After falling in love with the idea of having my own factory on my desk, I finally got a 3-D printer.
The significance of having a 3-D printer is not that I simply have another toy. It isn't even that I have a new tool that will allow me to make things that I can dream up or that I will be able to gain experience in design tolerance and go from ideation to prototype. I think the real significance of my 3-D printer is that I know I am joining a movement that will have a hug impact on our economy and culture, and will probably be as big as the computer revolution. The ability for individuals to manufacture their own objects and products in their own home will drastically change consumerism and will probably have a big change on intellectual property rights when consumers have the ability to make physical objects.
I chose to get a Makerbot Thing-o-Matic because the company has heritage in building low-cost 3-D printers and because they are a for-profit company so I knew the product would be supported. I could have gotten a RepRap for significantly cheaper but decided against it just because of the challenges that I have faced in the past when working with open-source projects.
Another cool feature about the Thing-o-Matic is that it comes with an automated build platform, which allows me to print many objects in a row without my interference. I could leave it home printing all day while I am at school.
It will really let me get creative in making things, like last-minute parts for my capstone project, camera mounts for rockets, actual rockets, small design projects, and of course the rapidly growing collection of things that already reside on Thingiverse.com
Slide-show below showing the build process (in reverse order for some reason).
As an early adopter may expect, the instructions for assembling the makerbot were not always good as one might like. The instructions were entirely online, which is good because a paper copy would probably weigh a significant amount, and I was content to just read them off of my screen. As the Thing-o-matic has been revised and changed piece-by-piece, one could tell which instructions had been written for earlier models by their clarity. The newer instructions were quite helpful with lots of pictures, but the old ones occasionally left us scratching our heads - though usually not for long. Luckily there were user posted comments for every page of the instruction manual, and those pages were well organized.
The instructions claimed that it would take about 16-20 hours to complete. Although I did not time myself, I believe that it took longer than that for myself. Ellen Farber assisted for the entire first half of the project, and then I continued on my own. I found during the final stages that it became easy to make mistakes during assembly, and there were a few times that I had to take apart major sections. I had the body panels accidentally reversed a few times, before finally coming to a configuration that works. It was magical when I first turned it on and a thin string of semi-molten plastic emerged from the extruder.
The most challenging and the most frustrating part of the entire process was the calibration of the machine after it was completely built. This took the most amount of time. The bug that kept getting me was a 'slipping' of the Y-axis during some builds. Eventually, I discovered was because I did not have stepper motor types I thought I had, and the stepped motor controllers had not been adjusted to the right settings.
The next challenge was spool management. This is a serious issue until you can print the parts that are needed to keep the spool rolling and in the right place.
My biggest challenge at the moment is dealing with warping on the build surface. As it turns out the Automated Build Platform results in a significantly reduced quality of the print in exchange for automation. The belts also wear out over time, making things worse. But the absolute worst thing about the ABP has to be that you cannot level it. It is front heavy because of the DC gear-motor, so the little bit of slop in the rods throws the whole thing front heavy. I am trying to weigh my options, which are 1) Buy the heated build platform in addition to the ABP, 2) Get a titanium belt for my prints (about the same price) or figure out something else.