The 3D printers of CES

CES is over, and now we can take a step back, distance ourselves from the trade show booths, and figure out where 3D printing will be going over the next year.

The Hype Cycle is a great way to explain trends in fads and technological advances. VR and autonomous cars are very early on the Hype Cycle right now. Smartphones are on the plateau of productivity. 3D printing is head-down in the trough of disillusionment.

For this year’s CES, 3D printing is not even a product category. In fact, the official documentation I found at Prusa’s booth listed their company in the ‘Assistive Technologies’ category. These are dark days for the public perception of 3D printing. The source of this perception can be brilliantly presented in a pair of graphs:

hype-cycle

The perception of 3D printing has been tied inexorably to Makerbot. Makerbot presented the only 3D printer on The Colbert Report. Only Makerbot had their 3D printing storefronts featured on CNN. It’s been like this for half a decade, and hopefully things will get better.

This doesn’t mean 3D printing isn’t improving. In fact, it’s the best it’s ever been. CES had the most innovative printers I’ve seen in years. I caught a glimpse of this year’s top-selling printer (and it launches in April). Resin machines are going to be very popular soon. What did CES have to offer? Check it out below.

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Review: Monoprice MP Select Mini 3D Printer

2016 is the year of the consumer 3D printer. Yes, the hype over 3D printing has died down since 2012. There were too many 3D printers at Maker Faire three years ago. Nevertheless, sales of 3D printers have never been stronger, the industry is growing, and the low-end machines are getting very, very good.

Printers are also getting cheap. At CES last January, Monoprice, the same company you buy Ethernet and HDMI cables from, introduced a line of 3D printers that would be released this year. While the $300 resin-based printer has been canned, Monoprice has released their MP Select Mini 3D printer for $200. This printer appeared on Monoprice late last month.

My curiosity was worth more than $200, so Hackaday readers get a review of the MP Select Mini 3D printer. The bottom line? There are some problems with this printer, but nothing that wouldn’t be found in printers that cost three times as much. This is a game-changing machine, and proof 2016 is the year of the entry-level consumer 3D printer.

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Ask Hackaday: Material Databases

With more and more previously industrial processes coming online in the home shop, people are finding that getting the information that was previously provided by the manufacturer of a hundred thousand dollar machine for their three hundred dollar Shenzen special is not easy.

Some early work from UFID shows how even different Slic3rs can change the expected material properties of a filament.
Some early work from UFID shows how even different Slic3rs can change the expected material properties of a filament.

A common example is this, a hacker purchased themselves a brand new 3D printer off amazon for a price too good to be true. After a week of tinkering with it, a small fire, and a few replacement parts later, they get it to work. After they’ve burned through, perhaps literally, the few hundred grams of filament that came with the printer at the setting recommended by the manufacturer, they do a small blanket order of the different filaments out there. Now comes the trouble, each printer is a little different and each filament has different properties. Most people find that the second spool of filament they feed into their printer doesn’t work at all. What’s the quickest way to get the right temperature, cooling, and feed settings for your printer configuration?

This isn’t a problem for the expensive machines. Epilog, a manufacturer of laser cutters, provides a grid of settings for each material you’re likely to cut, tuned to the different properties of each model of laser cutter they sell. Same goes for the expensive industrial 3D printers, each (very expensive) spool of material has the setting sitting in a chip in the casing. When the spool is slotted in the machine, it reads the settings and adjusts accordingly. All the work of tuning was done in a lab somewhere and the print is, theoretically, guaranteed.

Your Oshpark order would get delayed, your lulzbot support case would be dropped, teensies would ship late, and the Amp Hour would just be the EEVBlog Podcast if this bar burnt down, but it was a great event!
Your Oshpark order would get delayed, your Lulzbot support case would be dropped, Teensies would ship late, and the Amp Hour would just be the EEVBlog Podcast if this bar burnt down, but it was a great event!

While we were at the Bay Area Makerfaire 2016, we had a chance to talk to [Gauthier de Valensart] and buy him a beer at the Hackaday Meet-up. [Gauthier] is from Belgium where he is the founder of a start-up with one of those fancy new TLDs: filaments.directory. The goal of filaments.directory is to create a database of 3D printer materials and link that up with a user’s 3D printer settings. The eventual goal being, much like the industrial printers, a user would be able to simply scan a barcode, or wave the spool over an RFID reader to input the needed settings into his slicing software or printer.

This sounded familiar to me, not the least because I had started work on it as an extension for repables.com when that was a larger focus in my life. In fact, I remember, while I was kicking the idea around to people at MRRF, that they kept telling me someone else was working on a similar project. I wanted to introduce [Gauthier] to the person who was working on the project back then. Since I was at a bar full of people in the industry, I sort of helplessly rotated in my spot trying to find someone who might remember. I spied [whosawhatsis], a common attendee of MRRF, and asked him. Okay, that was easy, [whosawhatsis] informed us that is was his project… introduction complete. Goes to show you what a good networking event buying a bunch of nerds beer can be.

They got a pretty okay logo while they were at it.
They got a pretty okay logo while they were at it.

The project was called, “Universal Filament Identification System,” and it proposed to, “… eliminate the guess-work,” by, “…developing a method for tagging, tracking, and identifying filament for 3d printing in machine-readable formats…” The project appears to be mostly dead now and its domain is a placeholder. I think it suffered from the standard open source feature creep, but the idea is sound.

Which gets us to the questions. There are a lot of difficulties with creating such a system. The first being the data collection. Who should be responsible for measuring the filaments, the materials for laser cutting, or any other process that needs tuned settings? The ideal track, of course, would be for the manufacturers to hold themselves accountable and report on the settings for their filaments. However, many filament manufacturers rely on the ignorance of users to sell dodgy products, it’s only in the interest of a few top-quality ones to do so. If the users do so, then how will the information provided be vetted? You definitely don’t want someone’s ignorance about a faulty thermistor to encourage you to run PLA at 280C.

More and more difficulties arise. How should the information be transferred, etc. What properties should even be recorded? UFID was going as far as to use a color sensor to keep track of colors between batches from 3D printer manufacturers. In the end it’s about creating standards in a standard-less industry by using crowdsourcing. Either way, take a look at what [Gauthier]’s doing (and send him some feedback), read the backlogs of UFID, think about how annoying it was to get the right settings for a laser cutter the last time you used one, and let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Hackaday Links: May 15, 2016

The Hackaday Overlords (or Hackaday family) are running a series of AMAs on SupplyFX. What is SupplyFX? It’s a social network for EEs. Who’s in the first AMA? [Brady Forrest], the guy who runs Highway1, a Bay Area hardware accelerator. They’re the accelerator responsible for the lustworthy Keyboardio, and the startup that is purely mechanical and has shipped zero lines of code, CoolChip. If you want to talk about hardware startups, [Brady] is your man. The AMA is tomorrow, May 16th, at 13:00 Pacific.

Makerbot is dead, or at least they will be soon. Whatever. Nothing of value was lost. Lulzbot, on the other hand, is going gangbusters. They saw eight hundred percent growth over the last two years. and $15M in revenue in 2015. They did this all with open source hardware and software, and using 3D printing in a manufacturing context. They’re the jewel of the Open Hardware movement, and a shining example of what Free Software can do.

The current generation of software defined radios started with the ubiquitous TV tuner dongles, and quickly graduated to the HackRF. You can only get so much bandwidth out of a USB 2.0 socket, and the newest and bestest SDR is the LimeSDR. They’re about halfway through their crowdfunding campaign (and halfway funded), and have finally changed out the USB A connector to a USB micro B connector. Good choice.

The ESP8266 is quickly becoming the go-to device for when you want a cheap way to put a sensor on the Internet. The only problem is programming it. No problem – here’s a bunch of Lua scripts that do 90% of everything. Need to read a PIR sensor? Light up a few LEDs? Put the data from a temperature and humidity on the Internet? There you have it.

The Vintage Computer Festival West is back on this year. We’ve gone to VCF East in New Jersey for a few years now, and had a few occasional outings to the southeast and midwest Vintage Computer Festivals over the years. This is the first time the west coast has had a Vintage Computer Festival in several years. It’s in Mountain View, on August 6th and 7th. Yes, that’s the same weekend as DEF CON.

E3D, makers of fine hot ends and 3D printer paraphernalia, have released a new kind of filament. It’s called Edge, it’s based on PET, and it prints as easily as PLA, with better mechanical properties than ABS. A few sample prints made from Edge were at this year’s Midwest RepRap Festival, and the Edge’s bridging ability is crazy. You need a heated bed for Edge and it’s sensitive to moisture, but it has some very interesting properties that can be cleverly exploited.

In other filament news, Colorfabb released a filament to print clear parts. Yes, that’s very weird. Clear parts require 100% infill, meaning it will use a lot of filament. It’s still very advanced wizardry, and I’m very interested in seeing the first print of a sanded and polished convex lens.

Holy Crap it’s the 3D printing edition of the links post. [Prusa] just released the latest version of the i3. It’s now bigger: 250x210x200mm build volume. The heated bed – [Prusa] was one of the first to experiment with PCB heated beds – is now vastly improved when looking at it through a FLIR. The Mk. 42 heated bed doesn’t have a hot center or cool corners. PEI sheet removes the need for blue painters tape, glass, aqua net, or glue sticks. The printer has self-test capabilities. The mechanics of the printer, especially the Z axis, are improved. [Prusa] will be selling this as a kit for ~19000 Czech Crowns or $699 USD, but he’s RepRap to the core. Buy a spool and start printing your next printer.