Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Thinking new stuff: 3D printing

Computers are great in so many ways - not least their ability to consume time, vast amounts of it. But, in the process of filling that space between birth and death they provide a good degree of fun.
During the first flush of my youth one kilobyte of RAM was plenty to occupy me for hours at night - occasionally I forgot to go to sleep and my parents found me early in the morning 'back' on my computer. I committed Op codes to both my memory and the altogether more volatile RAM with easy and programmed directly in ASCII symbols (no interpreters were available back then). Then games came along - like C, UCSD Pascal, and CPM before eventually giving way to other challenges. There was definitely a divide between doing stuff and using a computer. The computer output was, at best, inky paper of some description - mere words or symbols. But, by the early 1990s things were beginning to change and computer interfaces were making control of the external world possible. Data collection interfaces were able to control amplifiers, valves and solenoids. There was definitely much fun in that. The real fun has, however, taken 20 years to reach the man on the street. We are now in the decade of the 3D printer. The device that allows you to dream an object into existence. Where before 'crafting' skill was required to produce objects of either utility or beauty, now only a clear head and a moderation of computing skill are required. Of course, for most of us, the objects that can be produced are limited to those suitable for heat moldable plastics. Nevertheless the possibilities are nearly endless.

For the scientist 3D printer knowledge will become a 'must-have' skill. Have you used Slic3r? Do you know what Gcodes are? At what temperature does ABS flow? How is your heated bed? Is your Bowden tube clear?

I started, as many parents do, with an excuse. It was my son's 17th birthday. Ah, hah - what you need is a 3D printer! A tad on the expensive side, but what fun. That is when the time-consumption began. After construction, commissioning and trouble-shooting the best part of a month had gone. But, then the objects began to appear. Need some tri-bars for a bike? No problem - here are some that I designed and made: a hundredth of the price and a tenth of the weight of the commercial version - and unique to boot. How about a microscope, we can do that too with a unique twist. My son is, of course, now a dab-hand at turning out his own objects - including a rather nice set of dimbled and ragged fans for a physics project.

I now find myself looking at objects and wondering - could I do better? Well, the feet for our step stool aren't great in ABS - rubber would have been better. However, the plastic house numbers certainly would do the job if only someone would put them up. But, time is short and there is more design work to be done. This time it is a big project: I need to print myself a tidy office. Now, ABS or PLA?


  1. Hi Christof, am very interested in these but have no experience of 3d printing yet. Will be climbing 5000m in the Alps next month and one of these would be a great addition to my flat-topped drop-bars (31.8mm clamp). Would you be prepared to sell me one? Regards, Andy

    1. You are welcome to the one that is on my bike. It went to the Alps this month - although I didn't feel the need to use it. I haven't got any further with the strength testing of it, so you will need to use it at your own risk!