When Artronix were asked to help create co.lab, the responsibility to kit out the workshop fell to me. I was given a blank canvas.
To be clear, the co.lab project or any makerspace is so much more than a room (or tent) full of tools, but tools and specifically the wondrous 3D printer are what I'm going to ramble on about here.
So I had to select a 3D printer for co.lab. 3D printers aren't just hugely useful and powerful tools, they're also quite iconic of the maker movement as they were more or less born from the early hack labs, makerspaces and maker community (3D printers were actually invented in the mid-80s but remained deeply exotic and expensive pieces of kit until the maker movement decided to start printing their own in 2005).
Miraculous though these machines appear, with their ability to conjure fully formed 3d objects from thin air, the technology is shockingly simple. A Fused Deposit Modelling 3D printer is effectively little more than a pen plotter with the pen replaced by a heated plastic extruder, not unlike a tiny hot glue gun, and the addition of a third axis of motion. Every time I look at one I'm shocked they didn't emerge earlier. Now which 3D printer do we buy?
I'm in no way an expert in 3D printing, I did build one of the early Rep Raps, the first wave of self-replicating, self-printing 3D printers but all that proves is I can follow a recipe, so I took some advice from some pals with more experience (name check Blair and Vitas). I considered the ubiquitous Ultimaker.
It's a super solid and reliable machine from a trusted name but it has a premium price, I considered some of the non-branded clone machines. We have one of them at Artronix, a replica of the Makerbot Replicator
and it's super reliable but we know people who have picked up similar machines and had nothing but trouble, we decided that was too much of a gamble. Eventually we decided to acquire a Prusa i3, an authentic old school 3D printed that traces its lineage right back to the original RepRap.
I bought a kit. The manual said I could assemble it in one day. It lied.
I don't know why but I assumed it'd be somewhat pre-assembled. It wasn't. It was a box of nuts and bolts and 3D printed plastic bits. It took me 3 days to put together. Actually, it was lovely to build. Just like making my old Mendel machine over again.
The Prusa i3 came with a nice paper instruction manual and every part assembled with no fuss what so ever. Honestly, if you can assemble a complicated lego model, you could assemble this kit.
The assembled machine was solid and felt like a real quality piece of machinery.
Co.lab opened with a nice selection of 3D printers. We were kindly loaned an Ultimaker which initially had a few issues but once Vitas gave it a good service, it performed flawlessly. We were also given an “AIRWOLF”.
ok, wrong picture, we had enough on our plate at co.lab without the added complication of running helicopter based rescue missions from our tent too.
Airwolf was an awesome looking machine, capable of printing huge objects although we only had it running for a bit, and finally we added the spanking new Prusa i3. The co.lab 3D printing factory was open, ready to print objects as diverse as engineering components for ultraviolet lighthouses, medical devices, scans of people’s heads, models of viruses, reconstructions of archaeological sites, pumpkins and Christmas cracker gifts, loads and loads of Christmas cracker gifts.
So that's where the story would have ended for “Huey” our Prusa i3 hero but one day after we got him running, there was an incident.
The printer really should have been placed on the trolley more securely (my bad).
You see, there's this really rough bit of ground as you enter the building we stored the kit in overnight.
And the thing about 3D printers is, they're designed for rigidity. They're not known for their bounciness.
On Thursday morning I was delivered the smashed and mangled remains of the Prusa i3.
I cried a little inside but I think I hid it well.
But the up side of this is, this is a “3D printed” printer and all the parts are free to download, and I happen to have access to the Ultimaker 3D printer running in co.lab! I untangled the mess and assessed the damage. At least 6 components on the printer were damaged, of those, only one, the right-hand motor mount, was a critical part. We printed a replacement of that piece on the Ultimaker and installed it.
After some coaxing and tuning, Huey came back to life! Yes, I rechristened him Huey, anyone familiar with the sci-fi classic “Silent Running” will know why.
Huey was back up and running and with a little assistance from the Ultimaker he was now well enough to start printing his own replacement components. 3D printers, not only self-replicating but self-healing too!
Co.lab for me was a bit of a blur, but a super positive one. I spent a good bit of my time assembling, running, fixing demonstrating and providing training on 'the kit'.
Did I mention the laser cutter? Wow, that was an awesome machine too(!), but maker spaces are not made from tools and machinery.
It's community that counts and the diversity and enthusiasm of the people who visited our big tent was key to creating that critical atmosphere of creativity, energy and fun. Co.lab was an awesome place to hang out and the perfect forge to form new ideas.