The Past, Present, And Uncertain Future Of LulzBot

Considering that it’s only existed for around a decade, the commercial desktop 3D printing market has seen an exceptional amount of turnover. But then, who could resist investing in an industry that just might change the world? It certainly didn’t hurt that the MakerBot Cupcake, arguably the first “mass market” desktop 3D printer, was released the same month that Kickstarter went live. We’ve long since lost count of the failed 3D printer companies that have popped up in the intervening years. This is an industry with only a handful of remaining veterans.

One of the few that have been with us since those heady early days is LulzBot, founded in 2011 by parent company Aleph Objects. Their fully open source workhorses are renowned for their robust design and reliability, though their high prices have largely kept them off the individual hacker’s bench. LulzBot was never interested in the race to the bottom that gave birth to the current generation of sub-$200 printers. Their hardware was always positioned as a competitor to the likes of Ultimaker and MakerBot, products where quality and support are paramount above all else.

NASA’s modified LulzBot

While LulzBot printers never made an impact on the entry-level market, there are institutions willing to purchase a highly dependable American-made 3D printer regardless of cost. The United States Marines used LulzBot printers to produce replacement Humvee door handles in the field, and some of the modifications that were necessary to meet their stringent requirements eventually resulted in updates to the consumer version of the printer. NASA used a highly modified LulzBot TAZ 4 to print PEI at temperatures as high as 500°C, producing parts far stronger than anything that had previously been made on a desktop 3D printer.

Yet despite such auspicious customers, LulzBot has fallen on difficult times. Consumers have made it abundantly clear they aren’t willing to pay more than $1,000 for a desktop printer, and competition above that price point is particularly fierce. Last month we started hearing rumblings in the Tip Line that the vast majority of LulzBot staff were slated to be let go, and we soon got confirmation and hard numbers from local media. Of the company’s 113 employees, only 22 would remain onboard to maintain day-to-day operations. Production on their flagship models would continue, albeit at a reduced pace, and all existing warranties would be honored. But the reduction in staff and limited cash flow meant that the development of future products, such as the LulzBot Bio tissue printer, would be put on hold.

LulzBot wasn’t quite dead, but it was hard to see this as anything but a step on the road to insolvency. A number of insiders we spoke to said they had heard a buyout was expected, and today we can report that the sale of Aleph Objects to Fargo Additive Manufacturing Equipment 3D (FAME 3D) is official. Production of the current LulzBot models is expected to continue, and some of the 91 laid off employees are likely to be hired back, but continuing Aleph Objects CEO Grant Flaharty says the details are still being finalized.

This new financial backing, provided by a venture capitalist, is certainly good news. But it would be naive to think this is the end of LulzBot’s troubles. The market has spoken, and unless the company is willing to introduce a vastly cheaper version of their printer to entice the entry-level customer as Prusa Research has recently done, it’s unclear how an infusion of cash will do anything but delay the inevitable.

For what it’s worth, we hope LulzBot finds some way to thrive. The ideal of building fully open source printers is something near and dear to the heart of Hackaday, but after the loss of PrintrBot, we’re all keenly aware of how difficult it is for small American companies to compete in the modern 3D printing market.

Hacking Mars: InSight Mole Is On The Move Again

Your job might be tough, but spare a thought for any of the engineers involved in the Mars InSight lander mission when they learned that one of the flagship instruments aboard the lander, indeed the very instrument for which the entire mission was named, appeared to be a dud. That’s a bad day at work by anyone’s standards, and it happened over the summer when it was reported that the Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP³), commonly known as “The Mole”, was not drilling itself into the Martian regolith as planned.

But now, after months of brainstorming and painstaking testing on Earth and on Mars, it looks as if the mole is working again. NASA has announced that, with a little help from the lander’s backhoe bucket, the HP³ penetrator has dug itself 2 cm into the soil. It’s a far cry from the 5-meter planned depth for its heat-transfer experiments, but it’s progress, and the clever hack that got the probe that far might just go on to salvage a huge chunk of the science planned for the $828 million program.

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Giant LEDs, Ruby Lasers, Hologram Displays, And Other Cool Stuff Seen At Maker Faire Rome

Hackers from all over Europe descended upon Rome last weekend for the Maker Faire that calls itself the “European Edition”. This three-day event is one of the largest Maker Faires in the world — they had 27,000 school students from all over Italy and Europe attend on Friday alone.

This was held at Fiera Roma, a gigantic conference complex two train stops south of the Rome airport — kind of in the middle of nowhere. I was told anecdotally that this is the largest event the complex hosts but have no data to back up that claim. One thing’s for certain, three days just wasn’t enough for me to enjoy everything at the show. There was a huge concentration of really talented hardware hackers on hand, many who you’ll recognize as creators of awesome projects regularly seen around Hackaday.

Here’s a whirlwind tour of some of my favorites. On that list are a POV holographic display, giant cast-resin LEDs, an optical-pump ruby laser built out of parts from AliExpress, blinky goodness in cube-form, and the Italian audience’s appreciation for science lectures (in this case space-related). Let’s take a look.

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Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor

Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.

But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.

The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.

Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.

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Life At JPL Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 21st at noon Pacific for the Life at JPL Hack Chat with Arko!

There’s a reason why people use “rocket science” as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn’t something that’s easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko, also known as Ara Kourchians, is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA’s research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation’s first satellite as well as the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What’s it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Apollo’s PLSS And The Science Of Keeping Humans Alive In Space

Ever since humans came up with the bright idea to explore parts of the Earth which were significantly less hospitable to human life than the plains of Africa where humankind evolved, there’s been a constant pressure to better protect ourselves against the elements to keep our bodies comfortable. Those first tests of a new frontier required little more than a warm set of clothes. Over the course of millennia, challenging those frontiers became more and more difficult. In the modern age we set our sights on altitude and space, where a warm set of clothes won’t do much to protect you.

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the heating up of the space race between the US and USSR, many firsts had to be accomplished with minimal time for testing and refinement. From developing 1945’s then state-of-the-art V-2 sounding rockets into something capable of launching people to the moon and beyond, to finding out what would be required to keep people alive in Earth orbit and on the Moon. Let’s take a look at what was required to make this technological marvel happen, and develop the Portable Life Support System — an essential component of those space suits that kept astronauts so comfortable they were able to crack jokes while standing on the surface of the Moon.

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An (Almost) Free Apollo-Era Rocket

According to recent news reports, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama wants to give away a piece of history — an engineering test article of a Saturn I Block I booster. The catch? You’ll need to pay to haul it off, which will cost about $250,000. According to C|Net, the offer appears to be for museums and schools, but it’s likely that price tag would probably scare most private buyers off anyway.

On the other hand, if you are a museum, library, school, or university, you can score cheap or free NASA stuff using their GSAXcess portal. In general, you do have to pay shipping. For example, a flexible thermal blanket from the shuttle costs $37.28. A heat tile runs about $25.

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