Monday, March 02, 2015

An overview of the 2014 printer

People have been asking for an overview of the 3D printer that I showed at Makerfaire NYC 2014. I designed it myself, borrowing a couple of ideas from other printers. My printer builds objects from a liquid resin that solidifies under ultraviolet light. Your dentist may use similar stuff to fill cavities. I get the ultraviolet light from an unmodified conference room projector that cost me about $350, the single biggest expense of the whole project. The most important design principle was that a person of very low craftsmanship like myself should be able to build the thing. It pretty much does not require precision at any point in the construction.

The idea to use a projector rather than steering a laser came from the B9 Creator printer. The Peachy printer gave me the idea of floating resin on salt water and projecting the light onto the surface of the liquid. The idea to raise and lower the build platform using three threaded rods driven by a bicycle chain was my own, and it turned out not to be such a great idea.

Soon I plan to post some of my plans for a 2015 printer. Right off the top of my head I can think of four worthwhile goals.

  • Bring it to both the Bay Area Makerfaire and the NYC Makerfaire.
  • Replace the bicycle chain and those three threaded rods with something simpler and more reliable.
  • Clean up the electronics and software so I don't need a laptop to control it.
  • Replace the orange bucket with something with transparent sides, like an aquarium, so that people can watch the printing process.

With the bicycle chain not yet in place, the printer looks like this. Those gray sprockets engage the bicycle chain, which goes around in a sort of diamond shape. The orange bucket is one of the three-dollar buckets from Home Depot. The plywood, nuts and bolts, and threaded rods also came from Home Depot. At this particular point in the work, I thought I would suspend a mirror over the top of the bucket at 45 degrees, which is why you see a piece of wood in the upper right of the photo. But I didn't know about first surface mirrors then, and I lost enough UV going through the glass twice that I couldn't get the resin to solidify, so I then positioned the projector directly over the bucket, pointing downward.

The sprockets were designed using OpenSCAD and initially the teeth were too pointy - correct in theory but too sticky for real-world bicycle chain, so you can see where I cut off the points, and later revised the design. If you order sprockets from my Shapeways store, they should now work fine.

Here is the printer fully assembled. The bicycle chain is driven by a stepper motor. Each revolution of the stepper motor (200 steps) raises or lowers the build platform by 1/20th of an inch because the thread on the threaded rods is 1/4-20.

When it's printing, it looks like this. Only where the light is the strongest is the resin solidified. The resin happily ignores ambient diffuse daylight in the room where I'm printing, so I don't need to use dark room lighting.

Pictured below are some of the objects I've printed with the thing. I started out with a bottle of green resin and when that started getting low, I added a bottle of clear, so my things tend to vary between green and clear.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A couple of recent 3D printing successes

With a few last-minute improvements I've been able to substantially improve the performance of the printer. I slowed the stepper motor to reduce vibration, and I allowed a settling time after each motor movement before exposing the next layer of resin. I cleaned up the build platform, it is now a sheet of aluminum epoxied to the plywood. (And of course, within a couple of prints, it has gotten covered with a sheet of cured resin. Best laid plans...) I had been trying exposure times that were too short, so I went back to 60 seconds per layer.

If you'd like to see these prints and others, and the printer that made them, come to Maker Faire NYC this weekend at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, NY.

Here is a chess rook. It has an interior spiral staircase. The windows are a bit misshapen and the bottom flat surface is covered with a big glob of cured resin. I don't know why those things happened, but the detail on the parts that came out well isn't too bad.
This is a dodecahedron, one of the five Platonic solids. In the days of ancient Greece, this shape was the cause of some controversy because it could be used to prove the existence of irrational numbers, which ticked off Pythagoras something fierce. This was posted on Thingiverse, as was the rook.

More shapes to come soon, if all goes well.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Finally, the thing is printing

Tomorrow I start a new job with Formlabs, a 3D printer company, and I'm psyched about that. Unfortunately, however, one of the conditions of my employment there is that I cease development on my own 3D printer. I spoke with their attorney and it all makes sense, it's the right thing to do, because my printer is entirely open source and they are selling a proprietary product. If I were to continue developing my printer, it would be too easy to unintentionally include pieces of their technology. So tonight I am putting the finishing touches on the Github repository.

Today was the first time I made a successful print with this printer design. I had hoped to print four dodecahedra at once. But I had some crud on the surface of my build plate, and I hadn't stirred the resin before printing, so only one of the four came out really well. Another was misshapen, and two of them never came together at all.

 Here are the two that were at least coherent solids. I think with a little more learning and practice, I'll get to where I can make four that all look as good as the one on the right.
Here is the setup I'm using. If you've followed this blog, you'll recognize the stuff on the bucket. The box-like thing overhead was quickly cobbled together when I realized that my mirror wasn't reflecting enough UV light to make the resin cure properly, because the mirror's glass isn't transparent enough in the UV range. To remove the mirror from the optical path, I needed to put the projector directly over the bucket, pointing down.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Of bicycle chain and sprockets

Here is the best video I've found for working on bicycle chain. I haven't looked extensively but this one gave me the information I needed, starting at the 34-second mark. I had to buy a length of chain and one of these tools shown in the video. I thought I might need a thing called a "master link" but that's really unnecessary. Bicycle chain is one example of roller chain, a mechanical engineering term for chains that follow the same principle.

The chain I'm using is 1/2"-1/8" single speed chain, also known as #410 chain. The first number (1/2") is the pitch, the distance between the centers of two consecutive rollers. The second number is the width, the distance between inner plates. These numbers, together with the roller diameter, determine the shape of the sprocket teeth. For #410 chain the maximum roller diameter is 5/16".

If you're going to build a gadget using bicycle chain as a drive chain, remember that you'll need a tensioner somewhere, something you can adjust to take up slack in the length of the chain. You'll need at least an inch of adjustment available (twice the pitch). In my design, I made the stepper motor moveable to take up chain slack.

On to the topic of sprocket design. The approach I used is basically guided by the red curves in the diagram to the left. Some sprocket designs truncate the teeth, which reduces friction but engages each roller for a little less time. I probably should have done that but it's not really necessary. The OpenSCAD code for my sprocket design appears at the top of the sprockets.scad source file in the Github repository for my printer. I tested the sprocket (Thingiverse, Shapeways) to make sure that in the absence of unreasonable friction, the chain could freely engage and disengage the teeth as it moved around at fairly high speed (much faster than it will move on the printer most of the time) and that worked fine.

There are a few different pieces, so let me step through it. The outer thing is a difference operation, which means that the first part (the union) establishes a block of stuff and the other parts are removed from it. So we begin with a rectangular solid stretching in the X direction from one roller to the next, with a Z height equal to the width of the chain. To that we add the "tooth" part, defined by the two upper red curves in the previous diagram. The first two pieces we remove are the cylindrical cutouts in which the rollers will sit when closest to the sprocket's center, defined by the two lower red curves. Finally, a couple of flat surfaces are cut out to taper the tooth in the Z direction, which allows the sprocket to still engage nicely when the chain isn't precisely coplanar.

module sprocket_tooth() {
    difference() {
        union() {
            intersection() {
                translate([1/4, 0, -1/16])
                    cylinder(h=1/8, d=1-5/16, $fn=30);
                translate([-1/4, 0, -1/16])
                    cylinder(h=1/8, d=1-5/16, $fn=30);
        translate([1/4, 0, -1/8])
            cylinder(h=1/4, d=5/16, $fn=30);
        translate([-1/4, 0, -1/8])
            cylinder(h=1/4, d=5/16, $fn=30);
        multmatrix(m = [
            [1, 0, 0, -0.5],
            [0, 1, 4, -1.3],
            [0, 0, 1, 0],
            [0, 0, 0, 1]
            cube([1, 1, 1]);
        multmatrix(m = [
            [1, 0, 0, -0.5],
            [0, 1, -4, 2.7],
            [0, 0, 1, -1],
            [0, 0, 0, 1]
            cube([1, 1, 1]);


I found with the design above that those teeth can easily get stuck if one of the links in the bike chain is stiff. I haven't done a lot of bike chain work, and I would imagine that people who do probably get better at avoiding or fixing stiff links, but I'm not there yet. So one thing I did was to make much less "aggressive" sprocket teeth. For my application, I get away with much shallower teeth, and have updated both the Thingiverse design and the Shapeways store accordingly.

I might have neglected to mention this elsewhere (though I think it's mentioned in both those places) that the sprocket for the stepper axle takes a 1/4-inch long 4-40 machine screw as a set screw.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Once more, with feeling

My too-clever-by-half use of laser-cut plywood gears ended badly. Small errors repeatedly accumulated to make the gears fit unreliably. It was a mess. I needed another idea.

I started thinking about timing belts, especially something clever that Vik Olliver did on Rep Rap involving those ball chains used to switch ceiling lights on and off. I didn't really trust myself to be able to solder the ball chain together, and I continued scratching my head. Then I saw one of those bicycle chain bottle openers at a party, and realized that bicycle chain was the solution to my problem.

I started learning about roller chain and sprockets. It turns out sprocket tooth design is really pretty simple, much simpler than involute gear teeth, and I was able to design some sprockets with just a little study. It took a redesign because the first time, my stepper sprocket design assumed a friction fit would work, but when the part arrived, I discovered I'd need a set screw. In the picture to the left, I retrofitted a set screw on the initial sprocket design with sub-optimal results. This is probably adequate on a temporary basis, but an improved design is pending and should arrive by the end of August and should be in place for exhibition at Maker Faire.

 So this is the new design. I think it retains the Steampunk flavor of the original design, if perhaps not quite as pronounced. It's a bit simpler and all the plywood cutting can be done by hand with a compass and a jigsaw. So my design goal that it should be buildable by a person of minimal craftsmanship (like myself) is intact.

Barring some disaster, I expect to be exhibiting this printer (hopefully in operation) at Maker Faire NYC 2014, at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, on September 20th and 21st. If you're reading this, you're invited to come see it. If you can't make it, I'll try to post as much information here, on Github, and on Youtube as possible.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Cleaning up the SLA printer design

The stereolithographic printer described in my last post works, but it has a lot of room for improvement. Two obvious improvements are to use a stepper motor to raise and lower the build platform, allowing for automated operation, and to accept standard input files such as the STL file format.

In this post, I'd like to look at improvements in the overall mechanical design, specifically intended to make this printer easy for other people to build. I envision this as a printer that could be easily and affordably built by an after-school club, at a price of less than $600. The projector I used cost me $350 and I'll assume that's the same price for others. Likewise I expect others would pay about $75 for a couple of bottles of UV-cured resin. That leaves $75 for everything else. You have a stepper motor, a stepper control board, and a Raspberry Pi. I have a little wiggle room left for laser-cut plywood, and a 5-gallon bucket from Home Depot. I get my laser-cutting done at danger!awesome in Cambridge, MA. The bucket is bright orange, and that's the color I've used in this design, where the plywood is yellow and green (the green pieces having gear teeth that mesh). The pale blue stick-things are 1/4-20 threaded rods, cheaply available at Home Depot. The brighter blue thing is the stepper motor. The three green gears surrounding the threaded rods have captive nuts, allowing the stepper to raise and lower the threaded rods in lock-step. I'm kind of pleased with this design and I think this is what I'd like to show at Maker Faire NYC this year.

Looking down into the bucket, we can see one more circular piece of plywood which is the build platform. When we raise the three threaded rods high enough, the build platform comes up out of the bucket, which holds a layer of resin floating atop a salt water bath (a trick I borrowed from the Peachy Printer). And in fact, you could use this setup with a Peachy Printer rather than a projector, and you'd save money by doing so.

These gorgeous pictures are courtesy of It's a pretty wonderful thing if you're doing 3D design. One last picture, showing the projector bouncing light off the mirror to illuminate the resin.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Homebrew stereolithographic 3D printer

I've been interested in hobbyist 3D printers for quite a while. A friend of mine, Jeff Keegan has an exquisite blog about his several-year hobby of building RepRap-style printers. He has donated a printer to the Boston Museum of Science. I took a stab at starting a RepRap-style printer years ago, but my level of dedication was not equal to the task.

A RepRap-style printer (technically, a fused-deposition-modeling printer) works by squeezing molten plastic out of a hot nozzle onto the workpiece, where the plastic cools, forming the next vertical layer. One FDM printer can create some of the parts for another FDM printer, or to replace its own parts when they get worn. This was the idea behind the RepRap project, that partially self-reproducing printers could be very cheap.

Stereolithograhic 3D printers operate on a different principle, using ultraviolet light to cure resin. The video above illustrates this process.

The past few weeks I have been spending way too much time trying to figure out how to build a stereolithographic printer of my own. I looked at a lot of things other people have done and started doodling some ideas. A few times I made or purchased parts for a particular approach and later realized that it wouldn't work for some reason. But after a lot of tinkering, I finally produced the octahedron on the right.

My printer is pretty crude and is due for a lot of improvements in the days ahead. I had ordered a stepper motor controller board that didn't work, so I needed to manually rotate the threaded rod that lowers the workpiece into the resin bath.

Hopefully this picture isn't too confusing. A lot of this is stuff from the hardware store: a bucket, a lot of plywood, nuts and bolts, a piece of aluminum screen, a threaded rod, two straight rods. That black shape at the top held in place with a bungee cord is a pretty standard conference-room projector. When the thing is printing, the projector aims down into the bucket, which holds a quantity of resin floating on a much larger quantity of salt water. The ultraviolet light from the pattern projected onto the resin cures it in a particular shape, forming one layer of the product, and then the threaded rot rotates, moving the product down by one layer-height.

Currently I'm using a layer-height of 1/40th of an inch, which turns out to be quite visible to the naked eye, so I want to go down to something more like 1/100th of an inch.

I plan to post plans and software on Github and Instructables to enable anybody to build one of these printers for just a few hundred dollars. Most of the cost ($350) is the projector. I'd like to do the RepRap thing of using lots of pieces made by an identical printer, which would involve some redesign.