If you’re gearing up to build a 3D printer, one of the first things you’ll need to look at is your options for electronics boards. Whether you decide to optimize for cost or capability, the choices you make during the planning stages of your build will drastically affect what the final project will look like and how it will behave.
There are a ton of electronics boards out there, so for this installation of 3D Printering, we’re going to take a look at what’s available. Hit the link below to
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RAMPS, RUMBA, and RAMBo
RAMPS, the RepRap Arduino Mega Pololu Shield, is the OG RepRap electronics board. The board itself is fairly basic – a few sockets for Pololu stepper motor drivers, a few MOSFETs for heaters and fans, and a few screw terminals to connect a power supply.
Since this is a shield, all the intelligence for this board comes via an Arduino Mega. While the stock setup is quite minimal compared to other electronics boards, RAMPS can be extended with an SD card add-on or a control panel that allows you to operate your 3D printer sans computer
RAMBo is a derivative of RAMPS, the key difference being everything – including the microcontroller – is on one board. This has the advantage of being a simpler solution, but there’s also the problem of having soldered-on stepper drivers. If those chips burn out… well, you better be good with a solder wick.
RUMBA gets away from the problem of integrated stepper drivers, but still keeps with the ‘everything on one board’ ideology of RAMBo. Like RAMBo, it features five motor drivers for X, Y, Z, and two extruders and can handle SD cards and a control panel.
The Sanguinololu and derivatives
This barely-pronounceable board does away with the Arduino Mega + Shield paradigm of RAMPS by putting everything on a single board. Based on the Sanguino, an ATMega644P based Arduino clone, the Sanguinololu is a little underpowered in terms of Flash memory and RAM compared to the Arduino Mega + RAMPS combo, but the current 1.3b revision of the Sanguinololu with an ATMega1284P gives it enough space to run just about any firmware you could need.
As with RAMPS and most other electronics, the Sanguinololu uses Pololu stepper motor drivers that are easily replaceable in the event of one burning out. Despite the rather limited microcontroller, a Sanguinololu with an ATMega1284P is able to make use of an SD card adapter and an LCD control panel.
The popularity of the Sanguinololu has spawned a few derivatives. One of these is the Teensylu, based on an Atmel AT90USB1286 chip to get rid of the FTDI serial chip found on the Sanguinololu. Other than that, the two boards are relatively comparable.
As all things in open hardware, there’s always a better solution. When the Printrbot team was looking for an electronics board for their outrageously popular printer, they turned to the Teensylu as the inspiration for their Printrboard.
Like the Teensylu, the Printrboard doesn’t need an FTDI chip thanks to its AT90USB1286 microcontroller, It also includes an integrated SD card slot unlike the Teensylu and can work with the Panelolu control panel. Despite what a few people say about the Printrbot, the Printrboard is a really nice piece of kit, with the only (possibly imaginary) downside being the soldered-on stepper drivers.
How about a DIY solution?
The RepRap project was initially created to design a self-replicating machine. Due to fears of a gray goo scenario and the economic realities of selling a truly ubiquitous device in a post-scarcity society on Kickstarter, this idea has slowly faded away. Great strides have been made in electronics that are able to be fabricated at home on cartesian-bot platforms, though, the latest advancement being [Traumflug]‘s Gen 7 electronics board
The Gen 7 board is the ultimate in DIY electronics boards. In terms of capabilities, it’s pretty close to the Sanguinololu – not the best, but more than capable of driving a 3D printer. This board truly is a work of art, and if someone at your hackerspace is really good with fabbing PCBs, you might want to ask them to do a workshop featuring the Gen 7 electronics.
The above boards use AVR microcontrollers. While they work for what they’re intended to do, there are a few limitations. Arcs and circles are a little weird to program, and using these boards for something other than a cartesian 3D printer – a CNC machine, or a laser cutter, for example – is a bit out of the ordinary. The Smoothie board is the solution to these problems.
The Smoothie is powered by an ARM Cortex M3, giving it a lot more computational power than even the fairly powerful boards above. This is a boon for non-traditional 3D printers such as SCARA arms, Delta bot printers, and an H-bot printer we’ve seen before.
All of these boards have their plusses and minuses, but despite a lot of variation, they’re all fairly comparable and cost about the same. The major firmwares have been ported to most of these boards, and extended capabilities, such as an SD card slot and a control board, are available on just about all of them.
I’m not in any position to tell you which board is the best, but I will say I’ll probably be retiring the Sanguinololu on my Mendel for a Printrboard for my upcoming Prusa i3 build (if someone can find me a US supplier for the aluminum plates…) Take that for what it’s worth if you’re planning your first 3D printer build.
If you’re looking for an electronics board for a fairly complex printer, you might want to consider a RAMPS or RAMBo board. That has dual extruder drivers, should you ever want to experiment with multicolor or multimaterial prints. That, and it’s more or less the de facto standard among homebuilt 3D printers.