Despite the impressive variety of thermoplastics that can be printed on consumer-level desktop 3D printers, the most commonly used filament is polylactic acid (PLA). That’s because it’s not only the cheapest material available, but also the easiest to work with. PLA can be extruded at temperatures as low as 180 °C, and it’s possible to get good results even without a heated bed. The downside is that objects printed in PLA tend to be somewhat brittle and have a low heat tolerance. It’s a fine plastic for prototyping and light duty projects, but it won’t take long for many users to outgrow its capabilities.
The next step up is usually polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG). This material isn’t much more difficult to work with than PLA, but is more durable, can handle higher temperatures, and in general is better suited for mechanical parts. If you need greater durability or higher heat tolerance than PETG offers, you could move on to something like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polycarbonate (PC), or nylon. But this is where things start to get tricky. Not only are the extrusion temperatures of these materials greater than 250 °C, but an enclosed print chamber is generally recommended for best results. That puts them on the upper end of what the hobbyist community is generally capable of working with.
But high-end industrial 3D printers can use even stronger plastics such as polyetherimide (PEI) or members of the polyaryletherketone family (PAEK, PEEK, PEKK). Parts made from these materials are especially desirable for aerospace applications, as they can replace metal components while being substantially lighter.
These plastics must be extruded at temperatures approaching 400 °C, and a sealed build chamber kept at >100 °C for the duration of the print is an absolute necessity. The purchase price for a commercial printer with these capabilities is in the tens of thousands even on the low end, with some models priced well into the six figure range.
Of course there was a time, not quite so long ago, where the same could have been said of 3D printers in general. Machines that were once the sole domain of exceptionally well funded R&D labs now sit on the workbenches of hackers and makers all over the world. While it’s hard to say if we’ll see the same race to the bottom for high temperature 3D printers, the first steps towards democratizing the technology are already being made.
A good smartphone now will have about 500 pixels per inch (PPI) on its screen. Even the best phones we could find clock in at just over 800 PPI. But Stanford researchers have a way to make displays with more than 10,000 pixels per inch using technology borrowed from solar panel research.
Of course, that might be overkill on a six-inch phone screen, but for larger displays and close up displays like those used for virtual reality, it could be a game-changer. Your brain is good at editing it out, but in a typical VR headset, you can easily see the pixels from the display even at the highest PPI resolutions available. Worse, you can see the gaps between pixels which give a screen door-like effect. But with a density of 10,000 PPI it would be very difficult to see individual pixels, assuming you can drive that many dots.
The later game consoles of the 8-bit era such as Nintendo’s NES or Sega’s Master System produced graphics that went beyond what owners of early 1980s home computers had come to expect from machines with the same processors, but they did so only with the help of powerful custom chipsets for their day that took care of the repetitive hard work of assembling frames and feeding them to the display device. Reproducing their equivalent with more modern hardware requires either some means of creating similar custom silicon, or a processor significantly more powerful such that it can do the work of those extra chips itself. But even with a modern microcontroller it’s still a significant challenge, so [Nicola Wrachien]’s uChip, a VGA console that does the whole job in software on a humble ARM Cortex M0 is a significant achievement.
If you are familiar with the home computers that used the processor to generate the display output, you’ll know that they spent most of their time working on the lines of the display and only had a few milliseconds of the frame blanking period for the device to perform any computing tasks before returning to the next frame. The 320×240 at 57 frames per second gives a line sync frequency of 30 kHz, and the computing happens while the display is sent the black space at the top and bottom of the screen. This is reckoned to be equivalent of the ATSAMD21E18 microcontroller on the uChip module the system uses running at only 10MHz rather than the 48MHz it is running at in reality, and with these resources it also runs the game logic, USB controller interfacing, reading games from the SD card, and game sound.
The result is a complete game console on a small PCB little longer on its longest side than its connectors. We may have largely seen the demise of VGA on the desktop several years after we called it, but it seems there is plenty of life in the interface yet for hardware hackers.