3D Printering: The Search For Better Search

There’s no question that a desktop 3D printer is at its most useful when it’s producing parts of your own design. After all, if you’ve got a machine that can produce physical objects to your exacting specifications, why not give it some? But even the most diligent CAD maven will occasionally defer to an existing design, as there’s no sense spending the time and effort creating their own model if a perfectly serviceable one is already available under an open source license.

But there’s a problem: finding these open source models is often more difficult than it should be. The fact of the matter is, the ecosystem for sharing 3D printable models is in a very sorry state. Thingiverse, the community’s de facto model repository, is antiquated and plagued with technical issues. Competitors such as Pinshape and YouMagine are certainly improvements on a technical level, but without the sheer number of models and designers that Thingiverse has, they’ve been unable to earn much mindshare. When people are looking to download 3D models, it stands to reason that the site with the most models will be the most popular.

It’s a situation that the community is going to have to address eventually. As it stands, it’s something of a minor miracle that Thingiverse still exists. Owned and operated by Makerbot, the company that once defined the desktop 3D printer but is today all but completely unknown in a market dominated by low-cost printers from the likes of Monoprice and Creality, it seems only a matter of time before the site finally goes dark. They say it’s unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket, and doubly so if the basket happens to be on fire.

So what will it take to get people to consider alternatives to Thingiverse before it’s too late? Obviously, snazzy modern web design isn’t enough to do it. Not if the underlying service operates on the same formula. To really make a dent in this space, you need a killer feature. Something that measurably improves the user experience of finding the 3D model you need in a sea of hundreds of thousands. You need to solve the search problem.

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3D Printering: The Past And Future Of Prusa’s Slicer

If you own a desktop 3D printer, you’re almost certainly familiar with Slic3r. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, there’s an excellent chance that a program you’ve used to convert STLs into the G-code your printer can understand was using Slic3r behind the scenes in some capacity. While there have been the occasional challengers, Slic3r has remained one of the most widely used open source slicers for the better part of a decade. While some might argue that proprietary slicers have pulled ahead in some respects, it’s hard to beat free.

So when Josef Prusa announced his team’s fork of Slic3r back in 2016, it wasn’t exactly a shock. The company wanted to offer a slicer optimized for their line of 3D printers, and being big proponents of open source, it made sense they would lean heavily on what was already available in the community. The result was the aptly named “Slic3r Prusa Edition”, or as it came to be known, Slic3r PE.

Ostensibly the fork enabled Prusa to fine tune print parameters for their particular machines and implement support for products such as their Multi-Material Upgrade, but it didn’t take long for Prusa’s developers to start fixing and improving core Slic3r functionality. As both projects were released under the GNU Affero General Public License v3.0, any and all of these improvements could be backported to the original Slic3r; but doing so would take considerable time and effort, something that’s always in short supply with community developed projects.

Since Slic3r PE still produced standard G-code that any 3D printer could use, soon people started using it with their non-Prusa printers simply because it had more features. But this served only to further blur the line between the two projects, especially for new users. When issues arose, it could be hard to determine who should take responsibility for it. All the while, the gap between the two projects continued to widen.

With a new release on the horizon that promised to bring massive changes to Slic3r PE, Josef Prusa decided things had reached a tipping point. In a recent blog post, he announced that as of version 2.0, their slicer would henceforth be known as PrusaSlicer. Let’s take a look at this new slicer, and find out what it took to finally separate these two projects.

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3D Printering: The Quest For Printable Food

A video has been making the rounds on social media recently that shows a 3D printed “steak” developed by a company called NovaMeat. In the short clip, a machine can be seen extruding a paste made of ingredients such as peas and seaweed into a shape not entirely unlike that of a boot sole, which gets briefly fried in a pan. Slices of this futuristic foodstuff are then fed to passerby in an effort to prove it’s actually edible. Nobody spits it out while the cameras are rolling, but the look on their faces could perhaps best be interpreted as resigned politeness. Yes, you can eat it. But you could eat a real boot sole too if you cooked it long enough.

To be fair, the goals of NovaMeat are certainly noble. Founder and CEO Giuseppe Scionti says that we need to develop new sustainable food sources to combat the environmental cost of our current livestock system, and he believes meat alternatives like his 3D printed steak could be the answer. Indeed, finding ways to reduce the consumption of meat would be a net positive for the environment, but it seems his team has a long way to go before the average meat-eater would be tempted by the objects extruded from his machine.

But the NovaMeat team aren’t the first to attempt coaxing food out of a modified 3D printer, not by a long shot. They’re simply the most recent addition to a surprisingly long list of individuals and entities, not least of which the United States military, that have looked into the concept. Ultimately, they’ve been after the same thing that convinced many hackers and makers to buy their own desktop 3D printer: the ability to produce something to the maker’s exacting specifications. A machine that could produce food with the precise flavors and textures specified would in essence be the ultimate chef, but of course, it’s far easier said than done.

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3D Printering: Blender Tips For Printable Objects

3D models drawn in Blender work great in a computer animated virtual world but don’t always when brought into a slicer for 3D printing. Slicers require something which makes sense in the real world. And the real world is far less forgiving, as I’ve found out with my own projects which use 3D printed parts.

Our [Brian Benchoff] already talked about making parts in Blender with his two-part series (here and here) so consider this the next step. These are the techniques I’ve come up with for preparing parts for 3D printing before handing them off to a slicer program. Note that the same may apply to other mesh-type modeling programs too, but as Blender is the only one I’ve used, please share your experiences with other programs in the comments below.

I’ll be using the latest version of Blender at this time, version 2.79b. My printer is the Crealty CR-10 and my slicer is Cura 3.1.0. Some of these steps may vary depending on your slicer or if you’re using a printing service. For example, Shapeways has instructions for people creating STLs from Blender for uploading to them.

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3D Printering: When An STL File Is Not Quite Right

STL files are everywhere. When there’s something to 3D print, it’s probably going to be an STL. Which, as long as the model is good just as it is, is no trouble at all. But sooner or later there will be a model that isn’t quite right in some way and suddenly project progress hits a snag.

When models interface with other physical things, those other components may not always be exactly as the designer expected. Being mindful about such potential inconsistencies during the design phase can help prevent problems, but it’s not always avoidable. The reason it’s a problem is because an STL file represents a solid model as a finished unit; it is not really intended to be rolled back into CAD programs for additional design changes.

STL files can be edited, but just like re-modeling a component from scratch, it can be a tricky process for those who don’t live and breathe this stuff. I’ll describe a few common issues related to STLs that can hold up getting that new project together, along with ways to deal with them. Thanks to 3D printing becoming much more commonplace, basic tools are within reach of even the least CAD-aware among us.

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3D Printering: Which Raspberry Pi Is Best At Slicing In Octoprint?

OctoPrint is arguably the ultimate tool for remote 3D printer control and monitoring. Whether you simply want a way to send G-Code to your printer without it being physically connected to your computer or you want to be able to monitor a print from your phone while at work, OctoPrint is what you’re looking for. The core software itself is fantastic, and the community that has sprung up around the development of OctoPrint plugins has done an incredible job expanding the basic functionality into some very impressive new territory.

RAMBo 3D controller with Pi Zero Integration

But all that is on the software side; you still need to run OctoPrint on something. Technically speaking, OctoPrint could run on more or less anything you have lying around the workshop. It’s cross platform and doesn’t need anything more exotic than a free USB port to connect to the printer, and people have run it on everything from disused Windows desktops to cheap Android smartphones. But for many, the true “home” of OctoPrint is the Raspberry Pi.

As I’ve covered previously, the Raspberry Pi does make an exceptional platform for OctoPrint. Given the small size and low energy requirements of the Pi, it’s easy to integrate into your printer. The new Prusa i3 MK3 even includes a header right on the control board where you can plug in a Raspberry Pi Zero.

But while the Raspberry Pi is more than capable of controlling a 3D printer in real-time, there has always been some debate about its suitability for slicing STL files. Even on a desktop computer, it can sometimes be a time consuming chore to take an STL file and process it down to the raw G-Code file that will command the printer’s movements.

In an effort to quantify the slicing performance on the Raspberry Pi, I thought it would be interesting to do a head-to-head slicing comparison between the Pi Zero, the ever popular Pi 3, and the newest Pi 3 B+.

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3D Printering: Print Smoothing Tests With UV Resin

Smoothing the layer lines out of filament-based 3D prints is a common desire, and there are various methods for doing it. Besides good old sanding, another method is to apply a liquid coating of some kind that fills in irregularities and creates a smooth surface. There’s even a product specifically for this purpose: XTC-3D by Smooth-on. However, I happened to have access to the syrup-thick UV resin from an SLA printer and it occurred to me to see whether I could smooth a 3D print by brushing the resin on, then curing it. I didn’t see any reason it shouldn’t work, and it might even bring its own advantages. Filament printers and resin-based printers don’t normally have anything to do with one another, but since I had access to both I decided to cross the streams a little.

The UV-curable resin I tested is Clear Standard resin from a Formlabs printer. Other UV resins should work similarly from what I understand, but I haven’t tested them.

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