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.