The basic technology required to make a 3D printer work isn’t particularly groundbreaking, so it’s nice to see a brand new design as opposed to yet another copy. Origo is a project (company?) started by Artur Tchoukanov and Joris Peels with the goal of producing an $800 mass-produced 3D printer specifically for kids. It looks like they’re planning on using a double swing arm for the X Y motion, which greatly simplifies the physical construction, lowering the cost. They are also integrating the software so that kids can design things in 3DTin and then have their creations automatically printed. Also, a recycler, but I doubt that idea will work.
More 3D printers, particularly cheaper ones, is great. However, I would like to see the cost and complexity drop even farther. Here are some ideas for how that might happen:
- The printer itself shouldn’t require powerful or precise tools.
The Thing-O-Matic achieves precision with laser cutters, the Mendel achieves precision with another 3D printer, and they both use special steel rods. The designs depend on expensive and difficult-to-maintain manufacturing tools.
I think it’s possible to avoid the use of things like laser cutters, precision ground steel rod, and pre-existing 3D printers. Anything that’s going to be expected to recreate precise movements is going to need some precision parts and assembly, but that’s almost entirely about the layout. For example, instead of laser cut parts one could print a template on a desktop printer, attach it to the wood, and cut/drill by following the guide. The typical solution to linear motion is some kind of bearing riding on precision rod, but some things like aluminum angle and drawer sliders are nearly as precise while being far cheaper.
The real barrier to entry, however, are the precision manufacturing tools. You CAN download the blueprints
for a Thing-O-Matic, but they are specifically designed to be produced on a laser cutter. For example, the T-slots aren’t something you can accurately reproduce on your own. Likewise, while you CAN download the parts files
for the Mendel, good luck carving them. “Many of the mendel parts are quite difficult to make from wood, and could do with a re-design. They are all created with 3d printing in mind, so there is no consideration for access to internal spaces, or grain or any of the other things to keep in mind when working in wood.
” Designs with these requirements create a speedbump which sucks down money, time or luck. Instead, the goal could be for the printer design to require nothing more than a hand saw (cuts) and an electric drill (holes).
- It doesn’t actually need a .5mm nozzle.
Creating sub-millimeter holes is kind of a problem. The only really reliable way to do it is to put the nozzle blank and drill bit into a lathe. If you allow the nozzle diameter to rise you start to run into pre-manufactured components like needles
. Or, at a minimum, things like 1/32th (.8mm) drill bits that are cheaper and easier to obtain than .5mm bits (at least in the States). Even 1/16th (1.6mm) bits would be small enough to do something useful (probably equate to a 2.7mm wide track) and are pretty much free.
More importantly, moving up to something like a 1/16th bit wouldn’t require any special tools to use. Even holding a sub-millimeter bit requires a special tool. A 1/16th will fit into a standard drill chuck. Sure, you CAN get sub-millimeter bits that have expanded shafts, but that’s starting to raise the barriers again as people need to special order them and they can’t be easily replaced.
- Make each part do more than one job.
The Mendel (and derivatives) is a good example of not doing this. As great a design as it is, there are metal rods being used for the structure and then different metal rods being used for the linear motion. Using the frame material for linear motion would create more synergy (do you have your innovation Bingo card?).
- Simplify the positioning system.
The reason 3D printers tend to use linear motion is that it’s really simple to program for. 3D files record things in XYZ Cartesian coordinates, so it’s just a matter of calculating the steps. That’s great for the programmers, but not so great for the mechanical engineers. They have to figure out how to create a 3-axis linear motion system on the cheap. Switching to something more like the Origo (a double swing arm) would make the bot a lot easier to build. All you’d have to do is slap a couple arms onto the shafts of a couple motors. The programming would be more complex, and maybe the motors would be more expensive, but the physical construction would be much simpler.
- Reduce the number of electronic components.
Electronics are expensive, even when you build them yourself. The electronics package is around 1/4 of the cost of a Thing-O-Matic, for example. It might be possible to create a “board on a chip” design inside a Field Programmable Gate Array
(FPGA) that would literally do ALL the calculations. It could even replace the stepper boards. FPGA’s, instead of running software, are reconfigurable hardware. You program their logic gates and then they just do what they do. They have hundreds of I/O ports, allowing all the windings of the stepper motors and all of the sensors and all of the heaters to be controlled directly by the FPGA (via some form of amplification). Also, and this is important, they are truly parallel. If something needs to happen on one I/O pin it doesn’t have to wait for the software to get to that part, it just goes in and right back out.
FPGAs aren’t exactly main stream, and there aren’t any open-source solutions yet, but you can get the software you need to program them for free (just sign up for a license). I’m not sure how many gates you would need to replace an Arduino and four Pololus, but seeing as how you could do it with a single chip it’s worth looking in to.
- Why not design things without a computer?
Origo is on the right track in terms of making it easier for people (kids) to design the 3D models that 3D printers construct. Why not make it even easier? OpenSCAD
, a program that has already proven itself in the open-source 3D printing world, already has support for generating 3D models directly from 2D pictures.
With just colored lines and some labels OpenSCAD can generate a water-tight 3D model. Kids (anyone) could use crayons or colored pencils to draw a blueprint of their design, scan it, and have it start printing automatically.