Relive The Dot Matrix Glory Days With Your 3D Printer

With the cost of 3D printers dropping rapidly, we’ve started to see a trend of hackers re-purposing them for various tasks. It makes perfect sense; with the hotend and extruder turned off (or removed entirely), you’ve got a machine that can move a tool around in two or three dimensions with exceptional accuracy. Printers modified to carry lasers, markers, and even the occasional rotary tool, are becoming a common sight in our tip line.

Last year [Matthew Rayfield] attached a marker to his 3D printer and had it sketch out some pictures, but recently he decided to revisit the idea and try to put a unique spin on it. The end result is a throwback to the classic dot matrix printers of yore utilizing decidedly modern hardware and software. There’s something undeniably appealing about the low-fi nature of dot matrix printing, and when fed the appropriate images this setup is capable of producing something which we’ve got to admit is dangerously close to being art.

To create these images, [Matthew] has created “Pixels-to-Gcode”, an online service that anyone can use to turn an arbitrary image into GCode they can feed their 3D printer. There’s a number of options available for you to play with so you can dial in the specific effect you’re looking for. Pointillist images can be created using a tight spacing of dots, but widen them up, and your final image becomes increasingly abstract.

The hardware side of this project is left largely as an exercise for the reader. [Matthew] has attached a fine-point pen to his printer’s head using a rubber band, but admits that it’s far from ideal. A more robust approach would be some kind of 3D printed device that allows you to quickly attach your pen or marker so the printer can be easily switched between 2D and 3D modes. We’d also be interested in seeing what this would look like if you used a laser mounted on the printer to burn the dots.

Back in the ancient days of 2012, we saw somebody put together a very similar project using parts from floppy and optical drives. The differences between these two projects, not only in relative difficulty level but end result, is an excellent example of how the hacker community is benefiting from the widespread availability of cheap 3D motion platforms.

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Restoring A Forgotten Dot-Matrix Printer

Dot matrix printers are the dinosaurs that won’t go extinct. They are not unlike a typewriter with the type bars behind the ink ribbon replaced by a row of metal pins controlled by solenoids, each pin being capable of printing a single pixel. At their best they could deliver a surprising level of quality, but their sound once heard is not forgotten, because it was extremely LOUD.

[Wpqrek] bought an old dot-matrix printer, a Commodore MPS 803. Sadly it didn’t live up to the dot-matrix reputation for reliability in that it didn’t work, some of its pins weren’t moving, so he set to on its repair. Behind each of those pins was a solenoid, and after finding a crack in the flexible ribbon to the head he discovered that some of the solenoids were open-circuit. On dismantling the head it became apparent that the wires had detached themselves from the solenoids, so he very carefully reattached new wires and reassembled the unit. Of course, he had no replacement for the flexible ribbon, so he made a replacement with a bundle of long lengths of flexible hook-up wire. This hangs out of the top of the printer as it follows the carriage, but for now it keeps the device working.

Dot-matrix printers are a favourite for our readership. Among others, we’ve seen another Commodore get the Python treatment, as well as an Apple capable of printing in full colour.

Full Color Dot Matrix Is The Art We Need

Fans of 80s-era computer printing technology are few and far between, but Apple’s ImageWriter II was a beast of a printer. This tractor feed dot-matrix printer is nigh-indestructible. The print quality was actually pretty great. It was loud as hell, which is a mark of quality electromechanical components. It could do color, and color dot-matrix art on tractor feed paper is the aesthetic we need. If you’re not convinced yet, you can also take off the perforations from tractor feed paper and make a cool little paper snake.

[Dandu] isn’t one to let things like serial printers and obsolete color dot matrix ribbons get in his way of creating ImageWriter art. A while ago, he printed off some incredible art using some obsolete equipment, and the results are better than what you would expect.

The process for creating full-color art on a dot-matrix printer was to plug the ImageWriter into an old Mac (an LC III in this case, with 12 MB of RAM). Photoshop (version 3.0!) was used to open a JPEG, and MacPallete II used to send the data to the printer. This isn’t a process that prints all the colors all at once; first the yellow is printed, and the tractor feed paper is brought back to the beginning. Then the magenta is printed, then the cyan, then the black. The single page of art took 20 minutes to print, and you can see a sped-up version of this process below.

Yes, the ImageWriter II can print in full color, but who cares about this now? A few people apparently — a company is now remanufacturing ImageWriter II color ribbons — opening the door to retro art for all. Yes, that ImageWriter in your basement still works, so let’s see what you can do with it.

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Air Bubble Characters Float Along This Unique Scrolling Display

We’ve seen a lot of unique large-format scrolling message boards on these pages, but most of them use some sort of established technology – LEDs, electromechanical flip-dots, and the like – in new and unusual ways. We’re pretty sure this air-bubble dot matrix display is a first, though.

While it may not be destined for the front of a bus or a train station arrivals and departures board, [jellmeister]’s bubble display shows some pretty creative thinking. It started with a scrap of multiwall polycarbonate roofing – Corotherm is the brand name – of the type to glaze greenhouses and other structures. The parallel tubes are perfect for the display, although individual tubes could certainly be substituted. A plastic end cap was fabricated; air nozzles in each channel were plumbed to an air supply through solenoid valves. An Arduino with a couple of motor driver hats allows pulses of air into each channel to create reasonably legible characters that float up the tube. The video below shows it in use at a Maker Faire, where visitors could bubble up their own messages.

It took some tweaking to get it looking as good as it does, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. We wonder whether colored liquid might help, or perhaps adding a Neopixel or even a laser to each channel to add some contrast. Maybe something to cloud the water slightly would help; increasing the surface tension with a salt solution might make the bubbles more distinct. We doubt it’ll ever have the contrast ratio of a flip-dot display, but it certainly has a charm all its own.

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Dymo Rides Again With This Dot-Matrix Label Embosser

For a five-year-old future Hackaday scribe, there could be no greater day than that on which a Dymo label maker appeared in the house. With its spinny daisy-wheel to choose a character and its squeezy handle to emboss the letter into the plastic tape, there would follow a period of going nuts kerchunking out misspelled labels and slapping them on everything. Plus the things look like space guns, so there would have been a lot of pew-pewing too.

This Dymo dot-matrix label maker bears no resemblance to our long-lost label blaster, but it’s pretty cool in its own right. The product of collaborators [Felix Fisgus] and [Timo Johannes] and undertaken as a project for their digital media program, the only thing the labeler has in common with the Dymos of old is the tape. Where the manual labelers press the characters into the tape with a punch and die, their project uses a dot-matrix approach. Messages are composed on an old PS/2 keyboard through an Arduino and a 16×2 LCD display, and punched onto the tape a dot at a time. The punch is a large darning needle riding on the remains of an old CD drive and driven by a solenoid. When it comes time to cut the label, servo driven scissors do the job. It’s a noisy, crazy, Rube Goldberg affair, and we love it. Check it out in action in the video below.

We applaud [Felix] and [Timo] for carrying the torch of embossed label making. It’s a shame that we’ve turned to soulless thermal printers to handle most of our labeling needs; then again, we’ve seen some pretty neat hacks for those too.

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Persistence of Phosphorescence Clock Displays YouTube Stats Too

Looking for an eye-catching and unique way to display the time and date? Want the flexibility to add other critical information, like the number of YouTube subs you’ve got? Care to be able to read it from half a block away, at least at night? Then this scrolling glow-in-the-dark dot-matrix display could be right up your alley.

Building on his previous Morse code transcriber using a similar display, [Jan Derogee] took the concept and went big. The idea is to cover a PVC pipe with phosphorescent tape and rotate it past a row of 100 UV LEDs. The LEDs are turned on as the glow-in-the-dark surface passes over them, charging up a row of spots. The display is built up to two rows of 16 characters by the time it rotates into view, and the effect seems to last for quite a while. An ESP8266 takes care of driving the display and fetching NTP time and YouTube stats.

We’ve seen “persistence of phosphorescence” clocks before, but not as good looking and legible as this one. We like the approach, and we can’t help but think of other uses for glow-in-the-dark displays.

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Mini-Banners for Small Occasions

Do you often find yourself needing to make small signs? Perhaps you’re trying to put a notice on the office fridge, but you’re just not in the mood for the usual Comic Sans-on-A4 staple today. A banner of some sort would do the trick, but… a small one, right? [Mike Ingle] has the answer – making mini-banners on old receipt printers.

[Mike] was a fan of Paint Shop in the 1980s, which among other things, enabled the printing of long banners on the popular dot matrix printers of the era. Realising that receipt printers have a similar ability to print on a long continuous strip of paper, he decided to see if it was possible to create small banners using the hardware.

The hack is simple – ImageMagick is used to generate a one-bit black & white bitmap that is then processed with some custom C code to generate something the printer can understand. It’s then a simple matter of hacking up the original RS-232 cable to fit a DB-9 (aka DE-9) connector, and spitting out the instructions over serial.

The mini-banners are cool, and we could imagine having some fun with such a project, using it to print out tweets or putting it into service as a stock ticker. It’s a great example of cleanly interfacing with existing hardware to create something outside of the original design intentions. Such printers are fertile ground for hacks – like this printer that can spit out the US Constitution in 6 seconds flat.