Moreton Technology Alliance

2017 Moreton Technology Alliance

Last week I teamed up with fellow Advance Queensland Digital Champion  (AQDC) and resident of Moreton Bay, Kate vanderVoort, to discuss the latest digital trends in social media and 3D printing with local businesses in our area. This was hosted by the newly formed Moreton Technology Alliance (MTA), a group of local business owners who are passionate about the region and driving innovation here.

Having been an AQDC for a couple of years now, it was great to team up with newbie to the program Kate, and deliver our insights into what may at first seem like 2 different topics. Kate began by sharing her experience with helping businesses engage with their customers through social media, and how businesses that do this well are finding that their communities of followers begin to act as customer service agents and brand ambassadors, solving fellow customer problems using the immediacy of social media. In Kate’s words, it’s a good problem to have – until your employees start feeling like their jobs are in jeopardy!

This idea of building online communities linked well to my later discussion around Intellectual Property (IP) and how online communities of designers like myself are tapping into the growing libraries of files on websites like Thingiverse and Pinshape to replace broken products, upgrade them, or modify them to perform new functions, sharing our designs for free, or for small payments just like buying a song on iTunes.

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I used the example of GoPro mounts which retail at $29AUD for a pack of 6 genuine mounts, or I can 3D print 6 for $1 in material cost (pictured above from Thingiverse). Sure it’s not quite as perfectly fitting, and the material might break, but I could print 174 mounts for the same cost as 6 genuine mounts – essentially a lifetime supply from my own desktop factory. And this is just from a $400 machine, what if I have a better machine or material?

How do businesses deal with this? Will they be forever chasing people around the world with cease and desist letters (lawyers would be rubbing their hands together!)? Or will businesses shift their thinking and embrace this change, in the same way Hasbro’s My Little Pony has become an online community through Shapeways, where children and adults alike are encouraged to design and sell their own My Little Pony creations?

I certainly don’t profess to have the answers (in short I’m not a big believer of IP even without the 3D printing aspect), however the point of this example, along with examples of projects happening from a variety of industries embracing 3D printing, was to inspire the audience at this MTA event, and encourage further discussion. Which I believe it did given the questions from members afterwards, and realisation that this technology really will affect anyone developing physical products in some way or another.

We also discussed opportunities for businesses to collaborate with universities in order to develop research programs into technologies like 3D printing, with the Australian Government recently changing funding models for universities to emphasise greater links with industry, and grants announced for SME’s to fund innovation in partnership with universities and researchers. Follow the links to find out more information.

Thanks to MTA for inviting me to speak, I hope to be fielding a few questions in the near future from businesses who have been inspired to take the 3D printing plunge!

– Posted by James Novak

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Is That A Clogged Nozzle, or…

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No it’s just a clogged 3D printer nozzle, thanks for asking!

2017 seems to be my year for repairs on the Cocoon Create 3D printer, it was only a few months ago I wrote a big post about repairing and replacing the PTFE tube after it got seriously clogged. I did some research and found out exactly what the tube is for, and bought a roll of spare tube for future repairs (click here to read more).

Lucky I did! This seems to be the same sort of problem, however instead of the PTFE tube just getting clogged, when I opened up the nozzle the tube had become melted and broke off inside, completely stuck as you can see in the photo. I wonder if the spare PTFE tube I had installed was made from dodgy materials, allowing it to melt? Or maybe the ABS filament had just found a way around the outside of the tube and caused it to clog. Either way it’s getting a bit frustrating to have the same issue.

Luckily this wasn’t too difficult to fix (although I did jump straight on Ebay and buy a couple of spare brass nozzles – just search for RepRap MK10 0.4mm nozzle since the Cocoon Create is based on the RepRap Prusa i3). Using a drill and holding the nozzle with some pliers, I gradually worked my way up from a 2mm to 4mm diameter, clearing out the clogged material. 4mm is almost exactly the same as the internal nozzle diameter, so it cleared everything out nicely.

With some new PTFE tube installed, I’m back up and running again and the first print is coming out nicely (stay tuned to see what it is). Let’s see how long it lasts this time…

– Posted by James Novak

Tiko Down and Out?

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Unfortunately it looks like this image of the Tiko 3D Printer is as close as I’ll ever get to one – after months of speculation by fellow Kickstarter supporters, and a recent article by 3dprint.com which explained some of the problems that have plagued the company since their massive Kickstarter success in 2015, the Tiko team have sent an email update to backers that sounds ominous:

“Basically, the company is now on standby while we pursue ways to get back on track… We made countless mistakes, and we are now in a tough place, but it doesn’t mean that everything we built is suddenly worthless.”

It sounds like there may still be a glimmer of hope that investors may see the potential in Tiko and jump in to save the day, but given my previous experience with the failure of Solidoodle after the Press 3D printer, I’m not holding my breath. A few batches of Tiko’s did make it to the US and Canada, however online reports seem to suggest that the hardware and software hasn’t really lived up to expectations, being released out of desperation to get some products out there without being fully tested. A real shame, this was a Kickstarter campaign I was really excited about and the journey started off so well.

Maybe I’m just cursed? This is now the second printer/company that I’ve supported that has hit major troubles. Which means that I think I’m throwing in the towel with crowdfunding 3D printers – there are just too many risks and challenges, and there are so many options already available and sitting on shelves that the risk hardly seems worth it to save a few dollars with a startup. Given how well my Cocoon Create 3D printer has been going over the past year, bought for only $399 AUD from Aldi, I really can’t see the point. In the time Tiko has been struggling to produce 1 printer, Cocoon Create has supplied 1 very successful printer (read my review here), and looks poised to release the next generation machine any day.

That’s the other problem with these sorts of crowdfunded technologies – in the time that it takes to develop and manufacture them, the more established companies and new startups have already brought out ever newer machines that are superior to the technology a year or two ago, even superior to technology only a matter of months ago. The pace of change in 3D printing is extremely quick, and if you get caught for too long in development, what you’re developing will likely be out of date before it even leaves the factory.

Obviously I’m a huge fan of crowdfunding, having just wrapped up a successful Kickstarter project using the old Solidoodle Press as a plotter, but I now have a very big question mark about funding anything as complex as a 3D printer. I really do hope the Tiko team can negotiate their little hearts out and find some sort of a way to move forward. I would love nothing more than to one day have a Tiko on my workbench, and be running it side-by-side with my other printers and writing some reviews for you all. I’m just not holding my breath…

– Posted by James Novak

Turning a 3D Printer into a Plotter

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My last couple of posts have been about the Robot Picasso Kickstarter I’m currently running, a project that developed after the failure of the Solidoodle Press 3D printer. It’s attracted some media attention from 3dprint.com and Digital Trends who have followed up the saga of Solidoodle, the company going bankrupt because of the failings of this one printer.

Given the success of the Kickstarter, which is over 300% funded with a few days still to go, I thought it was about time to show the special 3D printed part that has converted the 3D printer into a 2D plotter. I developed the part in Solidworks using just a few key measurements, in particular the 2 front screw holes and the distance needed for the tip of the pen to lightly touch the plate where paper would be stuck. It sure beats using rubber bands and sticky tape which is how the initial experiments began! You can check out the 3D model below.

This is something that you could create for any 3D printer since most extruders have some sort of screw holes that you could take advantage of (for example you can see them in my Cocoon Create printer in this previous post), or perhaps you could design a clever snap-fitting system similar to the tutorial I wrote for Formlabs last year which shows the step-by-step process to designing a snap-fit enclosure. As long as you can create a secure fit, you will be able to get consistent results using your 3D printer as a 2D printer (plotter). If you want to see the process of drawing with this attachment, just check out the Kickstarter video I put together showing the full process of Robot Picasso. It’s a fun way to add a whole new function to your existing 3D printer if you can turn a 2D drawing into simple G-code commands.

– Posted by James Novak

Robot Picasso Kickstarter Final Week!

The final week of my very first Kickstarter campaign is now here, and to celebrate I’ve put together a brand new video demonstration of what Robot Picasso can do. This time, rather than using the Solidoodle 3D printer to draw on paper as in the first video, this demonstration shows how you can collaborate with Robot Picasso and use the digital DXF file of your custom artwork to import into software like Adobe Illustrator. From there anything’s possible, including using the design to laser cut into any material!

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It’s been an exciting roller coaster so far, and the hard work is yet to begin making and shipping all the artworks. It’s been challenging being overseas for nearly 2 weeks on a pre-booked holiday – I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I wanted promoting and creating regular updates for the campaign. However it was also quite eye-opening to realise just how much can be done with a laptop and internet connection – the video demonstration was completely created from my hotel in Hawaii, giving you an idea of how versatile Robot Picasso really is. You can receive your own custom DXF file for just $15 AUD, and have it included in the eBook compilation which all backers receive. Great if you are digital savvy and have access to some cool toys like plotters, laser cutters, routers etc.

Please help me to share this campaign on social media, it would be awesome to reach 50 backers over this final week (currently at 32) and increase the amount of artwork in the eBook. If you’re not into getting a custom drawing, you can buy the eBook for just $8 AUD and have it emailed to you after all drawings have been produced. See if you can figure out what each drawing is!

– Posted by James Novak

My First Kickstarter Goes Live!

I don’t normally use my blog to promote or sell anything, but I figure for the launch of my first Kickstarter campaign I can make a small exception! Besides, it’s actually developed from some of my previous posts where I hacked my useless Solidoodle Press 3D printer to draw images and had some fun using a Wii Nunchuck controller to manually move the extruder.

Through the month of January Kickstarter are running the Make 100 Challenge, and I was inspired to set something up quickly that would be a bit of fun for both myself and potential backers. The idea of the challenge is to get something off the ground that is limited to 100 editions, so it’s inspiring to see a lot of new projects that might not normally launch on Kickstarter, many of them quite creative and artistic. That’s where I’ve pitched my Kickstarter – something a bit unusual and creative, yet fitting in with my interests of customization, hacking, digital manufacturing, algorithms, coding, parametric design, CAD… All the fun stuff.

On paper the idea is relatively simple – send me a photograph, I use some software to generate a Picasso-like line drawing, and that drawing gets sent to my hacked Solidoodle Press to be drawn on paper. But hopefully the video shows that the process is a little more complex than that, and quite interesting to watch.

I would love you to take a look, share the link, or if you’re really interested help get this project off the ground with funding levels starting at only $8 for the final eBook compilation. Whatever happens it’s been a great experience to put this campaign together.

– Posted by James Novak

22/1/2017 UPDATE: To thank everyone for your support and reaching the 200% funding milestone, here’s a new short video showing what happens when Robot Picasso draws a cliff-top building.

Robot Picasso also has a new Facebook Page you can follow to keep up to date with the latest developments. Let’s keep the momentum of this campaign and try and get 100 unique drawings!

New Year 3D Printer Repairs

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After something like 150 hours of 3D printing leading up to Christmas it’s no wonder that my Cocoon Create decided to extend its holiday with some down time to kick off 2017. There have been 2 problems to do with extrusion that I’ve come across, and thought they might be handy to know how to fix for others with this printer, or indeed any of the many derivatives of the original RepRep Prusa i3 which this printer is based off.

The top image shows the first problem which I noticed after some jamming and issues swapping out filaments – basically a build-up of filament “powder” over time from the gear grinding it when it’s been jammed. This one’s a nice easy fix, just a cleanup and a reminder to open up the extruder occasionally to keep things clean. If you’ve never opened the extruder before it’s nothing scary, just 2 bolts on the left where the fan is mounted to the heat-sink which opens the whole thing up as shown above. You might be surprised how simple the whole mechanism is.

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After fixing this problem and doing a couple of prints, I then noticed the filament was getting jammed again and I couldn’t push filament through the nozzle no matter what I did. Opening the extruder (same process as before except now removing the small screw on the right of the metal block to release the actual nozzle) the problem was pretty clear – a clog in the PTFE tube which you can see above. A lot of people are surprised to open their extruder and find a plastic tube inside, and this is the first time I’ve really had a problem with it. This tube is made from PTFE, basically Teflon like in your non-stick frypan, and seems to serve a couple of functions from what I’ve read online:

  1. it stops heat from the nozzle climbing too high into the extruder and prematurely melting the filament, which would cause serious clogs.
  2. being non-stick, it helps the filament keep sliding smoothly down to the nozzle without sticking as it gets warm.

A very cheap, simple part that has a lot of responsibility. Mine must’ve gotten worn out or slightly dislodged during my last attempt at fixing the extruder. Thankfully my printer came with 1 replacement, which I cut to size (make sure both ends are nice and square so that there are no gaps for filament to get caught in) and now I’m up and printing again with no problems. Also I’ve jumped onto Ebay and ordered a 2m length of PTFE tube (inside diameter 2mm, outside diameter 4mm) from China for $2.50 – I recommend anyone who has a 3D printer with this part order some PTFE tube as backup, it’s very cheap but if you need to buy something locally in a 3D printing emergency, prices look at least 10 times higher. For a couple of dollars it might just help keep you sane.

Some good forums discussing PTFE tube issues:

I’ve previously written about another type of clog where filament breaks off inside the extrusion tube as you’re retracting it, and you can’t force a new piece in – check out the post here if this sounds like what you’re experiencing.

Happy 3D printing, happy new year.

– Posted by James Novak

Repairing 3D Prints with a 3D Pen

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It’s been a while since I last played with my 3Doodler Pen to repair a broken 3D print – the results were pretty cool, although it takes some practice to get reasonable results. Check out the post and images here. Some people make pretty amazing sculptures with the pen, however I find the real value in using the pen to fill gaps created by warped 3D prints and fix other cosmetic problems.

One of my latest projects is assembled from 16 separate pieces printed on my Cocoon Create 3D printer (60 hours worth of printing!), and inevitably with such large pieces printed using desktop FDM technology, there are some gaps caused by print warping. Most of them are reasonably small, but some like the ones shown above and below are quite large. Unfortunately the 3Doodler uses 3mm filament, meaning that I couldn’t use the same 1.75mm filament used to print the parts to begin with, but given that this project doesn’t need to be cosmetically pretty (prototype only), a different shade of yellow that came in the box will do.

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The first step is of course to use the pen to extrude material into the cavity, ensuring to move slowly and use the hot nozzle to bond the new plastic with the original. It can get a bit messy and smelly (do it in a well ventilated area – I had a fan blowing to keep a lot of the fumes moving away, but there were times my eyes were stinging), and as shown in image 2 above, might look a bit rough, but that’s OK. You can go back over some of the rough patches using the side of the hot nozzle to try and smooth them out, not extruding any material but using the nozzle like a hot rolling pin. This technique is also great for blending some of the sharp edges or smaller gaps that don’t really need to be filled. The final step is to use a metal file to clean things up, giving a much smoother finish.

Admittedly this process wasn’t all smooth sailing, my 3Doodler kept getting clogged despite me taking it apart and cleaning it out – I have a feeling it might be the material quality and/or the temperature of the nozzle not being quite as hot as it needs to be, so a lot of time was wasted trying to manually push the filament through the pen and get a steady flow. I did notice that when I pushed the hot nozzle into my original print (the darker yellow plastic) it melted much quicker than the 3Doodler filament, despite them both being ABS. So material quality is likely the cause. But the final result is worth the pain, gaps are cleaned up nicely and the surface is nice and smooth. Time for some testing!

– Posted by James Novak

Cocoon Create Goes the Distance

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This week I’ve spent 48 hours printing 14 segments of my latest PhD project on my Cocoon Create 3D printer, and despite the usual hiccups like print warp and delamination of layers (they are some large pieces using ABS so it’s no surprise – stay tuned for a post on using a 3D print pen to fill gaps), the printer itself performed beautifully. With another 59 hours of printing left to go, I thought it was time to write a little update on the printer and why I think it’s probably the best value printer out there.

Firstly some clarification – the Cocoon Create is based on the open source RepRap Prusa i3, one of the most popular 3D printer designs ever. Many derivatives exist out there that all look identical, including the Wanhao Duplicator i3 Plus which I’ve seen marketed quite a lot on Ebay. The benefit of this is that there are endless supplies of spare parts and forums offering tweaks and suggestions, you just need to look further afield then the “Cocoon Create” since this is the branding for the printers sold at Aldi in Australia only as part of the promotion this year. So there’s not much of a community out there specifically for this printer. But for the general type of printer, the numbers are huge.

As you can see from the top photo, I’ve nearly printed 1km worth of filament with this printer, which I only bought in February this year during Aldi’s promotion. You can read about my first impressions here. For many years I’ve enjoyed successes with the UP range of printers (including the UP Plus 2 and UP Mini), but with the Cocoon Create proving to be just as reliable, and only 1/3 of the price of the UP Plus 2 ($499 AUD), the Cocoon Create is definitely proving to be better value for money. If you do the maths, this printer has so far cost me only $2.90 per hour of printing (+ materials and electricity of course).  In particular the positives I really enjoy are:

  • Rugged steel design means that there is no movement in the printer – I never have to adjust the level of the print bed. Just click print and it works every time.
  • Good print plate that the filament adheres to quite well – no need for glues or tape. I also really like using the Brim setting in Cura to help hold the prints onto the bed and really minimise warping on large prints. I wrote a post about that previously with photos showing with and without the brim setting.
  • Decent sized build platform, twice the size of the UP printers 🙂 (200 x 200 x 180mm)
  • Open in every way – software and hardware. Unlike many of the printers on the market, you can see and access all of the main features of the printer. Great if anything happens and you need to replace a part. Also you can use just about any software you like for slicing models and saving out G Code. I’ve just stuck with the recommended Cura so far, it has all the settings I need. The great thing about this is that you can get right into the details of the print settings, tweaking until you get your print just right – many printers come with proprietary software, which is normally good for simple plug-n-play prints, but won’t give you full access to settings.

A few things that are still a bit annoying, because hey, it’s still only a cheap printer and can’t be perfect:

  • The print plate can’t be removed from the printer (well not easily – you would need to re-level the plate each time), meaning that you need to scrape prints off in situ. I do prefer the ability to swap plates and remove a print when I can get at it easily with some tools.
  • The user interface is extremely old-fashioned, possible a relic from the 80’s – a single dial is used to scroll through menus and make selections, and it gets a bit painful.
  • Emergency stopping a print when something goes wrong requires either cycling through a few menus (see point above), or cutting power all together which is never a great solution. Perhaps a nice red emergency stop button would fit in with the 80’s styling?
  • Running back and forth between computer and printer with a SD card can be painful – with the cheap cost of WiFi chips these days, hopefully the next version can stream directly from the computer. However most printers still suffer from some sort of physical connection or SD card. Maybe it’s just because I keep my printer in a separate room to avoid the fumes…

Those are some of the main things on my mind as I reach the halfway point of this big session of printing on the Cocoon Create – keep your eyes out in 2017 for a return of the printer to Aldi, I have it on good authority that it will be making a comeback 😉 Follow my blog (bottom of the page) or twitter if you’re interested as I will definitely be posting the news as soon as I have details.

– Posted by James Novak