool factor that I think is missing from modern introductions to computer programming.  When I was a kid, programming in BASIC, doing ANYTHING on a computer was cool.  Getting it to draw a box on the screen was both easy, and neat.  Today it seems like the barriers to entry-level programming are much higher, and the rewards are comparitively low.  Drawing a box on a screen won't impress anyone.  Coding a box, and then printing it, on the other hand....that's neat.

OpenSCAD primitives are things like box, cylinder, and sphere.  Add to those primitives a few functions for manipulation, rotate, translate, and difference, and you open up a world of possibilities. Kids can learn about programming, geometry, and mechanical design all at the same time.

Here's one of my first attempts.  This was under 15 lines of code.  Make a box, subtract out a slightly smaller one, and you have the bottom.  Do the same thing with a slightly more complex polyhedron and you have the lid.  A cylinder makes the hinge (non-movable in this iteration).  Difference out some text for engravings, add it for embossing.  And then print!  I plan on giving out boxes like this at a competition I'm running to develop tools for a MATLAB library I maintain at work.

So I got to thinking, my kid's school should have one of these printers.  To make a long story short, it's hard to figure out what to buy!  So after looking through Make magazine's 2014 Guide to 3D Printing I decided to buy a printer for myself and use that experience to inform a recommendation to the school.  Last Thursday I settled on the Felix Printers Felix 3.0 with the dual extruder option, and here I am a mere week later with my kit!  The kit with all the options cost about $1900; fully assembled would have been another 450 euros.  When assembled, it should look like this:

I'll talk about the reasons for choosing this particular printer in a later post.