Tuesday, May 24, 2011

3D Printing

I've been working on a project involving numerous small PCBs being deployed in high-traffic industrial areas. I really need enclosures for these devices that can be robust enough to handle some bumps and bruises. Unfortunately, custom enclosures are very Expensive, so I talked my Boss into buying a Thing-O-Matic from Makerbot.com !! YAY!This is a 3D printer. Basically that means it has a CNC platform that moves around while molten plastic is extruded in a pre-defined path. Kind of like at the beach when you dripping wet sand from your fist to make a tower. This technique allows you to make a drawing in some free modeling software like Google's Sketchup and then print the actual object out in real life. In the image above, the printer appears to have just finished printing out a baby rabbit. How cute.

I received the printer a few weeks ago and have been working furiously at assembling the thing, learning how it works, and making some test objects. Here's a video of the Printer cranking out some custom enclosures.

When I say "Cranking out", I really mean "piddling along at a snail's pace," because that's what these 3D printers do. Fortunately, however, there's a conveyor belt on the printer, so you can just set it to print 50 units and then walk away for a couple of hours. When you come back, you'll have a neat little pile of them sitting in front of the printer.

The tech is similar to stereolithography, which is an incredibly expensive process involving a vat of photoactive chemicals and lasers and stuff. The Thing-O-Matic is only about $1300, though, plus there's this really cool community called Thingiverse where you can download designs for all kinds of stuff you might want to make, like the Gothic Cathedral Playset.

Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks of printing, one of the stepper drivers blew out. This appears to be a very un-common problem, but Makerbot was kind enough to replace the device for me, and I should be back up and running any time now.

Here's my Thingiverse page:
You can see the auger I designed and printed for pushing cat food through a pipe.


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