During the last few months I have been balancing an internship alongside my studies. I was lucky enough to be given a 3D printer to help with prototyping and developmental work. The problem however was that this printer was not functional when it was given over to me. It was missing a few essential parts and was certainly missing some much needed tlc.
For a few weeks over the Christmas break I made it my priority to get it back up and running. In this blog post on ‘great design’, I will give an overview of this process and outline what I believe to be the major shortcomings of the design that led to the printer being disregarded in the first place. The printer is now fully operational and is capable (but not perfect) of printing some high-quality objects. The printer is made by CTC, a Chinese company that make the most of the open source manufacturing information of most 3D printers, and is a copy of a MakerBot Replicator printer (but costs a fraction of the price).
For those that don’t know, 3D printers are a production tool that ‘additively’ manufacture an object by ‘printing’ the material layer by layer, slowly building up the required shape. The most commonly used material is plastic, either PLA or ABS (these are generally the easiest materials to print). The material is pushed through a heated nozzle and extruded onto a flat bed. The nozzle moves forward and backwards, extruding material until it has completed the layer, at which point the height from the bed is adjusted and the printing of a new layer begins.
When the printer came to me, I had only a very limited experience of using 3D printers, and that has only come from printing a few small parts via the PDE department’s printers at the GSA. I had no real experience maintaining a 3D printer, or even what the various components did, so this restoration project was a steep learning curve. I think my inexperience in dealing with 3D printers gives me a valuable insight into the design of the machine, and the shortcomings that are present within it.
I’m not going to bore you with the details of what was necessary to get the machine up and running, but there were components that needed replacing, firmware that needed updating, and software that needed coming to grips with before a single part could be printed. The process made me very aware of what should be avoided in designing a product in order to make it enjoyable to use.
Firstly, a great deal of user skill (or patience) is required to operate the printer. Components need to be manually refined. The print bed for example, has to be manually levelled using nuts under the bed to make sure the print surface is perfectly flat. If the bed is too far away or too close to the nozzle, even by a millimetre, the performance of the print falls away. In order to print overhangs, a new fan needed to be installed to cool the print as it was extruded. This required printing a funnel using the printer itself, rewiring and soldering in a new transistor into the circuit board, and programming the firmware to use this fan only at certain times. These pretty essential bits of maintenance are not easy, and without a fair amount of determination would easily be disregarded.
The machine also uses very outdated firmware, even when updated, which requires me to translate the most commonly used language that printers understand, G-code, into x3g. X3g is only used by a handful of old printers which means it is a pain to use, but it also means that getting information about it is tough. There are plenty of online 3D printing ‘nerds’ to help you out, but there is no official help from the manufacturers. The only available ‘user manual’ is a badly translated list of parts that hardly helps at all. Buying replacement parts, of which I have had to buy a few, is extremely difficult for this same reason.
I have to think what I can take from the experience, and what lessons I should take forward into my own designs. The manufacturer has clearly made shortcuts in the design to keep the price down, however I think that the amount of time that I have spent accounting for these shortcuts does not equate to the money saved buying this cheaper model. The user experience should be as straight forward as possible. There should be information readily available to aid the user in the correct operation of the product. I actually think that if a product is designed really well, there is reduced need for an instruction or user manual, as the use of the product should be clear from its form. Design must also be long lasting and future proof.
I have to admit, I have actually been thankful for the experience of restoring this printer as it has taught me a huge amount about the manufacturing process of 3D printing. It also made the moment I saw an accurate print being extruded from the nozzle extremely satisfying. I can’t really complain about the process due to the fact that I spent no money on buying the printer so it has just been a fun project for me, however it is clear to me that the printer certainly isn’t “great design”. Despite being an ongoing challenge it is a lot of fun, and I am excited to see what I can achieve with it in the future.