Printrbot Post Mortem

For many people, Printrbot was their first 3D printer. What started out as [Brook Drumm’s] Kickstarter idea to make 50 printers turned into over a thousand orders backlogged. To quote [Brook], they went from zero sales to about two million in the first year and then twelve million a few years later. As is often the case, though, the rapid scale-up didn’t survive a drop in sales. [Thomas Sanladerer] has a great interview video with [Brook] and you can see it below.

It is both nostalgic and sad to see the Printrbot headquarters all empty with quiet machines. [Brook] was always one of us and often gave back to the community and it is interesting to hear his perspective about what brought his company to an end.

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Hackaday Links: August 5, 2018

Here’s something of historical interest. The daughter of Terry Holdt, project manager for the 6502, cleaned out a garage and found shelves full of MOS Technology binders, test results, notes, instructions for processes, letters to customers, and datasheets full of errata. Some of these documents have been posted on Twitter, and efforts are underway to collect, scan, upload, and preserve them. In the distance, a man in a fabulous suit is screaming, ‘donate them to the Internet Archive’.

This is a link to Defcad, the repository of 3D printable files for weapons. Under an agreement with the US Department of State, Defcad was set to go online on August 1st. This caused much handwringing in the tech journalist thoughtspace, with reporters calling to end the first amendment because they don’t like the second. Alyssa Milano chimed in. Defcad was ordered shut down by a federal judge in the western district of Washington before going live.

As you may well be aware, Printrbot ceased operations last month. It’s sad to see them go, but they made some acceptable machines and were really pushing the boundaries of what was possible with their infinite build volume prototype printer. But what about all those existing printrbots in the wild, you might ask. Well, good news for anyone who hasn’t changed their hotend over to an E3D yet: Ubis is going to be selling hotends. Get ’em while they’re hot (or not, I don’t know how this pun works).

File this one into the ‘awesome government auctions’ category. The city of Longmont, Colorado decommissioned their tornado sirens last year because they ‘self-activated’ and malfunctioned. These sirens were put up for auction, with a winning bid of $526. Someone bought the most annoying thing imaginable for just over five bills. The world of government auctions is amazing.

A Farewell to Printrbot

It’s with a heavy heart that we must report Printrbot has announced they are ceasing operations. Founded in 2011 after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, the company set out to make 3D printing cheaper and easier. Their first printer was an amalgamation of printed parts and wood that at the time offered an incredible deal; when the Makerbot CupCake was selling for $750 and took 20+ hours to assemble, the Printrbot kit would only run you $500 and could be built in under an hour.

Brook Drumm, Founder of Printrbot

Printrbot got their foot in the door early, but the competition wasn’t far behind. The dream of Star Trek style replicators fueled massive investment, and for a while it seemed like everyone was getting into the 3D printing game. Kit built machines gave way to turn-key printers, and the prices starting coming down. Printrbot’s products evolved as well, dropping wood in favor of folded steel and pioneering impressive features like automatic bed leveling. In 2014 they released the Printbot Simple Metal, which ultimately became their flagship product and in many ways represents the high water mark for the company.

Eventually, overseas manufacturers saw an opportunity and started flooding the market with 3D printers that were cheaper than what many would have believed possible only a few years earlier. Today you can go online and buy a perfectly serviceable starter printer for under $200, even less if you’re still willing to build it yourself. For an American company like Printrbot, competing at this price point was simply an impossibility.

Rather than give up, Brook decided to take things in a different direction. If he couldn’t compete with imported machines on price, he would start building high end printers. A new version of the Simple Metal was introduced in 2016 with premium features such as linear rails and cloud-based slicing, complete with a premium price. From that point on, most new Printrbot products would release at over $1,000; putting them more in line with “prosumer” machines from companies like Ultimaker. For hacker types who got their first taste of 3D printing thanks to a cheap wooden Printrbot kit, this was something of a bittersweet moment.

At the same time, Brook’s natural hacker spirit and love of the open source community lead to a number of interesting side projects that never quite got off the ground. Most recently, he’d been putting the finishing touches on the Printrbelt, a 3D printer with a conveyor belt in place of a traditional bed. Such a machine could finally bridge the gap between desktop 3D printing and true small scale production capability.

When we saw Brook at the East Coast RepRap Festival, he brought along a new machine that the more cynical observer might have taken as foreshadowing. The Printrbot Easy was going to be a modified and rebranded FlashForge Finder, a final acknowledgement that the only way to compete with the Chinese manufactured 3D printers was to sell one of your own.

It’s always sad to see a tech company go under, but seeing the end of Printrbot is especially hard. Built in America with locally sourced components and with a commitment to keeping their machines open source, there was a lot to love about the plucky little 3D printer company from Lincoln, California. Printrbot was the quintessential hacker success story, and we’re proud to say we’ve been in their corner from the start. Here’s to wishing Brook Drumm and the entire Printrbot team success in their future endeavors; we’ll be keeping an eye out.

ERRF 18: New Products Make their Debut

While ostensibly the purpose of the recent East Coast RepRap Festival (ERRF) was to celebrate the 3D printing community and culture, it should come as no surprise that more than a few companies decided to use the event as an opportunity to publicly launch new products. Who can blame them? It’s not as if every day you have a captive audience of 3D printing aficionados; you might as well make the best of it.

Many creations were being shown off for the first time at ERRF, and we surely didn’t get a chance to see them all. There was simply too much going on at any given time to be sure no printed stone was left unturned. But the following printers, filaments, and accessories caught our attention long enough to warrant sharing with the good readers of Hackaday.

Keep in mind that much of this information is tentative at best, and things could easily change between now and when the products actually go on sale. These events serve as much as a sounding board for new products as they do a venue for advertising and selling them, so feedback received from show attendees may very well alter some of these products from what we saw at ERRF.

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Upgrading a 3D Printer with OctoPrint

If you’ve been hanging around 3D printing communities, or reading the various 3D printing posts that have popped up here on Hackaday, you’ve almost certainly heard of OctoPrint. Created and maintained by Gina Häußge, OctoPrint allows you to turn an old computer (or more commonly a small ARM board like the Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone) into a network-accessible control panel for your 3D printer. Thanks to a thriving collection of community developed plugins, it can even control other hardware such as lights, enclosure heaters, smart plugs, or anything else you can think to hook onto the GPIO pins of your chosen ARM board. The project has become so popular that the new Prusa i3 MK3 has a header on the control board specifically for connecting a Pi Zero W running OctoPrint.

Even still, I never personally “got” OctoPrint. I was happy enough with my single printer connected to my computer and controlled directly from my slicer over USB. The majority of the things I print are of my own design, so when setting up the printer it only seemed logical that I would have it connected to the machine I’d be doing my designing on. If I’m sitting at my computer, I just need to rotate my chair to the right and I’m at my printer. What do I need to control the thing over WiFi for?

But things got tricky when I wanted to set up a second printer to help with speeding up larger projects. I couldn’t control them both from the same machine, and while I could print from SD on the second printer if I really had to, the idea seemed painfully antiquated. It would be like when Scotty tried talking into the computer’s mouse in “Voyage Home”. Whether I “got it” or not, I was about to dive headfirst into the world of OctoPrint.

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Printrbot Teases Infinite Build Volume Printer

[Brook Drumm] of Printrbot is teasing a new 3D printer. This is no ordinary 3D printer; this is an infinite build volume 3D printer, the Next Big Thing™ in desktop fabrication.

The world was introduced to the infinite build volume 3D printer last March at the Midwest RepRap Festival with a built by [Bill Steele] from Polar 3D. The design of [Bill]’s printer began as simply a middle finger to MakerBot’s Automated Build Platform patent. This was patent engineering — [Bill] noticed the MakerBot patent didn’t cover build plates that weren’t offset to the plane of the print head, and it just so happened a printer with a tilted bed could also build infinitely long plastic parts.

While [Bill Steele]’s unnamed printer introduced the idea of an infinite build volume printer to the community, a few pieces of prior art popped up in the weeks and months after MRRF. Several years ago, [Andreas Bastian] developed the Lum Printer, an unbounded conveyor belt printer. A month after MRRF, Blackbelt 3D introduced their mega-scale tilted bed printer and later started a Kickstarter that has already reached $100,000 in pledges.

Right now, details are sparse on the Printrbelt, but there are a few educated guesses we can make. The belt of the Printrbelt appears to be Kapton film attached to some sort of substrate. The hotend and extruder are standard Printrbot accouterments, and the conveyor is powered by a geared stepper motor. All in all, pretty much what you would expect.

We do know that [Brook] and [Bill Steele] are working together on this printer, apparently with [Brook] in charge of the hardware and [Bill] taking either his slicing algorithm or firmware modifications (we’re not exactly sure where the ’tilt’ in the Gcode comes from) and getting this printer running.

While the Printrbelt isn’t ready for production quite yet, this is a fantastic advance in the state of consumer, desktop 3D printing. You can check out [Brook]’s teaser videos below.

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Inside the Printrbot Printrhub

A new version of the Printrbot Simple was released this summer, and this sleek new model includes a few highly desirable features. The metal enclosure was improved, linear rails added, a power switch was thrown in, and the biggest feature — a touch screen — makes headless printing easy.

Adding a usable display and achieving reliable WiFi are big engineering challenges, and thanks to the Internet of Things it’s only going to become more common to expect those features. How did the Printrbot team implement this? [Philip Shuster] recently released a write-up of how the Printrbot Printrhub came together.

The story of the display and WiFi module in the newest Printrbot begins about a year ago with a post on Hackaday. [Philip] built the Little Helper, a little electronic Swiss Army knife capable of basic IO, sending out PWM pulses, sniffing I2C, and a few other handy features. The Printrbot team reached out to [Philip], and after a few conversations, he was roped into the development team for the Printrhub.

Departing slightly from the Little Helper, the Printrhub features the same microcontroller found in the Teensy 3, a 2.8 inch TFT display, capacitive touch sensor, microSD card slot, and an ESP-12 module to handle the WiFi connection. The display system was tricky, but the team eventually got it working. Using an ESP8266 as the WiFi module for a printer is more difficult than you would think, but that works too.

One of the more interesting challenges for 3D printers in the last few years is the development of a good printer display with wireless connectivity. Yes, those graphic LCDs attached to an Arduino still work, but a display from 1980 doesn’t sell printers. In just a few months, the Printrbot team came up with a relatively simple, very elegant display that does everything and they’re releasing all the hardware as open source. That’s great news, and we can’t wait to see similar setups in other makes of 3D printers.